Trump’s N.Korean envoy sees gap in nuclear talks before summit

White House commemorative coin issued for future US-North Korea Peace talks is seen on Thursday, May 24, 2018, after purchased at an official gift shop in Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, US. (Bloomberg pic)

SEOUL: The US envoy to North Korean nuclear talks said it would be hard to resolve remaining disputes before President Donald Trump’s upcoming summit with Kim Jong-un, according to a South Korean lawmaker, a sign the American side may be playing down expectations.

The State Department’s Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun told visiting South Korean legislators that nuclear negotiations would likely stretch beyond the summit planned for Feb 27-28 in Hanoi, lawmaker Baek Seung-joo said.

Biegun, who was in Pyongyang last week, blamed North Korea for dragging out talks since Trump’s historic first summit with Kim in Singapore last June, Baek said by phone from Washington.

“He told North Korea that wasting six months was a big mistake that cannot be justified,” Baek, a former deputy defence minister, said Wednesday.

“It is difficult to resolve all the tricky issues within two weeks and negotiations will have to continue after the summit.”

The State Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Biegun and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo have repeatedly said that talks with North Korea are part of a long-term process.

The lawmaker’s summary, which mirrored reports by the Yonhap News Agency and other South Korean media, provides a cautious assessment of US efforts to reduce North Korea’s nuclear threat.

The account contrasts with Trump’s own repeated claims of progress since announcing plans last month for a second summit with Kim.

While Kim agreed to “work toward complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula” during his first summit with Trump, the deal was criticised for failing to commit North Korea to a timetable or disarmament plan.

Eight months later, the country has made no commitments to allow weapons inspections or dismantle its growing arsenal of warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Last month, Biegun said that North Korea had committed “to the dismantlement and destruction” of all its uranium and plutonium-enrichment facilities in talks with both Pompeo and South Korean leaders.

Biegun told the South Korean lawmakers Monday that the talks had been “constructive” and conducted in a good atmosphere, according to Baek.

The three-day discussion in Pyongyang was dedicated to outlining what North Korea and the United States want on 12 topics.

The envoy did not offer further details, Baek said.

The real work of negotiation will begin in the next round of talks, about one week before the Hanoi summit, the lawmaker cited Biegun as saying.

“They will strive to reduce gaps,” the lawmaker said.

Biegun also told the delegation there was a chance the two sides could agree on a denuclearisation timeline, Yonhap reported, without saying how it got the information.

The two parties planned to draft a joint statement during the next round of working-level negotiations, the DongA Ilbo newspaper of South Korea reported.

‘No verifiable change’

Separately, the commander of US forces in South Korea told a Senate committee Tuesday there was little evidence that North Korea was willing to give up his nuclear arsenal, despite an easing of tensions.

“I remain clear-eyed,” Army General Robert Abrams said, adding that “little to no verifiable change has occurred in North Korea’s military capabilities.”

The South Korean lawmakers were part of a delegation led by National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang to discuss a range of bilateral issues in Washington.

They also met with their congressional counterparts, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Baek, a member of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, which has been critical of President Moon Jae-in’s pursuit of closer ties with North Korea, said he was struck by Pelosi’s hawkish stance toward Kim Jong Un.

“Speaker Pelosi’s stance is very firm – beyond distrust, her position is closer to that of anger,” Baek said.