Chance or crisis
Biegun's visit could serve to make a breakthrough
North Korea's staunch avowal not to sit down face to face with the United States ― a stance repeated on the same day U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun arrived in Seoul ― at the very least shows that the country will only engage in dialogue that is different from that of the past two years.
In announcing Biegun's visit to Seoul and Tokyo, however, the U.S. State Department indicated its stance remains largely unchanged. It said the visit was to "further strengthen coordination on the final, fully verified denuclearization" of North Korea.
Ostensibly, the situation looks more like a crisis rather than a chance for dialogue on peace and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Yet, for the first time in nearly seven months since Biegun attempted to restart talks with North Korea late last year, the attention of the United States, North Korea and South Korea is simultaneously on the same moment.
As an eerie calm falls over the Korean Peninsula, any indication from the North that promises an opportunity for dialogue should not be wasted. Imbued with the fresh momentum of a new security team, Seoul bears most of the burden in getting these countries on the same page.
On Tuesday, Kwon Jong-gun, the North's foreign ministry's director general handling U.S. affairs repeated what First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui had said Saturday, that it will not sit down face to face with the U.S. Regarding the South, the North once again indirectly referred to President Moon Jae-in as a "meddlesome man," warning that the South's attempts to play a mediator role will prove futile.
The U.S. and North Korea held two summits in Singapore and Hanoi in 2018 and 2019, only to find divergence in Washington's demand for complete denuclearization for sanctions lifting vs. the North's demand for a phased "action-for-action" to denuclearize, with sanctions being lifted correspondingly.
With Biegun in town, the "small deal" idea is being floated once again in the South. Biegun is a proponent for a plan that includes demolishing the North's Yongbyeon nuclear facilities in return for a partial easing of international sanctions. Some in the South's new team including Suh Hoon, the director of the National Security Office at Cheong Wa Dae, also support the idea.
Unification minister nominee Lee In-young has been talking up the need for "creative solutions" to break the Korean Peninsula impasse, while at the same time signalling a willingness to reduce the role of the U.S.-South Korea working group. The North has long protested that the group has been hindering sanctions lifting.
With the eager zeal of the South's new security team, the sliver of a chance for dialogue prompted by the North's tension hike should be put to constructive use. The goal is to work strategically, over the long term, if necessary, for peace on the Korean Peninsula via the denuclearization of the North, on terms that meet the needs of those involved.
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