(ATTN: UPDATES with planned courtesy call on foreign minister first vice foreign minister in 5th para)
By Song Sang-ho
SEOUL, Dec. 13 (Yonhap) -- U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun will visit Seoul next week, the foreign ministry said Friday, just weeks ahead of Pyongyang's year-end deadline for Washington to show flexibility to advance their stalemated nuclear talks.
His three-day visit starting Sunday will come amid rising tensions in the wake of Pyongyang's apparent rocket engine test last week and Washington's subsequent warnings against additional "hostile" acts.
Biegun's planned trip has spawned speculation that he could visit the inter-Korean border truce village of Panmunjom for possible contact with North Koreans. But it remains to be seen whether such contact can materialize with no sign of either side ceding ground.
On Monday, Biegun will meet his South Korean counterpart Lee Do-hoon to discuss how to keep up the momentum for dialogue with the North and make progress in joint efforts to denuclearize it and foster a lasting peace on the peninsula.
Biegun is also set to meet Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and First Vice Foreign Minister Cho Sei-young.
Concerns have persisted that the North could pivot away from the dialogue process as it has been ratcheting up tensions with a threat to take a "new way" if the year-end deadline is not met.
The United States and the North last held working-level nuclear talks in Sweden in October. But the talks yielded little progress, with the North accusing the U.S. of having come to the negotiating table "empty-handed."
Since then, Pyongyang has toughened its demands, telling the U.S. to remove "all obstacles" that threaten the security of the North and hamper its development. The demands are seen as calls for sanctions relief and security assurances.
Recent weeks have seen a worrisome war of words between the U.S. and the North.
On Thursday, the North upbraided the U.S. for leading Wednesday's U.N. Security Council session on its military activities, which was widely seen as a warning that Washington could take steps such as tightening sanctions in the event that the regime conducts a long-range rocket launch.
Apparently mindful of Pyongyang's additional military provocations, U.S. President Donald Trump has revived the threat of military action, and even said that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un could lose "everything" if he engages in hostile acts.
Some analysts said that Pyongyang could escalate its level of saber-rattling through launches of mid-range missiles, intermediate-range ones and then an intercontinental ballistic missile disguised as a satellite for peaceful space development activities.
Biegun is currently in the process of securing congressional confirmation to become deputy secretary of state.
Some observers said that his promotion is a double-edged sword. It could undermine his focus on addressing the elusive North Korean nuclear quandary, but may also mean a stronger mandate on the issue.
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