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N Korea at crossroads

US envoy heads to Pyongyang, possibly with incentives in hand

Venue changed from truce village as North Korea takes Biegun meeting seriously

Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, will visit Pyongyang for talks. There are concerns that the Washington will make concessions to move denuclearization talks forward, weakening pressure on Pyongyang.
U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun arrives at Incheon International Airport in Incheon, South Korea on Feb. 3. The envoy now heads to Pyongyang.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON/SEOUL -- American and North Korean diplomats are set to meet Wednesday in Pyongyang to iron out a second bilateral summit, as Washington hints at offering the country incentives to denuclearize.

Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, will speak with recently appointed counterpart Kim Hyok Chol, a former ambassador to Spain, in his first visit to the North since accompanying U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo there last October. The talks were initially expected to take place in the border truce village of Panmunjom on Tuesday.

The meetings will revolve around two points: concrete steps on leader Kim Jong Un's promise to denuclearize, made at last June's summit in Singapore with U.S. President Donald Trump, and Kim's demands for "corresponding measures" to reward steps toward disarming. Fears are building in some corners that offering a quid pro quo exchange would lighten pressure on the North for a speedy denuclearization process.

The change of venue could mean that North Korea is paying more respect to Biegun, said Lisa Collins, a fellow with the Korea Chair at the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It is a signal that seems to indicate that North Korea is willing to give some concrete commitments to the U.S. on denuclearization," she said.

North Korea has at times alluded, including at last September's inter-Korean summit, to the possibility of scrapping its main nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang. It hinted during Pompeo's October visit that it might allow inspections of the site, but only if it received concessions in return. The country requested that economic sanctions be lifted, something the U.S. is loath to do, and official talks ran aground thereafter.

However, Biegun appeared more flexible at a Thursday speech at Stanford University in the U.S. While reiterating Washington's position that the North must issue a full report on its nuclear and missile arsenal, he said the "corresponding measures" requested by Kim were "a matter I plan to discuss with my North Korean counterpart during our next set of meetings." The U.S. is "prepared to discuss many actions that could help build trust between our two countries," he added.

His words could be taken to suggest that while Washington aims to maintain the economic sanctions also insisted on by allies like Japan, it may also offer concessions outside the scope of those sanctions, apparently reflecting views in corners of Washington that incentives are needed to advance denuclearization.

But taking that course risks getting sucked into Pyongyang's desired pace of "step-by-step and simultaneous action" with the U.S. on disarming, as well as lightening pressure on the communist state and allowing it to take less-decisive steps toward denuclearization.

Buses transporting South Korean participants for a reunion travel on the road leading to North Korea's Mount Kumgang resort, in August 2018. Buses transporting South Korean participants for a reunion travel on the road leading to North Korea's Mount Kumgang resort, in August 2018.   © Reuters

According to sources familiar with U.S.-North Korean relations, possible incentives on the table include declaring an end to the Korean War, establishing liaison offices with Pyongyang, and letting halted inter-Korean economic projects reopen. Those projects include the Kaesong Industrial Complex and tourism operations at Mount Kumgang, near the west and east ends, respectively, of the border that separates the two Koreas.

Pyongyang appears to have set its sights on restarting the profitable Kaesong and Mount Kumgang operations, with backing from Seoul, which is also eager to resume economic cooperation. It is possible Biegun coordinated views on such matters with Chung Eui-yong, Director of National Security for the South's presidential Blue House, during talks on Monday.

Kaesong and Mount Kumgang are both direct conduits of crucial foreign currency for North Korea. At the end of last year, the U.S. allowed equipment to be brought in for a groundbreaking ceremony on an inter-Korean rail project, but it has not given the go-ahead for construction to proceed. Washington likely fears that going the route of exceptions that let the North cooperate with the South -- ostensibly for the sake of stability on the peninsula -- could pave the way for construction of various other railways and roads, widening holes in the sanctions regime.

Despite Kim's promises to disarm, reports continue to emerge that the country is proceeding with nuclear and missile development. An expert panel under the United Nations Security Council's North Korea sanctions committee is expected to report soon that analysis of satellite imagery has shown new waterways and buildings have been constructed at Yongbyon.

Ken Moriyasu in New York contributed to this report.

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