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(4th LD) Biegun says U.S. 'prepared to engage' in talks with N.K.

16:52 August 21, 2019

(ATTN: UPDATES with Biegun's meeting with unification minister in paras 16-17; ADDS 2nd photo)
By Song Sang-ho and Choi Soo-hyang

SEOUL, Aug. 21 (Yonhap) -- The United States is ready to resume long-stalled talks with North Korea, Washington's top nuclear envoy said Wednesday, amid growing hopes that the two countries would restart nuclear talks after the conclusion this week of a South Korea-U.S. military exercise.

Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun made the remarks a day after the allies wrapped up the exercise that the communist regime berated as a rehearsal for invasion. He arrived here from Japan on Tuesday for a three-day visit.

"We are prepared to engage as soon as we hear from our counterparts in North Korea," he said after a meeting with his South Korean counterpart, Lee Do-hoon.

He stressed that "as agreed by" North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, President Donald Trump gave his team the assignment to restart the talks with the North following the leaders' impromptu meeting at the inter-Korean border on June 30.

"I am fully committed to this important mission. We will get this done," Biegun said.

U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun (L) talks with his South Korean counterpart, Lee Do-hoon, at the foreign ministry in Seoul on Aug. 21, 2019. (Yonhap)

During the allied exercise, the North had shunned negotiations with the U.S., fired a fusillade of short-range projectiles into the East Sea and sharpened rhetoric against Seoul.

But Trump has tweeted that in a recent letter to him, the North Korean leader expressed his desire to relaunch the talks with the U.S. as soon as the allied exercise ends.

At the brief press availability, Biegun also stressed that he will "remain focused" on the talks with the North, as he rejected earlier media reports on his possible ambassadorship in Russia.

On Tuesday, U.S. media outlets reported that Trump is expected to pick Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan as Washington's new top envoy in Russia.

"I wanted to dispel any rumors that I will be leaving this portfolio to take up an ambassadorship abroad," Biegun said.

"I will not be taking up a diplomatic posting in the Russia federation, and I will remain focused on making progress on North Korea," he added.

Seoul's chief nuclear negotiator Lee pointed out that Biegun's visit here was "timely" and came at a "critical" point of joint efforts for the resumption of negotiations with Pyongyang.

"The current dialogue phase has not come just by accident. This has been made based on the determination and will of the leaders of the South, North and the U.S.," Lee told reporters.

"The South and the U.S. hope that through close consultations and cooperation, we can continue such a turning point for dialogue," he added.

With the talks with Lee, Biegun kicked off his official schedule for a series of meetings with senior Seoul officials, including Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul.

"As we are currently trying to transition from a deadlock to a negotiation phase, I guess rebuilding confidence between the parties is essential," Kim said during the meeting, vowing efforts to rebuild confidence.

Biegun expressed support for improvements in inter-Korean relations and said he hopes the U.S. and South Korea can make "more progress" in their efforts "very soon."

Washington and Pyongyang were expected to resume the working-level talks last month based on an agreement between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during their impromptu talks at the inter-Korean border on June 30.

But the talks have not been held amid tensions over the combined military exercise between Seoul and Washington.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed hope Tuesday that the North will return to negotiations to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

"We hope Chairman Kim will come to the table and get a better outcome. It will be better for the North Korean people. It will be better for the world," he said in an interview with CBS.

Biegun's visit to Seoul has spawned speculation that during his stay here, he could meet North Koreans at the inter-Korean truce village of Panmunjom and resume much-awaited nuclear negotiations.

On Thursday, Biegun reportedly plans to meet Kim Hyun-chong, a deputy director of the National Security Office, at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae.

Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul (R) shakes hands with U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun at the government complex in Seoul on Aug. 21, 2019. (Yonhap)

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