[News analysis] N. Korea unresponsive to US contact efforts

Posted on : 2021-03-15 16:42 KST Modified on : 2021-03-15 16:42 KST
The US plans to finalize its North Korea policy review in the coming weeks
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken sits in on a virtual meeting between US President Joe Biden and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on March 1. (AP/Yonhap News)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken sits in on a virtual meeting between US President Joe Biden and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on March 1. (AP/Yonhap News)

The administration of US President Joe Biden has attempted to make contact with North Korea through several channels since mid-February, but the North hasn’t responded, a wire service reports. North Korea is staying quiet at a critical time, just a few weeks before the US’s review of its North Korea policy is set to conclude.

A senior government official who spoke on condition of anonymity told Reuters Saturday that the US had tried to reach out to North Korea “through several channels starting in mid-February, including in New York,” but “to date, we have not received any response from Pyongyang.”

These comments suggest that the Biden administration has unsuccessfully sought to sound out North Korea’s exact intentions concerning denuclearization as part of its policy review. The New York channel refers to North Korea’s permanent mission to the UN, headquartered in New York.

“The Biden administration official said it appeared there had been no active dialogue between the United States and North Korea for more than a year, including at the end of Trump’s administration, ‘despite multiple attempts during that time by the United States to engage,’” Reuters reported, quoting the same official.

Since the top priority of the Biden administration’s foreign policy is countering China, some have suggested that Biden will put the North Korean issue on the back burner. But the US has stated that North Korea is a priority because of the threats posed by its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

After the breakdown of negotiations in their summit in Hanoi, at the end of February 2019, North Korea asked the US to come up with “new calculations” that would be acceptable to the North. While the North agreed to one round of working-level negotiations in Stockholm in October 2019, it has avoided official contact with the US since then.

Pyongyang’s current silence is presumed to be one of its typical mind games, designed to strengthen its position in future negotiations with the US.

An official at South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that it had already been informed of these developments by the US.

The revelation that North Korea has declined to respond to US attempts to make contact underscores the importance of the upcoming visit to South Korea and Japan by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin from Tuesday to Thursday. Given the lack of direct communication with North Korea, the US will have to finalize its North Korea policy by consulting the opinions of major allies such as South Korea and Japan.

The Biden administration has previously said it would discuss North Korea policy during the policy review with South Korea, a party to denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, and with Japan, an important country in the area. That discussion will take place during two separate “two-plus-two” meetings of top defense and foreign policy officials in Japan (Tuesday and Wednesday) and in South Korea (Wednesday and Thursday).

Sung Kim, the US’s acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told reporters during a telephone briefing Friday that Blinken and Austin’s visit to South Korea and Japan “will be another great opportunity for our allies to provide senior-level input into our process,” referring to the North Korea policy review.

“We are working expeditiously and I think maybe in the coming weeks we'll be able to complete the review,” Kim said.

There are two major variables related to this. The first is what stance the US adopts. “One important question is whether the US is coming to discuss its policy review with South Korea or to inform South Korea of the results of that review,” said Koo Kab-woo, professor at the University of North Korean Studies.

The second variable is the serious divergence between the viewpoints of South Korea and Japan, two American allies. The gap between their opinions is expected to take considerable effort to bridge.

South Korea wants the Korean Peninsula peace process to resume with the joint statement signed by the US and North Korea on June 12, 2018, during the Trump administration. But Japan wants an all-encompassing solution that will cover North Korea’s nuclear weapons, its short-range and long-range missiles, and the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by the North.

Wi Seong-rak, who personally oversaw the North Korean nuclear talks while serving as director of South Korea’s office for negotiating peace on the Korean Peninsula, offered his thoughts on the outcome of the Biden administration’s North Korea policy review.

“The officials in the Biden administration are experienced people who are knowledgeable about the North Korean nuclear issue. They’re not likely to suddenly come up with something new. I think they will conclude that the US should pursue gradual and step-by-step denuclearization through pressure, sanctions and multilateral connections,” said Wi.

That conclusion “is unlikely to satisfy North Korea, which had three summits with the US and tasted a big success at Singapore,” Wi said, voicing his concern about the possibility of North Korean provocations.

Another major issue is how strongly the US will push South Korea to participate in Quad Plus. That’s an expanded version of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, a key component of the US policy of containing China.

“This is actually a rather tricky issue for South Korea. As long as Pyongyang remains open to negotiations with South Korea and the US, I think that Seoul will take a cautious approach,” said Cho Sung-ryul, a research consultant for the Institute for National Security Strategy.

Wi sees things somewhat differently. “The chief objective of [Blinken and Austin’s] visit to South Korea and Japan is countering China,” rather than coordinating North Korea policy, Wi said.

“The conditions are too poor and there’s not enough time for the current administration to get results [in North Korean nuclear talks] before [President Moon Jae-in] leaves office. Rather than pushing the US to adopt our own positions, I hope we’ll offer a more pragmatic and realistic alternative.”

By Hwang Joon-bum, Washington correspondent

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

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