In this March 5, 2019 photo, US Special Representative for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea Stephen Biegun, right, arrives for a closed-door briefing for the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington. (ALEX BRANDON / AP)
WASHINGTON — The chief US envoy for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) said on Monday that "diplomacy is still very much alive" with Pyongyang despite a failed summit last month, but cautioned that Washington was closely watching activity at a DPRK rocket site and did not know if it might be planning a new launch.
Stephen Biegun told a conference in Washington that although US President Donald Trump and DPRK leader Kim Jong-un parted on good terms after their Feb 27-28 summit in Hanoi, big gaps remained between the two sides and the DPRK needed to show it was fully committed to giving up its nuclear weapons.
Biegun, the US special representative for DPRK, stressed that US-led sanctions, which Pyongyang wants dropped, would stay in place until the DPRK completed denuclearization. He rejected an incremental approach sought by Pyongyang, and said that easing sanctions for partial steps would amount to subsidizing DPRK's weapons programs.
Regarding activity spotted in the DPRK, Biegun said the Trump administration took it "very seriously" but cautioned against drawing any snap conclusions
As Biegun spoke at the Carnegie Nuclear Conference, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank issued a new report on activity at DPRK's Sohae rocket launch site, in which satellite images from Friday showed possible preparations for a launch.
In the course of a nearly a year of diplomatic engagement with the United States, the DPRK has maintained a freeze on missile and nuclear tests and space rocket launches in place since 2017. Trump has repeatedly stressed this as a positive outcome of the diplomacy.
Biegun said Washington did not know what the activity spotted in the DPRK meant. He said the Trump administration took it "very seriously" but cautioned against drawing any snap conclusions.
"What Kim Jong-un will ultimately decide to do may very much be his decision and his decision alone," Biegun said, adding that Trump had made clear last week he would be "very disappointed" if the DPRK were to resume testing.
An authoritative US government source familiar with US intelligence assessments said they did not conclude that a launch was imminent, given DPRK's apparent desire to keep negotiations going with the United States. However, the source said Pyongyang appeared to want to make clear it retained the capability to resume launches at any moment.
"Diplomacy is still very much alive," Biegun said. He offered no specifics on when new talks might be held and did not say whether any talks had taken place since the summit, which collapsed over differences on US demands for Pyongyang's denuclearization and DPRK's demand for sanctions relief.
"It's certainly our expectation that we will be able to continue our close engagement," Biegun said.
The State Department has declined to say whether there has been any direct engagement between the two sides since the summit.
A national security adviser to the Republic of Korea (ROK)'s President Moon Jae-in said on Tuesday the United States should seek the gradual denuclearization of the DPRK because an "all-or-nothing"strategy will not help break the impasse in talks.
To bridge the gap, Moon could pursue an unofficial inter-Korean summit as he did last year before the first summit between Trump and Kim, and then visit Washington, the adviser said.
Trump has said he remains open to more talks with Kim.
Trump has said he remains open to more talks with Kim Jong-un and has also stressed his belief in his personal rapport with Kim
US Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Andrea Thompson told the conference she thought there would be another summit, but no date has been set.
Asked if there would be a third meeting, she said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Trump had "been very clear that they remain open to the dialogue. They haven’t got a date on the calendar but our teams continue to work towards that."
Thompson said it was "incredibly important" that all countries continued to maintain UN sanctions on the DPRK until it gave up its nuclear weapons.
"We are not letting the foot off the gas. We are going to continue with the pressure campaign." she said.
Trump on Friday stressed again his belief in his personal rapport with Kim.
The CSIS report read commercial satellite images acquired last Wednesday and Friday showed the DPRK had continued preparations on the launch pad at its Sohae launch facility and at the engine testing stand there.
"Based on past practices, these activities could be consistent with preparations for the delivery of a rocket to the launch pad or engine to the test stand; or they could be North Korean coercive bargain tactics," it reads.
The DPRK is also referred to as North Korea.
Trump said after his first summit with Kim in Singapore last June that Kim had promised to dismantle the test stand, a pledge the DPRK leader reiterated and expanded on at a summit with Moon in September.
Pyongyang has used Sohae to launch satellites into space since 2011, and Washington says its work there has helped develop missile technology. A satellite launch in April 2012 killed off an Obama administration deal for a freeze in DPRK's nuclear and missile testing reached weeks earlier.
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