21.07.2020 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

What Stephen Biegun was Doing in Seoul


From July 7-10, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, US Special Representative for North Korea, made a visit to Seoul. While the entire makeup of the delegation is not clear, Biegun was accompanied by Alex Wong, deputy special representative for the North.

The goal of the visit was to highlight the US commitment to find a diplomatic solution to the problems with North Korea, and to prevent any escalation of tensions in the region, both against the backdrop of recent actions taken by North Korea and rumors that the United States could attempt to reduce the number of troop units in South Korea following talks that were held on defense expenditures.  Another version amounted to the fact that a change in the team responsible for security issues and cooperation between the Koreas caused America some dissatisfaction, and it sent a high-level official to “get to the bottom of it”.

On 8 July, Biegun held talks with Kang Kyung-wha, the Foreign Minister of South Korea, Vice Minister Cho Sei-young, and Lee Do-hoon, Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs; after the meeting, he issued an important policy statement.

On 9 July, he met with Suh Hoon, the Director of the National Intelligence Service of South Korea, who gave high marks to how Biegun was committed to reviving a dialogue between the US and North Korea, and urged him to continue these efforts. After that, Biegun flew to Tokyo.

The courtesy visit to President Moon Jae-in did not take place. However, according to one representative from the Blue House, no such visit had been scheduled.

The key statements made by Biegun can be summarized as the following:

  • “The United States resolutely supports cooperation between North and South Korea, and believes that it plays an important role in creating a more stable situation on the Korean Peninsula.” The proclamation resounded against the backdrop of conjecture that Washington is concerned with how Seoul is rushing to become involved in setting up cooperation with North Korea, despite any progress with international efforts to denuclearize North Korea. “We are eager to continue work for the sake of achieving peaceful results on the Korean Peninsula,” Stephen Biegun announced, drawing special attention to how President Donald Trump fully supports those efforts.
  • But this time he went to South Korea, not North Korea. The American diplomat underscored that he “saw several statements in the press recently that the North Koreans are not prepared to meet with me during this visit.  We did not ask to meet with the North Koreans. This visit was supposed to be with our close friends and allies in the Republic of Korea, and we had an excellent discussion.”
  • Biegun stated that he does not take orders from either Choe Son Hui or John Bolton, who are still “trapped in old ways of thinking, and concentrate only on what is negative and impossible instead of creatively pondering on what can be done.” He is guided by “the conclusions reached after several meetings held by President Trump and special representative Kim over the last two years,” and the objectives of these meetings was “to concentrate attention on creating a stronger peace on the Korean Peninsula, transforming relations, eliminating nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula, and ensuring a bright future for the Korean people.”  So, on one hand, he reacted to Pyongyang’s statements that they did not want to negotiate with the United States and, on the other hand, to criticism from American hawks who reproached the president for capitulationism.
  • The US is ready to resume negotiations with North Korea anytime. “When special representative Kim assigns me a colleague who is both ready and authorized to hold talks on these issues, they will find us ready then and there. A dialogue can lead to action, but action is impossible without any dialogue”. So a peaceful settlement on the peninsula is possible, and he thanks the presidents of the United States and the Republic of Korea for this opportunity.
  • The foundation for the two countries’ alliance remains the same. “I want to assure everyone who has any doubts on this issue: the obligations borne by the United States to defend the Korean Peninsula are ironclad”.
  • However, on the issue of sharing defense spending, the parties “shared an understanding of the need to make continuous efforts to achieve a mutually acceptable result as soon as possible,” and “reiterated their desire to reach an agreement as soon as possible.” In other words, they did not reach an agreement.
  • This passage states the same thing: “the parties agreed to continue to study harmonious cooperation between Seoul’s New South Policy and Washington’s Indo-Pacific Strategy based on the principles of openness, transparency, and inclusiveness.” Seoul continues to waffle back and forth – not wanting to enter anti-Chinese blocs set up by the United States.

Judging by the text in the statements, the difficulties with negotiations did not concern issues related to North Korea, so the Korea Times stated: “Biegun’s remarks can be taken as a hint that the US will enter negotiations with Pyongyang”, all the more so because Trump himself came out with similar remarks: “I understand that they want to meet, and we, without a doubt, will do that… I would do that if I thought it could do any good…” Seoul also intends to do everything it can to be an intermediary during yet another summit between North Korea and the United States before the elections in November. Moon Jae-in also aspires to attain a tangible result in the peace process, and openly announced during a recent teleconference with EU leaders that he supports holding another meeting between North Korean and US leaders.

However, we will dedicate another piece to whether another summit with Trump and Kim is possible before the November elections, and here we will highlight something else.

  • Biegun stated that he has nothing against the current course taken by Moon, accidentally putting to rest the South Korean assertion that “Seoul is eager to help the North, but the evil Yankees are not enjoining that.” For example, the former chief of staff for the Moon administration (and now his adviser), Im Jong-seok, has repeatedly stated that Stephen Biegun put pressure on Seoul to terminate all cooperation between the Koreas. It is apparent that Seoul’s lack of desire to honor its agreements has other motivations.
  • The US is not dissatisfied with the new Moon team because it is not new, and the course charted in this area has not changed too much. But judging by the delegation makeup with Biegun, the North Korean issue occupied an important place in the agenda, but was a cover for something else. Jeong Se-hyun is the person responsible for relations with Japan, and taking into account how after Korea Biegun left for there, this could mean a “trade war” or other aspects in the standoff between two key American allies in the region, and this would not make Washington happy at all.
  • Yes, a signal to the North has indeed been sent, but an invitation to any negotiations should originate from there. This is a convenient position, and one that avoids any unnecessary accusations of making concessions.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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