SEOUL, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun met with his South Korean counterpart in Seoul on Thursday, kicking off his schedule to explore ways to resume stalled dialogue with North Korea that may include food aid to the impoverished state.
The meeting with Seoul's top nuclear envoy, Lee Do-hoon, came after Biegun arrived here the previous day for a four-day visit for talks with top officials, including Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul.
Seoul and Washington have been coordinating to find ways to resume talks with Pyongyang amid signs of its growing frustration over deadlocked nuclear negotiations that was evidenced by its recent launch of short-range projectiles into the East Sea.
It is Biegun's first visit to Seoul since the second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi in February collapsed due to a failure to bridge gaps over the scope of Pyongyang's denuclearization and Washington's sanctions relief.
On Friday, Biegun and Lee plan to preside over the allies' "working group" meeting aimed at coordinating their approaches on the North's denuclearization, food assistance, inter-Korean relations and other issues, a foreign ministry official here said.
Aside from the foreign ministry staff, officials from the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae, and unification and defense ministries will also attend the meeting.
The U.S. delegation is expected to include Alex Wong, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for North Korea, and Allison Hooker, director for Korea on the White House National Security Council.
Biegun and Lee will also have separate talks as the allies' top nuclear negotiators.
On the same day, Biegun will pay separate courtesy calls on the foreign and unification ministers. He is also likely to meet presidential officials, such as Chung Eui-yong, head of the presidential National Security Office, or its deputy chief Kim Hyun-chong.
During his talks with Seoul officials, Biegun is expected to discuss Pyongyang's launches of unidentified projectiles on Saturday and Thursday and its intentions behind the moves.
The two sides may also discuss ways to lure Pyongyang back to dialogue, which could include humanitarian assistance to the North in a period of spring poverty.
Seoul has shown its desire to provide food assistance to Pyongyang to help ease its food shortages and apparently to use the aid as a catalyst for the resumption of stalled nuclear negotiations between the U.S. and the North.
"The (South Korean) government is aware of the need for support to improve the humanitarian situation of the North Korean citizens, and in this regard, the South and the U.S. have a shared understanding," Kim Deuk-hwan, the deputy foreign ministry spokesman, told a regular press briefing.
"The government, in close cooperation with the U.S. and the international community, will seek humanitarian food aid to the North Koreans," he added.
During a telephone conversation with President Moon Jae-in on Tuesday, Trump showed support for humanitarian aid to the North, calling it a "timely and positive step," according to Moon's office Cheong Wa Dae.
On Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders also said that the U.S. won't "intervene" if South Korea decides to send food aid to the North.
"Our position in regards to North Korea is going to continue to be the maximum pressure campaign. Our focus is on the denuclearization," Sanders said, referring to the U.S.-led sanctions aimed at dismantling the North's nuclear weapons program.
"If South Korea moves forward on that front, we're not going to intervene," she added.
Pyongyang has persistently suffered from droughts, floods and other disasters. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Program, the North produced 4.9 million tons of crops last year, the lowest amount in a decade, and needs 1.36 million tons of food aid from outside.
There has been criticism in some quarters over the resumption of food aid to the North in the wake of Pyongyang's firing on Saturday of a volley of projectiles that some argue could have included a ballistic missile launch in breach of U.N. sanctions resolutions.
Source: Yonhap news Agency