U.S. asked North to change its nuke negotiator

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U.S. asked North to change its nuke negotiator

Amid stalling denuclearization talks, Washington requested that North Korea change its chief negotiator for high-level talks from Kim Yong-chol, the vice chairman of the Central Committee of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, to Pyongyang’s top diplomat Ri Yong-ho, a South Korean government official said Wednesday.

“There was under-the-table contact before and after the North-U.S. high-level talks planned for Nov. 8 in New York,” an official familiar with the North-U.S. talks told the JoongAng Ilbo. “Around this time, the United States wanted North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho as its dialogue partner,” rather than Kim.

The high-level talks in New York set for Nov. 8 between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Kim were canceled and have yet to be rescheduled, despite anticipation that they will take place within this month, as Pyongyang has been unresponsive.

Washington has not revealed why it wants to change its dialogue partner. Kim, who doubles as director of the North’s United Front Department, which is responsible for inter-Korean relations, is a former spy chief who headed North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau. He has a military background, which could be a concern for Washington.

This official said, “Kim has experience negotiating with South Korea, but he has been largely hostile, as he is an expert in military talks using straightforward speech. Because of this, the United States may have experienced something similar in its negotiations with him.”

Some believe that Washington may be attempting to keep North Korea in check. The North wants to deal directly with U.S. President Donald Trump.

Multiple U.S. administration officials have said that there is division within the U.S. State Department on how to approach North Korea. The request could reflect voices who have called for negotiations to happen through the diplomatic channel.

Washington has also been calling for high-level talks through a different contact channel, but North Korea has not been responsive. Jin Hee-gwan, a professor of unification studies at Inje University, said, “North Korea regards changing the head of negotiations as its own authority, and will regard the United States’ request as an infringement on its sovereignty.”

During the inter-Korean summit with President Moon Jae-in in September and the meeting with Pompeo in October, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un agreed to the permanent dismantlement of the Tongchang-ri missile engine test site and Punggye-ri nuclear test site under the observation of outside experts.

He also offered to dismantle the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon if the United States “takes corresponding measures.” North Korea is expecting actions from Washington such as a declaration to end the 1950-53 Korean War, sanctions relief, economic incentives and normalization of relations. But Washington has been adamant that the North must reach a certain level of denuclearization before it offers such incentives.

The two sides, however, face a battle against time. The Democrats, who have been more skeptical of the denuclearization negotiations, will take control of the House of Representatives next February.

Pompeo’s North Korean counterpart has been Kim Yong-chol ever since he made his first visit to Pyongyang at the beginning of April as the Central Intelligence Agency director.

During Pompeo’s fourth visit to Pyongyang in October, he met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The two sides agreed to hold working-level talks between Biegun and the North’s Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui, which have yet to happen.

“We are in frequent contact with North Korean officials. That’s not changed,” said Heather Nauert, spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, in a press briefing on Tuesday. She added that Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, is “leading those conversations,” but that such conversations, are happening “at various levels, from the secretary level to Steve Biegun’s level to the working level.”

She also addressed the fact that Biegun has not yet held a meeting with the North.

“Whether it’s a face-to-face sit-down meeting, that’s one thing,” she said, “but we continue to have conversations and we think we’re in a good place with that. Do more need to take place? Yes, certainly they do.”

Ri Yong-ho is set make a four-day visit to Vietnam starting Thursday.

North Korea has not only been unresponsive to U.S. offers for dialogue, but it shirked Seoul’s offer to take part in a so-called Track 1.5 forum involving the other six-party nations.

The South Korean government invited North Korea to take part in the 2018 Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Forum in Seoul on Wednesday. North Korea ignored the invitation.

BY JEONG YONG-SOO, SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]
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