U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said Wednesday that Washington is ready for further dialogue with Pyongyang but denied reports that he was seeking a meeting with North Korean officials during a visit to Seoul.
Biegun, who acts as Washington’s point man for North Korea, said the United States remains focused on the issues raised during summits between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, including creating an enduring peace and eliminating nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula.
“When Chairman Kim appoints a counterpart to me, who is prepared and empowered to negotiate on these issues, they will find us ready at that very moment,” Biegun said in a statement Wednesday after a meeting with South Korea’s top nuclear envoy, Lee Do-hoon.
“I believe this is very much possible. President Trump has given us his full support to continue this effort,” he added.
Biegun arrived Tuesday in Seoul for a three-day visit that has so far included meetings with other government officials, including First Vice Foreign Minister Cho Sei-young.
The deputy secretary responded to a statement issued over the weekend by North Korea’s First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son Hui in which she said Pyongyang was not interested in having another meeting with Washington.
“I’ve seen some recent press reporting that the North Koreans are not prepared to meet with me on this visit,” Biegun said. “We did not request a meeting with the North Koreans.”
Biegun also singled out former White House national security adviser John Bolton, who has been sharply critical of the Trump administration’s diplomatic efforts with North Korea.
“I do not take my direction from Vice Minister Choe Son Hui, nor from Ambassador John Bolton,” Biegun said. “Both are locked in an old way of thinking, focused on only the negatives and what is impossible, rather than thinking creatively about what is possible.”
Relations between the United States and North Korea have stalled out since a Trump-Kim summit last year in Hanoi, Vietnam, failed to produce an agreement on issues such as sanctions relief for the North and a timetable for proceeding with denuclearization.
Increased inter-Korean cooperation, a key ambition of the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, has also been in limbo as the stringent international sanctions on the North remain in place and Pyongyang’s attitude has turned hostile toward Seoul.
Moon has proposed cross-border healthcare cooperation to help manage the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as projects to reconnect inter-Korean railways and restart tourism and joint economic programs, but North Korea has shown little interest in the overtures.
Biegun said the United States supports the inter-Korean efforts, calling them “an important component in creating a more stable environment on the Korean Peninsula.”
On Wednesday, Biegun also reaffirmed the United States’ military commitment to South Korea, even as prolonged cost-sharing talks between Seoul and Washington for the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed on the Korean Peninsula remain a source of contention.
“I want to assure all who have any questions about this: U.S. commitment is ironclad for the defense of the Korean Peninsula,” Biegun told reporters after his meeting with Cho.
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