South, U.S. set up a new consultative body

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South, U.S. set up a new consultative body

Seoul and Washington will launch a working group to coordinate their approaches to North Korean denuclearization, sanctions implementation and inter-Korean cooperation, the U.S. State Department announced Tuesday.

The two sides made the decision during a trip to Seoul earlier this week by Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, who met with Lee Do-hoon, the South Korean Foreign Ministry’s special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs.

“The purpose of the trip was to discuss diplomatic efforts to achieve the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea,” said Robert Palladino, deputy spokesman of the U.S. State Department, in a briefing in Washington on Tuesday. “As part of that, the two governments agreed on establishing a new working group that would further strengthen our close coordination on our diplomacy, on our denuclearization efforts, on sanctions implementation and inter-Korean cooperation that comply with the United Nations sanctions.” He called the forming of a working group an “additional step that we’re taking” toward the FFVD of the North.

The group is expected to be launched some time this month, according to a senior South Korean Foreign Ministry official in Seoul on Wednesday.

This is the first time Seoul and Washington are launching a diplomatic working group on North Korean denuclearization. Biegun will lead the U.S. team and Lee the South Korean side. The South’s team could include officials from other related agencies.

“While South Korea and the United States have had consultations, forming a working group holds significance as it makes the process more formal, regular and systematic,” the South’s Foreign Ministry official said. “The talking point of the working group is ‘communication,’” and Seoul shares the common goals announced by the U.S. State Department earlier.

Responding to speculation that the working group was created to pressure Seoul to slow down inter-Korean cooperation or that it indicated discord with Washington, the official said, “The South Korean side proposed to create a working group first,” and that it has been “in discussion for months.”

He continued, “We determined that it will be effective to have a working group when the denuclearization process formally starts, and without such a consultative body, it will be difficult to convey our position to the United States.”

Over Monday and Tuesday, Biegun met with the South Korean foreign affairs and unification ministers and key Blue House officials on North Korea matters including Im Jong-seok, the presidential chief of staff, and Chung Eui-yong, director of the Blue House National Security Office. His visit came a week after Lee, South Korea’s chief nuclear envoy, made a visit to Washington.

However, Biegun’s visit sparked domestic speculation that Washington is concerned with the speed at which South-North cooperation is happening, especially as Seoul is pushing various cross-border projects. These include plans to hold an inter-Korean groundbreaking ceremony for the connection and modernization of railways and roads along the seas in late November or early December.

Seoul has been discussing with Washington - one of the five veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council - about international sanctions exemptions for its joint projects with Pyongyang, such as the railways and roads plan.

Palladino skirted the question of whether there is any disagreement between Seoul and Washington by replying, “The United States and the Republic of Korea are closely coordinating on our joint approach, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. We’ll continue to do so.”

Washington is “closely coordinating on an almost daily basis” with Seoul, along with Tokyo, at “all levels of government,” he added when asked whether inter-Korean relations are advancing too quickly compared to denuclearization.

He continued, “We’re going to continue this close coordination, because it’s been so key to the success that we’ve had thus far in moving this forward.”

The working group announcement comes ahead of high-level talks between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a North Korean official, likely to be Kim Yong-chol, the vice chairman of the Central Committee of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, which are expected to be held soon after the U.S. midterm elections on Nov. 6 in New York.

However, Palladino said there is “nothing new to announce” on working-level meetings between the United States and North Korea, agreed upon during Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang in early October to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

The Seoul Foreign Ministry official left open the possibility of a Seoul-Washington-Pyongyang working group someday, adding, “It would be great if it can happen, while we are not at that stage yet.”

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