The US point man for North Korea met with South Korean officials in Seoul on Wednesday for wide-ranging talks, overshadowed by Pyongyang's insistence that it has no intention of returning to denuclearization negotiations any time soon.
Stephen Biegun, who led working-level negotiations with the North Koreans and now has broader responsibility as US Deputy Secretary of State, met with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha.
Biegun was also due to meet with Vice Foreign Minister Cho Sei-young and chief nuclear negotiator Lee Do-hoon.
Talks will likely cover a range of issues, including coronavirus responses and ongoing negotiations over military cost-sharing, but North Korea is expected to dominate the agenda, Seoul officials said.
In a brief conversation before their closed-door meeting, Kang told Biegun he had come at an important time for political developments and also after South Korean President Moon Jae-in recently reshuffled some of his senior North Korea policy aides.
Biegun is likely to meet with Suh Hoon, Moon's new national security advisor who, as spy chief, was instrumental in facilitating summits between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a Seoul official said.
Talks with Pyongyang have since stalled, and North Korean officials say the country has no intention to sit down with the United States.
North Korea not engaging
Moon's call for a new Trump-Kim summit and Biegun's visit had sparked speculation of a last-ditch effort to try to revive North Korea talks ahead of the US presidential election in November.
But Biegun has previously played down the likelihood of another in-person summit between Trump and Kim, saying the coronavirus pandemic made arranging such an event unlikely before the election.
Upon arrival in South Korea on Tuesday, Biegun and the entire US delegation, as well as the American military air crew who piloted their aircraft, underwent tests for COVID-19 at the US military base in South Korea where they landed.
After the tests came back negative, the delegation continued on to Seoul.
Besides the coronavirus challenges, North Korea's strident rejections of new talks also means Biegun's visit is more likely to focus on coordination between the two allies, rather than seizing some opening for diplomacy, said John Delury, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul.
"I don’t see signals from North Korea that they are looking for engagement," he said.
Coordination between the two long-time allies is critical now, said Duyeon Kim, a senior advisor at the International Crisis Group, a Belgium-based independent non-profit organization.
"The allies should get on the same page about upcoming defense drills, how their working group can support inter-Korean projects while enforcing existing sanctions, and how to jointly respond if Pyongyang escalates or tests more weapons," she said.