[News analysis] Will S. Korea’s new foreign minister be able to find a solution to relations with N. Korea?

Posted on : 2021-01-21 17:17 KST Modified on : 2021-01-21 17:17 KST
The public views of Antony Blinken present fundamental challenges
Blue House National Security Office Director Chung Eui-yong attends a South Korea-Thailand summit in Busan. (Kim Jung-hyo, staff photographer)
Blue House National Security Office Director Chung Eui-yong attends a South Korea-Thailand summit in Busan. (Kim Jung-hyo, staff photographer)

President Moon Jae-in selected Chung Eui-yong as South Korea’s foreign minister on Jan. 20, when Joe Biden was inaugurated as the next US president. With his reappointment of the former Blue House National Security Office director and special presidential aide on foreign affairs and national security who helped set the Korean Peninsula peace process in motion in the spring of 2018, Moon appears to be entrusting him with resolving the thorny issue of coordinating Seoul and Washington’s respective North Korea policies.

Explaining the reason behind Chung’s selection that day, Chung Man-ho, the Blue House senior secretary for public affairs, said, “He’s a top expert who has devoted his life to foreign affairs and national security.”

“During his three years as director of the Moon Jae-in administration’s National Security Office, he discussed and coordinated every kind of issue with the US, and he was also the most deeply involved in key policy measures related to the Korean Peninsula’s denuclearization and North Korea-US negotiations for the Korean Peninsula peace process,” he added.

“Based on his diplomatic expertise and judgment and his policy understanding and discernment, he will strengthen the South Korea-US alliance as the Biden administration takes office and achieve harmonious resolutions in our relations with other major partners, including China, Japan, Russia, and the European Union,” he predicted.

As Chung Man-ho explained, Chung Eui-yong helped bring about the first-ever North Korea-US summit in 2018. After verifying North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization of the peninsula and dialogue with the US during a four-hour and 12-minute meeting with leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang on Mar. 5 of that year, Chung shared the information with Washington, which led to the summit taking place in Singapore on June 12. His Mar. 8 announcement of plans for the North Korea-US summit while standing on the darkened White House lawn after a meeting with US President Donald Trump is seen as one of the pivotal moments in South Korean diplomatic history.

With Moon announcing in his New Year’s press conference on Jan. 18 that he hopes to see North Korea and the newly arrived Biden administration resuming their dialogue — using the Singapore Joint Statement agreed upon by Kim and Trump in 2018 as their starting point — his decision to entrust the Singapore summit’s “midwife” Chung with coordinating North Korea policy with the US may be viewed in some sense as a natural outcome.

But the tasks that Chung faces are daunting. Biden and key figures in his US foreign affairs and national security lineup — including Chung’s counterparts Secretary of State-designate Tony Blinken and Deputy Secretary of State-designate Wendy Sherman — have voiced negative opinions about the “top-down” approach to Pyongyang favored by the Trump administration. Their views toward the Singapore Joint Statement mentioned by Moon do not appear positive either.

In an interview with CBS in October 2020, Blinken referred to Trump as having had “three empty summits with no preparation with Kim Jong-un” and “exchanging what he himself called ‘love letters’ with one of the world’s worst tyrants.”

“We have to work closely with allies like South Korea and Japan and press China to build genuine economic pressure to squeeze North Korea to get it to the negotiating table,” he also said, suggesting that he plans to pursue a multilateral approach of cooperation with Seoul, Beijing, and Tokyo rather than the bilateral “top-down” dialogue used by the Trump administration.

Sharing his basic principles in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing on Jan. 19, Blinken said he would consider the options available to the US on North Korea while consulting with allies such as South Korea and Japan. In introductory remarks at the hearing that day, he said, “We can revitalize our core alliances — force multipliers of our influence around the world.”

“Together, we are far better positioned to counter threats posed by Russia, Iran and North Korea and to stand up for democracy and human rights,” he added.

When asked whether he supports a step-by-step approach of easing sanctions in exchange for a “verified freeze” of North Korea’s nuclear program, Blinken said, “I think we have to review and we intend to review the entire approach and policy toward North Korea because this is a hard problem that has plagued administration after administration, and it's a problem that has not gotten better.”

He added that Washington would “look at what options we have, and what can be effective in terms of increasing pressure on North Korea to come to the negotiating table, as well as what other diplomatic initiatives may be possible.”

“But that starts with consulting closely with our allies and partners, particularly with South Korea and with Japan and others,” he continued.

At the same time, Blinken also showed a more flexible stance on the issue of humanitarian aid to North Korea.

“I think in North Korea and in other similarly situated places, we have to have an eye clearly on the people of the country in question, and do what we can to alleviate their suffering,” he said.

“So we do want to make sure that anything we do, we have an eye on the humanitarian side of the equation, not just on the security side of the equation,” he added.

By Gil Yun-hyung, staff reporter

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

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