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  • [Herald Interview] Even Chairman Kim retreated from commitments he made: Former US special envoy to North Korea
Former U.S. Special Representative for North Korea and Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun. Image: Gettyimages

By Jaeyeon Moon - In an exclusive interview with the Herald Business (Korea Herald), former top U.S. envoy on North Korea and the former Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun attributed the failure of the 2019 Hanoi summit in part to his counterparts’ retreat of position.

“We found it challenging, even mystifying that oftentimes, when the North Koreans, including Chairman Kim Jong-Un, would go back to Pyongyang and would retreat from the position that they had committed to in the actual meetings,” Biegun said in an interview.

“On multiple occasions, we had agreements with the North Koreans, including to the leader level, but when North Koreans returned to Pyongyang, they either failed to implement or moved backward on,” he added.

Because of this rigidity of North Korea leadership, Biegun told the Herald Business that the leader-level-oriented dialogue is not effective to resume talks with North Korea. “We’ve tried that hypothesis and we now know the theory is wrong,” he said, “we do need leader-level engagement, but it should be closing the gap from working-level negotiations that have developed a sufficient amount of detail on each side’s positions.”

According to Biegun, the U.S. laid out detailed road maps on how to reach the four specific goals outlined in the Singapore agreement, as well as the fifth goal of economic cooperation for the Hanoi summit. However, the North Korean position was asking “way too much in exchange for way too little.”

After the failure of the Hanoi summit, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho held a press conference and said that North Korea made realistic proposals, including dismantling its Yongbyon nuclear complex in return for a partial lifting of sanctions. Ri claimed that the United States demanded more measures beyond dismantling Yongbyon.

“If the president had taken the offer that was on the table in Hanoi, the United States would have been recognizing North Korea as a de facto nuclear weapons state, because it would have lifted all the sanctions while the North Koreans sustained nuclear weapons production outside of Yongbyon. That wasn’t acceptable to the President or any of his advisors,” Biegun said.

Former U.S. Special Representative for North Korea and Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun. Image: Gettyimages

Despite the failure of Hanoi, Biegun resumed working-level talks with his North Korean counterpart in Stockholm to mitigate the gap. However, Biegun’s counterparts outside Pyongyang did not have the authority or flexibility to discuss the key issue of denuclearization. During the talks in Stockholm, Kim Myong-Gil, the ambassador to the North Korea Foreign Ministry, served as the chief negotiator for North Korea.

“They had rigid instructions that they couldn’t deviate from,” he said. Interlocutors in Pyongyang also did not have much flexibility. When Biegun traveled to Pyongyang for talks, “somebody listening to the conversation from the outside of room” would literally send notes folded over white pieces of paper, hand-delivered to the chief negotiator inside the room. “There are mechanical challenges to negotiating with the North Koreans in addition to their rigidity of position,” Biegun highlighted.

While the stalemate between the United States and North Korea persists, Biegun recommended the Biden administration to signal its willingness to engage by resuming the last set of discussions of the deal left off in the Trump administrations. “It needs more detail, but it can be a starting point,” he said.

Biegun also highlighted that he is a strong advocate for humanitarian assistance to North Korea. As for the provision of vaccines, Biegun said there should be no conditions attached. “There is no politics in a virus,” he emphasized. He also said that he would not design some kind of ‘vaccine strategy’ to get the North Korean government to engage in negotiations.

“I would vaccinate the North Korean people because it’s the right thing to do.”

munjae@heraldcorp.com

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