[News analysis] N. Korea, US dialogue won't resume anytime soon

Posted on : 2021-03-29 17:17 KST Modified on : 2021-03-29 17:17 KST
North Korea accuses the US of infringing on the North's right to self-defense
This screenshot from the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) broadcast shows the North Korean test-fire of a missile. The KCNA reported Friday that the projectiles North Korea fired on Thursday were ballistic missiles. (Yonhap News)
This screenshot from the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) broadcast shows the North Korean test-fire of a missile. The KCNA reported Friday that the projectiles North Korea fired on Thursday were ballistic missiles. (Yonhap News)

A statement by Ri Pyong-chol, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of North Korea's ruling party, has attracted unusual attention because of its relatively clear expression of North Korea's strategic line toward the US, as well as its deep disappointment about the Biden administration in the US. The statement was published Saturday by the Korean Central News Agency.

The first round of back-and-forth between North Korea and the US began with North Korea's harsh attack on the Biden administration's review of its North Korea policy, which has now entered its final stage and continued with the test launch of ballistic missiles. Now that round has concluded with North Korea's promise to "continue to increase our most thoroughgoing and overwhelming military power," as expressed in Ri's statement.

Given the major disagreement between North Korea and the US on the conditions for resuming dialogue, it's likely to take quite some time before the two countries return to the table for dialogue.

Ri's statement functioned as a rebuttal to Biden's statement in his press conference on Thursday that North Korea's launch of ballistic missiles was a violation of a UN Security Council resolution and his warning that "if they choose to escalate, we will respond accordingly."

Ri said that Biden had attacked "the regular [test launch and] exercise of our state's right to self-defence as the violation of UN' resolutions,'" describing this as an "an undisguised encroachment on our state's right to self-defence and [a] provocation to it."

Former US President Donald Trump had said that a North Korean short-range missile test launch in May 2019 was not a big deal and continued to express his desire for dialogue even after the North tested its Pukguksong-3 submarine-launched ballistic missile on Oct. 2 of the same year.

But Biden has now said that he won't tolerate such behavior and that "the end result of denuclearization" was the condition for beginning diplomacy with North Korea.

After Biden's election was confirmed at the end of 2020, North Korea exhibited a wait-and-see attitude and refrained from commenting on the election outcome.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un took a hardline stance in his report for the 8th WPK Congress, published in the state-run Rodong Sinmun on Jan. 9, declaring that North Korea's focus should be on "prevailing over and subjugating the US […] our principal enemy." But in the same report, Kim said the key to establishing a new relationship with the US is the US "withdrawal of its hostile policy" toward North Korea and declared that he would "approach the US on the principle of power for power and goodwill for goodwill."

In short, Kim said that the North is fully willing to engage in dialogue with the US on the principle of "goodwill for goodwill" once the US retracts its "policy of hostility" toward North Korea.

But South Korea and the US held their joint military exercises in March, which the North regards as central to that hostile policy. On Tuesday, a senior official in the Biden administration went a step further, commenting that "that some of the efforts that were taken previously to turn off necessary exercises and the like were actually antithetical to our position as the keeper […] of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia."

That dashed North Korea's hopes that the joint exercises would be scaled down or called off by the Biden administration and prompted separate statements by Kim Jong-un's powerful sister Kim Yo-jong and First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son-hui.

Both Kim Yo-jong and Choe said that the US will have to change its behavior if it wants to sit down for dialogue. Undeterred, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said North Korea continues to commit "widespread abuses against its own people," during his visit to South Korea on March 17-18.

While North Korea has said that resuming dialogue is predicated on the US retracting its hostile policy, the US countered by underscoring human rights issues and demanding that Pyongyang commit to denuclearization as the end goal of dialogue.

North Korea responded by launching a cruise missile on March 21 and two ballistic missiles Thursday. Assuming that the US's upcoming announcement of its policy review's outcome won't contain anything positive, the North made clear that it will seek to simultaneously increase self-reliance and strengthen its national defense capability, as it had promised to do in early January.

"We are by no means developing weapons to draw someone's attention or influence his policy. […] I think that the new US administration obviously took its first step wrong," Ri said.

The statement expresses a mixture of emotions, including resignation and disappointment in the Biden administration's approach to North Korea and determination to follow its own path.

Given the huge divide between North Korea and the US's calculations about resuming dialogue, the two sides' bitter standoff is likely to become protracted. In such circumstances, there are fears that North Korea might ratchet up its provocations, triggering a tougher response from the US that could raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

By Gil Yun-hyung, staff reporter

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

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