Will he or won’t he?
This is the big question hanging over the current visit to South Korea of US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun.
Will he be granted a meeting with North Korean representatives at Panmunjom, the truce village in the DMZ, on Tuesday? Or will he depart the peninsula having failed to win any contact with his counterparts from Pyongyang?
The answer to this question may well signal whether North Korean has given up on two years of high-stakes tension-reduction and denuclearization negotiations with the United States.
Over the last two days, Seoul has been the scene of a frustrating – even forlorn – spectacle.
Biegun arrived in Seoul Sunday for a three-day visit. Here, he has met with a wide range of South Korean officials, including President Moon Jae-in, National Security Director Chung Eui-yong, Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul, Vice Foreign Minister Cho Sei-young and his South Korean counterpart Lee Do-hoon.
Glaringly absent were the subject of those various chats: North Koreans.
On Tuesday Biegun is scheduled to leave the peninsula, unlikely to return this year. That timing could be crucial.
The clock ticks
What makes Biegun’s mission urgent as well as frustrating is an incessant background “tick tock, tick tock” – the countdown to December 31.
In April, after US President Donald Trump had walked away from a bilateral summit in Hanoi, Vietnam , North Korean leader Kim Jong Un set a very public deadline: If talks with the United States go nowhere by the end of the year, he said, he would seek an unspecified “new way.”
That statement suggests he will kill off a two-year negotiation process, during which he has met with Trump at two summits, in Singapore and in Hanoi, and also at a photo-op in the DMZ.
This deadline has led many to see Biegun’s mission to the peninsula as the last chance to keep North Korea-Washington talks in play. It has also fueled speculation in Seoul over whether the American will meet North Korea working-level officials tomorrow.
While both Kim and Trump are “top-down” leaders, they both need working-level officials to hammer out agenda and details ahead of any future leaders’ summit.
‘How to reach us’
While Biegun has declined to discuss the possibility of a meeting with North Koreans in Panmunjom (or elsewhere) his key message, widely reported, came in a press conference on Monday morning. It made a clear, if un-stated, reference to Kim’s end-of-year deadline.
“Let me be absolutely clear. The US does not have a deadline,” he said. “We have a goal to fulfill the commitments the two leaders made during their historic summit meeting in Singapore.”
Biegun also made direct reference to his North Korea counterparts. “Let’s get this done,” he said. “We are here and you know how to reach us.”
Biegun’s late-in-the-day mission suggests that Trump remains invested in his engagement with Kim – a dalliance that has attracted both admiration and criticism.
Admirers, such as the Moon Jae-in administration and many in diplomatic and media circles, have applauded Trump’s bold courtship of Kim, something no former US president has ever done. Their belief is that this top-level, unprecedented engagement could crack the deadlock of decades, leading to a breakthrough in Northeast Asia’s thorniest security issue.
His critics fall into three broad camps.
Some pundits slam his belief that North Korean denuclearization is a feasible objective, certain that Kim will never give up his “treasured sword” of nuclear arms.
Others, who believe that even partial denuclearization is a worthy objective, suggest that his negotiating strategy – demanding that North Korea first give up its atomic arms before receiving any concessions – is unrealistic. They advise a phased, step-by-step process as a more pragmatic way forward.
Finally, many – notably his political opponents in the US – attack Trump for befriending a leader who is widely considered a dictator.
Trump has generated significant domestic political capital out of his engagement with Pyongyang. He claims that, thanks to this process, North Korea has halted long-range missile and nuclear tests.
The question is what “new path” Kim may take.
Sputters and rumbles
On the diplomatic front, Biegun and his team last met their North Korean counterparts in Stockholm, Sweden, in October. However, the latter party walked out of the talks, blaming the Americans for not bringing any new thinking to the table.
On the military front, North Korea has conducted a wide range of short-range ballistic missile and multiple-launch rocket system tests this year. And on 7 and 13 December, it carried out non-specific tests at its satellite launch station on its west coast, likely engine tests for a satellite launch vehicle – essentially the same technology as an inter-continental ballistic missile.
It has also re-ignited its war of words with both South Korea and Washington, and has called a Plenary Session of the North Korean Workers’ Party at an unspecified date this month.
All this suggests that provocations may rise early in 2020 after Kim has delivered his customary New Year’s speech.
Still, crystal-ball gazers are divided in their opinions on how serious Kim’s deadline is.
“Kim Jong Un’s year-end deadline is an artificial one, so its expiration does not have to lead to escalation unless he wants it to,” Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul wrote in an emailed statement. “North Korea does not have domestic audience costs like a democracy, nor does it have an international reputation for upholding commitments.”
However, specialist media outlet NK Pro suggested that the deadline is a serious one, headlining its piece on Biegun’s trip, “Last chance saloon for [North Korea]-US negotiations?”
And even Easley admits that there is some pressure on Kim.
“The Kim regime does face performance legitimacy pressures to achieve economic development,” he wrote. “So there is a time dimension for the goal of achieving sanctions relief.”