December 21, 2018 10:24
Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, visited the Joint Security Area in the border truce village of Panmunjom on the first leg of his visit here on Thursday morning.
The move was apparently aimed at persuading North Korea to return to the negotiating table after Pyongyang warned in an official statement that it will never unilaterally give up its nuclear weapons unless the U.S. first removes the current "nuclear threat."
On arrival at Incheon International Airport on Wednesday, Biegun promised to ease a travel ban for Americans bringing humanitarian aid to North Korea.
He is expected to discuss a shipment of US$8 million worth of humanitarian aid to North Korea at a bilateral working-group meeting with South Korean officials on Friday. Whether that is a big enough carrot to coax the North back to the dialogue table remains to be seen.
Asked if humanitarian shipments are on the agenda, South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Noh Kyu-duk told reporters, "We expect it to be discussed."
Seoul first proposed sending the $8 million worth of assistance for a mother-child health and nutrition program through UNICEF and the World Food Programme in September last year, but delayed the shipment in consideration of U.S.-led international sanctions.
The working-group meeting will also discuss exemptions from sanctions for the ground-breaking ceremony on a project to reconnect cross-border railways and roads on Dec. 26, video-link reunions of families separated by the Korean War, modernization of North Korean tree nurseries, and the launch of a new air route between the two Koreas.
Biegun is increasingly desperate to find a breakthrough as the North has refused to take part in follow-up talks in the four months since he was appointed, a diplomatic source in Washington said.
"The North wants either the lifting or the easing of sanctions," said Prof. Kim Sung-han of Korea University, a former vice foreign minister. "There's little room for compromise between Washington's [humanitarian] offerings and Pyongyang's demands."
The problem is that there is little room for maneuver for Biegun and that Washington's patience is not boundless. "Washington is letting Biegun offer a carrot to the North while keeping sanctions in place," a diplomatic source said. "But the White House is discussing Plan B to pressure Pyongyang with tougher sanctions if his diplomatic efforts fail."
"The Trump administration's position is that it will be impossible to ease or lift sanctions until Pyongyang denuclearizes, but that it will reconsider or postpone additional sanctions if Pyongyang responds to talks," the source added.
Washington wants the UN Security Council to endorse a UN Commission of Inquiry's recommendations on North Korean human rights, which include targeted sanctions against those most responsible for human rights violations, a U.S. State Department said, according to Voice of America on Wednesday.
Tony Blinken, a former U.S. deputy secretary of state, at a seminar Tuesday warned that the crisis could come to a head again, bringing a return to the so-called "bloody nose" strategy, which is aimed at responding to North Korea's provocations with carefully targeted attacks on military facilities.
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