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(4th LD) S. Korea, U.S. vow close coordination on N. Korea amid concern about rift

All News 16:00 March 07, 2019

(ATTN: UPDATES with S. Korean official's comments in paras 4-6, last paras)
By Lee Chi-dong

SEOUL/WASHINGTON, March 7 (Yonhap) -- The top nuclear envoys of South Korea and the United States have agreed to continue close consultations on North Korea, Seoul's foreign ministry said Thursday amid news reports of a possibly budding rift between the allies in the tumultuous denuclearization process.

The two sides agreed that, "The current moment is a very sensitive period for progress in North Korea-U.S. dialogue, going forward," the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

It was summing up the results of emergency talks between Lee Do-hoon, special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs, and his American counterpart, Stephen Biegun, in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday (local time).

The combined image provided by Yonhap News TV shows Lee Do-hoon (L), South Korea's special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs, and his American counterpart, Stephen Biegun. (Yonhap)

The combined image provided by Yonhap News TV shows Lee Do-hoon (L), South Korea's special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs, and his American counterpart, Stephen Biegun. (Yonhap)

They discussed ways to resume North Korea-U.S. talks at an early date, a South Korean foreign ministry official later told reporters on background.

He said Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha is also pushing for face-to-face consultations with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo within this month on the aftermath of the unsuccessful Hanoi summit and the next steps.

Last week, President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un cut short their two-day meeting in the Vietnamese capital with no agreement.

It demonstrated a wide gap between the Korean War foes in what they want in the denuclearization and peace-building process. Trump said Kim made unacceptable demands, especially the lifting of sanctions "in their entirety."

North Korean officials said their plan to dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear complex in the presence of U.S. experts amid 15 months of halts to nuclear and missing testing is worth the reward.

In the Washington session, Biegun briefed Lee in detail on what happened in Hanoi, the ministry said.

The two sides exchanged views on the matter and discussed the next steps, it added.

They also noted that the allies have strong partnerships over the North Korea issue through various diplomatic channels and agreed to maintain "communication and consultations," the ministry stressed.

Some foreign media questioned whether Seoul and Washington had closely communicated with each other ahead of the Hanoi summit. They said the two sides appear to have divergent views on the speed and sequencing of denuclearization and reciprocal measures.

Lee and Biegun later had a working lunch, joined by Japan's chief nuclear envoy, Kenji Kanasugi, in the U.S. capital.

There are signs of North Korea and the U.S. renewing stand-offs.

Shortly after the Hanoi talks, North Korea's Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui told reporters her regime will likely have to rethink the nuclear bargaining itself.

She said Kim Jong-un seems to be frustrated by the U.S. attitude.

The secretive nation has been running a uranium-enrichment program at Yongbyon facilities, north of Pyongyang, South Korea's state spy agency was quoted as reporting to local lawmakers.

The National Intelligence Service also told them that the North has restored part of the Tongchang-ri missile test site, which it began dismantling last year.

Trump said, "I would be very disappointed if that were happening."

He pointed out, however, it's premature to conclude that Pyongyang has shifted back to a provocation mode.

"It's a very early report," he said. "We're the ones that put it out. But I would be very, very disappointed in Chairman Kim, and I don't think I will be. We'll take a look," he said. "It'll ultimately get solved."

The president has left the door open for nuclear negotiations with Kim, as he stated that he's "in no rush" for handling the thorny matter.

Pompeo expressed hope that the U.S. will send a negotiating team to Pyongyang within the coming weeks.

On the other hand, Trump's hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton, is apparently emboldened by the president's refusal to accept Kim's call in Hanoi.

Appearing repeatedly on TV interviews since the summit, Bolton lauded Trump for making the right decision. He warned that the U.S. will ratchet up sanctions against North Korea unless it denuclearizes.

Drawing attention is South Korea's role in efforts to keep the denuclearization process alive.

The liberal President Moon Jae-in administration is seeking to arrange a government-civilian forum, called a Track II meeting, with the U.S. and North Korea.

It's also exploring ways to use major inter-Korean economic projects, including the Kaesong industrial zone and the Mount Kumgang tour, as leverage.

The foreign ministry official said, "We are continuing to make efforts to create appropriate conditions for the resumption (of the two projects).

Critics say resuming the joint ventures with U.N. sanctions in place will only unnerve U.S. officials.

It remains unclear whether or when the North Korean leader will keep his word and visit Seoul. Observers raise the possibility that Moon and Kim will instead meet again at the truce village of Panmunjom in the not so distant future.



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