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US, South Korea vow ‘pragmatic steps’ to reduce tensions, denuclearize north Korea

President Joe Biden announces on April 14, 2021 that U.S. troops will fully withdraw from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021. (White House/Released)
May 23, 2021

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Friday said they would pursue diplomacy with North Korea to try to reduce tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile programs.

“We both are deeply concerned about the situation,” Biden said after talks with Moon at the White House. “Total denuclearization is our objective.”

Biden, hosting his second foreign leader since he took office in January, said he had appointed Ambassador Sung Kim, a veteran North Korea hand, to be special representative to address the North and would coordinate policy toward Pyongyang with ally South Korea and take “pragmatic steps” to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

“The most urgent common task that our two countries must undertake is achieving complete denuclearization and permanent peace on the Korean peninsula,” he said at a media appearance.

The White House announced last month that it had completed a review of North Korea policy and Biden would seek a “third way” between predecessor Donald Trump’s personal outreach to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whom he met three times, and Barack Obama’s “strategic patience” toward Pyongyang.

“President Moon welcomes the conclusion of the United States’ DPRK policy review, which takes a calibrated and practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy with the DPRK to make tangible progress that increases the security of the United States and the Republic of Korea,” they said in a joint statement, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“We also reaffirm our common belief that diplomacy and dialogue, based on previous inter-Korean and U.S.-DPRK commitments such as the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration and Singapore Joint Statement, are essential to achieve the complete denuclearization and establishment of permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula<‘ it said of agreements Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump reached with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

North Korea analyst Frank Aum, of the U.S. Institute of Peace, said the Biden administration’s policy toward Pyongyang wasn’t revealed Friday in Washington but is likely to be shared by Seoul.

The U.S. government “does not tend to share details because: 1) the strategy is classified and 2) it likes to maintain strategic ambiguity to maintain flexibility and prevent exposure to criticism,” he told RFA.

“On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised if the ROK government shares more details about the discussions given how the ROK media and domestic public wants more information about important security matters related to North Korea,” said Aum.

‘Disappointment’ for Moon

Soo Kim, a policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, said the meeting “falls within the range of outcomes we had expected from the summit” and underscores a divergence in tactics between Washington and Seoul despite their professed shared goal of denuclearization.

“In the months prior, we had a pretty good sense as to the Biden administration’s line on North Korea. No matter how it is worded or packaged, denuclearization was a non-negotiable for Biden,” she told RFA’s Korean Service.

Kim said that outcome is “disappointing” for Moon, whose government had “proactively advocated for Washington’s flexibility on the North Korean nuclear issue.”

On human rights in North Korea, another issue where Moon has tried to placate the North while Washington has been highly critical of Pyongyang, the two leaders vowed to collaborate.

“We agree to work together to improve the human rights situation in the DPRK and commit to continue facilitating the provision of humanitarian aid to the neediest North Koreans,” the joint statement said.

Moon told the news conference he and Biden had “reaffirmed the strength” of the nations’ 68-year-old alliance and “affirmed the common vision for developing it into an even stronger one.”

“And Korea will closely work with the U.S. to achieve complete denuclearization and establish permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula,” he said.

North’s Kim may exploit talks

Friday’s meeting followed comments this week by White House senior Asia adviser Kurt Campbell that the administration of Biden, the sixth U.S. president to face Pyongyang’s nuclear program, is now looking for a “new and different approach” to achieving the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

“Previous approaches have failed. We are under no illusions on how challenging this is,” Campbell said in a May 18 interview with South Korea’s Yonhap news service.

“This is one of the hardest national security problems the world is facing. That’s why we have to try with everything we have, but also have realistic expectations,” Campbell said, adding that it is still too soon to discuss sanctions relief as an inducement for Pyongyang to return to talks.

“United Nations sanctions on the DPRK remain in place, and we will continue to enforce them,” Campbell said.

The U.S. will reach out to the United Nations and North Korea’s neighbors for help in finding diplomatic solutions, and will build its own efforts on agreements made by previous administrations, Campbell said.

Those efforts include a denuclearization agreement signed in Singapore between former U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June 2018 in which both sides pledged to work toward better relations and a stable peace on the Korean peninsula.

A second meeting between the two leaders held in February 2019 in Hanoi, and a third held at the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea in July that same year, ended with no further progress made.

Mathew Ha, a research analyst, at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said that given North Korea’s previous stance toward nuclear talks, the two allies needed to move forward based on a “realistic assessment of the underlying assumptions regarding Kim Jong Un’s strategic rationale.”

“Thus far, Kim Jong-un has not demonstrated he has made the strategic decision to verifiably dismantle his nuclear weapons and missile programs. Rather, it seems the opposite as he continues to develop newer missile capabilities and build up his arsenal,” he told RFA.

“Providing concessions indeed may reopen negotiations, but if Kim still refuses to relinquish his nuclear capability, his regime will continue only to exploit talks to gain even more concessions without any reciprocity,” sad Ha.