Stephen Biegun, the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State and Special Representative for North Korea, arrived in Seoul on Tuesday with a plan to visit the country for three days. The State Department emphasized coordination between allies to achieve the final, fully verified denuclearization (FFVD) of North Korea in relation to Biegun’s visit to South Korea. Meanwhile, South Korean Unification Minister nominee Lee In-young said on Monday, “We should distinguish between what can be done through the working group, in which South Korea and the U.S. coordinate policies toward North Korea, and what can be done on our own.”
Biegun’s visit to South Korea came at a time when the South Korean government reorganized the diplomacy and security lines and dedicated itself to the resumption of talks with the North. Lee’s emphasis on “creative solutions” regarding North Korea sanctions, adding that sanctions themselves are not the end goals, is an expression of his determination to bring the North back to dialogues. However, the comment on “what can be done on our own” sounds like the government will try to comfort the North by any means, even bypassing the working group negotiations with the U.S.
North Korea requested the dissolution of the working group with provocations on the grounds of propaganda leaflets sent to the North in June. The working group is where the working-level staff of South Korea and the U.S. gather to coordinate North Korea sanctions and inter-Korean cooperation. Although there was an incident in 2018 when the supply of Tamiflu to North Korea was delayed for a while and canceled later, the group worked as a “fast track” to approve over 20 major cooperation projects, such as inter-Korean railway and road connection investigation. What North Korea truly wants is to shake the core structure of the South Korea-U.S. alliance.
In the face of Biegun’s visit to South Korea, the North repeatedly denied the possibility of talks with the U.S. through comments made by the Foreign Ministry's bureau chief for North America and the director of U.S. affairs. Regarding the South’s willingness to mediate between the two countries, North Korea called it a “crazy idea” and said, “South Korea may try if it wishes,” which is a demand to South Korea to do the prep work for the U.S. to make large concessions.
The approaches of the South, the North, and the U.S. to denuclearization and sanctions are diverging. In particular, the South Korean government tends to equate any mention of denuclearization with a confrontation with North Korea. The resumption of the U.S.-North Korea talks is necessary, but increased arguments between South Korea and the U.S. over the adjustment of the working group’s roles may destabilize the cooperation structure of the two countries toward North Korea. Policies favoring the North will cause suspicion of the U.S. over South Korea’s true intention while sending a wrong message to North Korea that its provocations will be rewarded.