Talks depend on end of joint drills, rocket tests

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Talks depend on end of joint drills, rocket tests

Washington’s top nuclear envoy arrives in South Korea today as combined military exercises between the United States and South Korea come to an end.

Is that a signal for Pyongyang to stop shooting off missiles - and enter into dialogue with the United States?

Before leaving Dulles International Airport in Washington for Korea and Japan, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun declined to answer whether he would be contacting North Korean officials during his visit.

Yet the arrival of Donald Trump’s top negotiator in the dialogue process with the North inevitably raises speculation that talks between Pyongyang and Washington could restart soon.

Tuesday marks the end of the summertime joint command post exercise between South Korea and the United States, which the allies began on Aug. 11 with the intention of testing Seoul’s capacity to take over wartime operational control (Opcon) from the United States.

Pyongyang has lodged strong complaints against the drills, accusing the allies of staging what it called rehearsals for an invasion of its territory.

The North conducted six weapons tests since July 25 in retaliation for the drills and released a series of vicious public statements and state media commentaries pillorying South Korea.

In particular, Seoul was accused of betraying principles contained in joint declarations from inter-Korean summits between President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un last year.

The latest of such tests was carried out on Friday under North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s direct supervision and involved an alleged “new weapon system” that experts in South Korea said may be a tactical surface-to-surface ballistic missile akin to the U.S. MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System, or Atacms.

The faster speed and larger physical size of those missiles, based on photos released by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and analysis by the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), suggest the missiles could even outmatch the Atacms in terms of destructive capacity.

Friday’s test could possibly have been the last such provocation, since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un dispatched a friendly letter to U.S. President Donald Trump earlier this month apparently containing “a small apology” for the weapons tests and an expression of intent to stop them once the joint drills ended.

Kim told Trump in that same missive, according to the U.S. president, that he wished to resume talks with Washington once the exercises concluded.

The United States, and Biegun in particular, have repeatedly expressed an interest in resuming talks over denuclearization, as Trump and Kim agreed to during their snap meeting at the inter-Korean border on June 30.

Less clear, however, is whether the Trump administration will adopt a different strategy for any upcoming working level discussions, given that its insistence on major steps from Pyongyang towards denuclearization before granting any concessions proved incompatible with a compromise in the second summit between Trump and Kim in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February.

While the administration has repeatedly made clear its goal remains to fully and finally denuclearize North Korea, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last month stressed his hope that the North Koreans may come to the negotiating table with “ideas they didn’t have the first time,” but added that the United States “can be a little more creative too.”

Biegun, too, has called for a more “flexible approach” to the talks, which analysts have said could be a hint that the United States may be mulling giving Pyongyang some sorts of concession to push forward the denuclearization process.

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