Concerns are rising that the deadlock in the denuclearization talks between the United States and North Korea is likely to be prolonged as key American officials involved in the bilateral negotiations have been leaving their jobs.
|Alex Wong, U.S. deputy special representative for North Korea, leaves Korea from Incheon International Airport, Wednesday, after talks with South Korean officials. He has been named as U.S. representative to the United Nations, raising concerns that the nuclear talks between North Korea and the United States could prolong. / Yonhap|
Since the collapse of the second summit between Kim and Trump in Vietnam in February 2019, there have been no signs of bilateral relations bouncing back, with both sides resuming their harsh stance against each other.
The latest figure to leave the U.S. State Department's North Korea negotiating team is Alex Wong, the deputy assistant secretary for North Korea, who has been named as alternate representative for special political affairs to the United Nations (UN), according to the White House, Tuesday.
He visited Seoul earlier this week to hold a working group meeting with his South Korean counterpart to coordinate policy on the North, including the government's push for "individual tourism" by South Koreans to the North.
Along with Wong, Mark Lambert, the former U.S. special envoy for North Korea, recently transferred to the U.N. as a special envoy for multilateral integrity, and dating back to last year, Stephen Biegun, the top U.S. envoy for Pyongyang, took over as deputy secretary of state in December.
"It is a feasible scenario that the nuclear talks between the U.S. and the North could be further delayed," said Park Won-gon, a professor of international politics at Handong Global University.
"When Biegun was appointed deputy secretary of state last year, there were concerns over whether he could continue to mainly focus on North Korea matters because his new role requires him to deal with a variety of diplomatic issues. In that respect, it was a silver lining that Wong, a close aide to Biegun who had expertise and a good understanding in affairs linked to North Korea, remained on the team.
"However, the departure of Wong could adversely affect U.S. diplomacy with the North."
According to the White House, Trump plans to nominate Wong's replacement soon, but it remains to be seen if the new official can contribute to the stalled talks, according to Park.
"The Trump administration is expected to name a new deputy special representative for North Korea, which is an important position. However, unless Allison Hooker fills Wong's position, any new replacement will need time to get a general overview of the North Korea issue and coordinate with the South Korean government, which will not help bilateral talks," he said. Hooker is the senior director for Asian affairs on the White House National Security Council.
A series of staff changes shows North Korea is falling out of favor with the Trump administration, as highlighted by the president himself who, according to CNN, told his advisers that he does not want another summit with the North Korean leader ahead of the presidential election. So far, the U.S. president has boasted about his "good" relationship with Kim ― despite little progress in the nuclear disarmament negotiations.
"Past experience tells us that U.S. presidential elections have rarely placed importance on issues surrounding the Korean Peninsula, including North Korea. I think that President Trump will not want North Korea to become a negative issue during the presidential campaign season," a former senior government official said.
"Trump is likely to put more weight on issues that loom larger in U.S. interests, such as the Middle East, Iran, and U.S.-China relations."