US envoy on North Korea to visit South Korea amid stalled nuclear talks

The stalled negotiations have had an impact on inter-Korean ties, with the North remaining aloof towards the South's plan to host Kim Jong Un in Seoul this month. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (REUTERS) - A United States envoy on North Korea is to visit South Korea, officials said on Wednesday (Dec 19), as Washington and Pyongyang struggle to find a breakthrough in their stalled talks aimed at ending the North's nuclear programme.

Mr Stephen Biegun, the US special representative for North Korea, is scheduled to arrive in the South Korean capital, Seoul, on Wednesday afternoon for a four-day stay, a diplomatic source told Reuters.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed to work towards denuclearisation at his landmark summit with US President Donald Trump in Singapore in June but the two sides have since made little progress.

They have yet to reschedule talks between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol after abruptly cancelling a meeting in November.

North Korean state media has credited Mr Trump for his "willingness" to continue dialogue but has also slammed Washington for stepping up sanctions, accusing the State Department of being "bent on bringing the DPRK-US relations back to the status of last year which was marked by exchanges of fire".

The report referred to the North's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).

The US State Department said communication between both sides was "ongoing" but sanctions relief would come after they achieved the goal of a "final, fully verified denuclearisation".

"The sooner North Korea denuclearises, the sooner sanctions can be lifted," deputy spokesman Robert Palladino told a news briefing on Tuesday.

The stalled negotiations also had an impact on inter-Korean ties, with the North remaining aloof towards the South's plan to host Mr Kim Jong Un in Seoul this month, as agreed at his summit with President Moon Jae-in in Pyongyang in September.

Mr Kim's trip was unlikely to take place this year, Mr Moon's secretary said last week.

Mr Biegun is expected to explore ways to maintain the momentum for nuclear talks during his stay, officials in Seoul said.

He was scheduled to hold talks on Thursday with his South Korean counterpart Lee Do-hoon, ahead of their session on Friday of a working group launched last month to boost coordination on North Korean policy.

Mr Biegun will also meet Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon on Friday, amid US concerns that Seoul may be moving too quickly with Pyongyang, relative to the lacklustre progress on denuclearisation.

The two Koreas plan to hold a ground-breaking ceremony next Wednesday for their project to reconnect rail and road links, which would need US sanctions exemptions.

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