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U.S. envoy plays down expectations for North Korea meet, but ready to talk

SEOUL (Reuters) - U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun rejected on Wednesday reports that he was seeking to meet North Korean officials during a visit to South Korea this week, but reiterated that the United States was open to resuming talks.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun stands with South Korea's First Vice Foreign Minister Cho Sei-young during their meeting at the foreign ministry in Seoul, South Korea, July 8, 2020. Chung Sung-Jun/Pool via REUTERS

The U.S. point man for North Korea, Biegun was in Seoul for meetings with South Korean officials, overshadowed by the North’s insistence that it had no intention of returning to denuclearisation negotiations as long as the United States clings to “hostile policies”.

Biegun briefly met South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha before formal talks with Vice Foreign Minister Cho Sei-young and chief nuclear negotiator Lee Do-hoon.

The talks ranged over issues from coronavirus response and cost-sharing for the U.S. military deployment in South Korea, but North Korea dominated the agenda, the South’s officials said.

Biegun’s visit had sparked speculation about a last-ditch effort to revive the North Korea talks ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November, but he played down expectations for new meetings.

“Let me absolutely be clear, we did not request a visit,” Biegun told a news conference after meeting Lee. “This visit this week is to meet with our close friends and allies, the South Koreans.”

But Biegun said he was ready to resume talks at any time the North Koreans designated.

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“We look forward to continuing our work for a peaceful outcome of the Korean peninsula, I believe this is very much possible,” he said, adding that U.S. President Donald Trump had given his full support.

Biegun reiterated that the United States was willing to be flexible and reach a “balanced agreement” with North Korea, should it decide to return to talks, Lee said.

Biegun is also likely to meet Suh Hoon, Moon’s new national security adviser and former spy chief who was instrumental in paving the way for summits between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a South Korean official said.

‘OLD WAY OF THINKING’

Talks with North Korea have since stalled, and its officials, including a top diplomat Biegun met in negotiations, Choe Son Hui, say they have no intention of sitting down with the United States.

Biegun, in a separate statement issued by the U.S. embassy, said both Choe and former U.S. national security adviser John Bolton - who recently published a memoir criticising Biegun for being soft on North Korea - were “locked in an old way of thinking, focused on only the negatives and what is impossible, rather than thinking creatively about what is possible”.

Earlier, Biegun said he did not focus on the North’s statements but was guided instead by the “vision” Trump and Kim outlined at their meetings.

The two leaders met for the first time in 2018 in Singapore, raising hopes for a negotiated end to North Korea’s nuclear programme. But their second summit, in 2019 in Vietnam, and later working-level talks, fell apart.

Trump said on Tuesday he was open to another meeting with Kim and thought it might be helpful, Voice of America said, citing a transcript of Trump interview with Gray Television, due to be aired on Sunday.

On Wednesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the United States held the key to breaking the stalemate on the Korean peninsula.

Kim has kept a low profile in recent months, with far fewer public appearances than usual, say analysts who track his movements.

On Wednesday, North Korean state media said Kim had marked the death anniversary of his grandfather, founding leader Kim Il Sung, with a visit to his mausoleum in Pyongyang.

Biegun has previously played down the likelihood of another Trump-Kim summit, saying the virus made one unlikely before the election.

Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Sangmi Cha; Editing by Robert Birsel and Clarence Fernandez

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