Kang Kyung-wha and Antony Blinken agree on urgency of N. Korea’s denuclearization during first phone call

Posted on : 2021-01-28 18:00 KST Modified on : 2021-01-28 18:00 KST
Departing S. Korean foreign minister struck by difference in new US secretary of state's personality with Pompeo
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken addresses the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on Jan. 19. (Yonhap News)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken addresses the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on Jan. 19. (Yonhap News)

Outgoing South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs Kang Kyung-wha and newly appointed US Secretary of State Antony Blinken agreed on the urgency of the North Korean nuclear issue in their first telephone conversation on Jan. 27, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) announced.

In a press release, MOFA explained that the two ministers spoke for around 30 minutes and “shared their views on matters of mutual interest, including South Korea-US relations, Korean Peninsula issues, and regional and global concerns.”

Kang reportedly began by congratulating Blinken’s appointment, describing him as someone with a “deep understanding of South Korea-US relations and Korean Peninsula issues.” In response, Blinken was quoted by MOFA as expressing his “hope that we can develop an even stronger South Korea-US alliance going forward.”

Kang and Blinken “agreed that the North Korean nuclear issue is one that will need to be addressed with urgency by the [Joe] Biden administration as well,” MOFA said, adding that they indicated “plans to hold close discussions between South Korea and the US to resolve this issue.”

The two of them also agreed on plans for broadening the horizons of the alliance through stronger cooperation to resolve global issues such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the foreign affairs community, most observers had predicted that the Biden administration would be preoccupied for the time being with domestic issues such as the pandemic and economic recovery. In terms of diplomatic issues, its focus on returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a nuclear deal with Iran abandoned by the Donald Trump administration, had observers expecting the North Korean nuclear issue would be shuffled down its list of priorities.

In that sense, the conversation on Jan. 27, where Blinken took the first step in broaching the North Korean nuclear issue and calling it an “urgent matter,” read as a positive sign. But with US policies on North Korea set to undergo a full-scale overhaul as Blinken takes office, it will take time for specifics to emerge.

In a press release issued after the conversation that day, the US State Department explained that Kang and Blinken had “affirmed the enduring strength and importance of the US-ROK Alliance, the linchpin of peace, security, and prosperity for a free and open Indo-Pacific region and across the world.”

The press release also said Blinken had “highlighted the importance of continued trilateral US-ROK-Japan cooperation, underscored the continued need for the denuclearization of North Korea, and stressed President Biden’s commitment to strengthening US alliances.”

Blinken’s emphasis on trilateral cooperation between US, S. Korea and Japan

Blinken, who served as deputy secretary of state during the second term of the Barack Obama administration, was quoted as recalling his experience with several trilateral deputy foreign minister meetings at the time, which he said he hoped could be “reactivated.” First held in Washington, DC, in April 2015, the trilateral South Korea-US-Japan deputy foreign minister meetings were held roughly every three months after the second meeting in 2016. No meetings have been held since the seventh in October 2017.

According to the US State Department, Blinken also stressed the importance of ongoing trilateral cooperation by the US, Japan, and South Korea in a previous telephone conversation with Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi. But this message was left out of related press releases by both South Korea and Japan.

Kang and Blinken agreed to cooperate on ironing out current issues in the alliance, including the two sides’ Special Measures Agreement (SMA) on defense cost-sharing. They also agreed to pursue senior-level dialogue once Chung Eui-yong is confirmed as South Korea’s new foreign minister.

Toward the end of her conversation with Blinken that day, Kang was quoted as saying, “I should have been working with someone like [you].” While she meant it as a joke, the remark was attributed to the sharp difference in styles between her and the Trump administration’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, her US counterpart for the past two years and nine months.

Pompeo is reported to have repeatedly displayed his “personality” in interactions with Kang, including one occasion in September 2018 when he called her up after the third inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang to complain about the military agreement between South and North Korea. Some news outlets reported that his complaints to Kang included “harsh language bordering on abusive,” although MOFA stated that “issues were raised in a respectful tone.”

Commenting on the situation, MOFA officials attributed it to Pompeo’s “impatient personality,” explaining that he “was upset that he had not heard from the US Defense Department about the inter-Korean military agreement.”

Despite this, Kang and Pompeo were said to have maintained a relatively cordial relationship, including periodic exchanges of text messages. As Kang prepares to depart as the foreign minister, Blinken’s more “polite” approach to communication appears to have made a striking impression.

By Kim Ji-eun, staff reporter

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

Caption: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken addresses the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on Jan. 19. (Yonhap News)

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