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(News Focus) Trump's change in N.K. diplomacy team, reelection focus muddy prospects of U.S. engagement

North Korea 11:21 February 12, 2020

By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, Feb. 12 (Yonhap) -- U.S. President Donald Trump's sharp focus on his reelection campaign, coupled with the planned departure of a key official devoted to diplomacy with North Korea, are clouding the prospects of engagement with the recalcitrant country, analysts said Wednesday.

Buoyed by his recent impeachment acquittal, Trump revved up his reelection campaign, where bread-and-butter issues will take center stage, while North Korea, once an oft-cited country in his foreign policy boasts, appears to have been nudged out of his priority list -- at least for the time being.

A series of staff changes, most recently this week's nomination of Alex Wong, the deputy U.S. special representative for the North, as a representative to the United Nations, augurs a prolonged lull in nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang.

In this photo, taken Feb. 11, 2020, Alex Wong, the deputy U.S. special representative for the North, visits the foreign ministry in Seoul. (Yonhap)

"I think a recent series of developments attest to a decrease in Trump's interest in North Korea, as evidenced by the few mentions of the North during his political events and no remarks related to the North during last week's State of the Union speech," Park Won-gon, professor of international politics at Handong Global University, said.

"Amid the reelection battle, Trump may be fully aware that it would be very difficult to reach any swift denuclearization deal with the North -- one reason why he seems focused on managing the status quo, at least for the time being," he added.

Although the U.S. has repeatedly displayed openness and readiness for talks with the North, a recent realignment of its nuclear negotiation team appears to signal an attenuation of Trump's focus on the communist regime's denuclearization.

Stephen Biegun, special representative for North Korea, has been promoted to the deputy secretary of state post, a seat that deals with a wider range of issues covering virtually the whole world.

Biegun's promotion has sparked concerns that despite him keeping up his North Korea portfolio, Biegun may find it difficult to allocate as much attention to the North as he did during his stint as the pointman on the North.

In another move sure to weaken the U.S. team on North Korea, Mark Lambert, the U.S. special envoy for North Korea, has reportedly been assigned to a new role.

The departure of Alex Wong from the U.S. negotiation team could be another loss of a diplomat well-versed in the on-and-off nuclear talks with the North that have not been held since the unproductive working-level session in Sweden in October.

"It does for sure signal one thing, that for now, Team Trump is giving up on North Korea in the short-term," Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean studies at the Center for the National Interest, told Yonhap.

"The Trump administration collectively cares about only one thing right now: making sure the Trump administration secures a second term. Nothing more, nothing less," he added.

As the U.S. reelection competition heats up, speculation has swirled that Trump could pay less attention to the negotiation or avoid another summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, given that any diplomatic missteps could become fodder for his political rivals' attacks.

Against this backdrop, CNN reported on Monday, citing two sources, that Trump has told top foreign policy advisers that he does not want another summit with the North Korean leader before the presidential election in November.

One official familiar with the administration's efforts with the North bluntly described the negotiations as "dead," according to CNN.

Trump's apparently dwindling appetite for engagement with the North is likely to unnerve Pyongyang, which is keen on achieving tangible results like sanctions relief from the U.S. to ensure the North Korean leader's economic drive can yield at least mediocre results.

Before the outbreak of the new coronavirus that emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December, Pyongyang was expected to engage in provocative acts early this year, particularly during the planned springtime military exercise between the South and the U.S.

During his New Year's message, North Korean leader Kim warned of a new strategic weapons test and a "shocking actual action" -- a sign of growing impatience over a lack of progress in the negotiations with the North.

But the fight against the deadly virus has apparently dominated the North's policy attention, as it sealed off borders with China to ward off the virus and even restricted trade with China, the impoverished country's lifeline under crippling international sanctions.

Any infection among North Korean troops could be a body blow to the North, as it has long relied on its military personnel for major national development projects, not to mention defense against potential, more powerful adversaries.

Amid the logjam in the talks between the U.S. and the North, expectations have been rising that South Korean can play a role in reinvigorating the fraught dialogue process.

Seoul has been pushing for individual trips to North Korea -- first those involving families with North Korean relatives on humanitarian grounds -- and other inter-Korean cooperation projects as part of efforts to facilitate the resumption of talks between Washington and Pyongyang.

sshluck@yna.co.kr
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