Austin, Blinken head to South Korea amid fresh warnings from Pyongyang

The comments, North Korea’s first threats to President Joe Biden’s new administration, are a reminder of the fiery rhetoric that Pyongyang uttered in Washington in the early months of the Trump administration, and will likely fuel discussions this week in Seoul between Austin, Blinken and their South Korean influence counterparts.

While North Korea’s ongoing threat to the region was a main topic of discussion during the Tokyo meetings, the focus was on combating the rise of China. During the joint meetings, Japanese officials expressed concern about China’s increasing threat to Taiwan and the controversial Senkaku Islands. Austin told his Japanese counterpart that the Biden government has passed its concerns over Beijing’s aggressive moves directly to the Chinese government, according to a senior defense official who spoke about sensitive meetings on condition of anonymity.

While Austin and Blinken travel to Seoul, the talks are expected to include the threat posed by North Korea, particularly following comments from Kim Yo Jong.

The South Korean and US military began their final annual exercise last week, which Pyongyang sees as hostility towards the north, despite the fact that this year’s event was scaled back due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Trump administration scaled down military exercises with South Korea after the former president’s historic summit in Singapore with Kim Jong Un in 2018 and continued the smaller events of the past three years.

While Pyongyang has stopped testing long-range ballistic and nuclear missiles under the Singapore Accords, it has continued to develop and showcase advanced new weapons, according to a second senior defense official.

Blinken declined to comment on Kim Yo Jong’s remarks during a joint press conference on Tuesday, instead pointing to Washington’s strong partnership with Tokyo as a pillar against the Chinese and North Korean threats.

The Biden government started reaching the North Korean government “through multiple channels” in February but has not yet received a response, Blinken said, confirming a report by Reuters.

A Pentagon spokesman also declined to comment on the statement or the status of the military exercises.

In her statement, Kim Yo Jong also threatened to abandon a 2018 bilateral deal to ease military tensions with Seoul and to abolish a decade-old unit tasked with running Korean relations.

“We’ll keep an eye on it [South Korea’s] Attitude and behavior, and if they become more provocative, we could take extraordinary measures, ”she said in her statement published in Pyongyang’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper.

In response to Kim’s comments, a spokesman for the South Korean Ministry of Defense defended the joint exercises as defensive and called on the North to adopt a “more flexible stance”.

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