(ATTN: RECASTS headline, lead; UPDATES throughout; TRIMS)
By Song Sang-ho
SEOUL, Dec. 9 (Yonhap) -- U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said Wednesday that he looks forward to "close cooperation" with South Korea "in the weeks and months ahead," as Seoul seeks to reignite nuclear diplomacy with North Korea when the incoming Joe Biden administration takes office next month.
Biegun made the remarks during his talks with Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun, as he kicked off his official schedule here on what could be his last trip to Seoul in his current capacity as the State Department's No. 2 man and its top nuclear negotiator.
Just hours ahead of their meeting, Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, struck a jarring note with her stinging rebuke of Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha's recent remarks on the North's COVID-19 situation.
"We've done a lot of great work together and there's a lot of great work ahead for the United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK)," Biegun said at the start of the talks with Choi.
"I look forward to continuing close cooperation with you and your team in the weeks and months ahead," he added.
Biegun refrained from any open remarks on North Korea issues, saying he would offer detailed remarks on "where we are today" during his lecture at a local think tank slated for Thursday.
"Let me just say that in those remarks, I am looking forward to talking about the great cooperation between the U.S. and Republic of Korea not only on the alliance issues, but relations with North Korea and also combating and recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic," he said.
Choi underscored the two countries' yearslong efforts to chart an "irreversible" path toward peace on the divided peninsula.
"During the time of your service, this past two plus years, the Trump and Moon administrations have achieved so much. Both the U.S. and ROK have started on what I consider as an irreversible path toward peace making on the Korean peninsula," he said.
"I'm sure North Korea knows this as well as we do. Shooting for the stars has made our alliance even stronger. We're a rock-solid linchpin of peace and security in Northeast Asia," he added.
Choi also asked Biegun to play a role as a "bridge" to ensure that achievements in bilateral cooperation over recent years can continue under the next U.S. government.
As for the achievements, Choi pointed to progress in the Korea peace process, common ground between Seoul's New Southern Policy and Washington's Indo-Pacific Strategy and anti-virus efforts.
Biegun said that "regardless of a change of government," trust between Seoul and Washington will remain solid, and called for best efforts to stably manage the Korean Peninsula situation and pending alliance issues, the foreign ministry said.
During his talks with Seoul's top nuclear envoy, Lee Do-hoon, later in the day, Biegun praised the leaders of the two Koreas and the U.S. for their willingness to "step outside expected norms."
"Our work together over two and a half years is a story of the leadership of President Moon, President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un, leaders willing to step outside the expected norms through leader-level engagement and predictable behaviors of the past, try to advance a bold new vision through the leader-level engagement, and one that we are still very much working on and one we are not done with," he said.
"But it's also a story of two allies, the United States and Republic of Korea, who for 70 years, have worked side by side to advance peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and hope to generously extend that prosperity and stability to the north," he added.
Lee looked back on the peninsula situation, casting it as having been "rollercoaster rides of ups and downs," while praising the allies' pursuit of dialogue with the North and their "seamless" coordination.
Biegun and Lee plan to have dinner together.
Before Biegun's visit to the foreign ministry, Kim, the North Korean leader's sister, lambasted Foreign Minister Kang's recent comment that Pyongyang's claim of no COVID-19 cases is hard to believe. Kim warned Kang "might have to pay dearly for it."
During his stay in Seoul, the deputy secretary also plans to meet other senior Seoul officials.
On Thursday, Biegun is set to have a breakfast meeting with Unification Minister Lee In-young. He is also expected to meet with senior presidential officials and Kent Harstedt, the Swedish special envoy for the Korean Peninsula, during his trip here.
On Friday, Foreign Minister Kang plans to host a dinner for Biegun at her official residence.
Biegun will depart for the United States on Saturday morning.
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