SEOUL, South Korea – America’s top diplomat on Wednesday criticized North Korea’s human rights record and reiterated a vow to strip the country of its nuclear program the day after Pyongyang warned Washington not to “cause stink” while nuclear negotiations stalled.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken came to South Korea with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Wednesday to strengthen America’s Asian alliances and better cope with the growing challenges from China and North Korea.
“The authoritarian regime in North Korea continues to commit systematic and widespread abuse against its own people,” Blinken said at the beginning of his meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong. “We have to stand with people who demand their fundamental rights and freedoms and against those who oppress them.”
Blinken described North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs as “a threat to the region and the world”. He said the United States would work with South Korea, Japan and other allies to achieve the denuclearization of North Korea.
How North Korea can get back to talks was sure to have been at the center of meetings between Blinken and Austin and South Korean officials.
When Austin met his South Korean counterpart Suh Wook separately on Wednesday, Austin said the alliance of their countries “has never been more important” given the unprecedented challenges that North Korea and China pose.
The two leading US officials will hold a joint meeting with Chung and Suh on Thursday, the first time the two countries have such contact in five years.
US-led diplomacy on the North Korean nuclear program has collapsed since a February 2019 summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over disputes over US-led sanctions. Kim has since threatened to expand his nuclear arsenal in protest at what he called US hostility.
On Tuesday, Kim’s sister and Kim Yo Jong, a senior official, slammed the United States for their ongoing regular military exercises with South Korea, which North Korea is viewing as an invasion sample.
“We are taking this opportunity to warn the new US administration,” Kim Yo Jong said in a statement. “If it wants to sleep in peace for the next four years, it would be better to refrain from causing a stink the first step.”
Some experts say Kim Yo Jong’s testimony was a pressure tactic and that Pyongyang could try to further increase hostilities through weapons tests in order to increase its leverage in future negotiations with Washington.
North Korea did not immediately respond to Blinken’s comments on Wednesday.
While in Tokyo on Tuesday, Blinken said Washington had reached North Korea through multiple channels as of mid-February but received no response. He said the Biden administration looks forward to finalizing its policy review on North Korea in the coming weeks, considering both possible “additional pressures” and “diplomatic avenues”.
Blinken and Austin have also partnered with Japanese officials to criticize China’s “coercion and aggression” and reaffirm their commitment to rid North Korea of all of its nuclear weapons.
China said Wednesday the US-Japan statement “maliciously attacked” its foreign policy and seriously interfered in China’s internal affairs. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said China was “severely dissatisfied and strongly opposed to the statement.”
With the North Korean arsenal growing amid stalled diplomacy, experts are debating whether the United States and its allies should settle for a deal that would freeze North Korea’s nuclear program to ease sanctions – and possibly leave Pyongyang’s already-manufactured nuclear weapons on Spot.
Shin Beomchul, an analyst at the Seoul-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, expects the Biden government to sign a deal with North Korea similar to a 2015 deal that freezes Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions.
While the United States is unlikely to abandon its long-term commitment to denuclearizing North Korea, zeroing the country’s nuclear capabilities is not a realistic short-term diplomatic goal.
Trump blew up the Obama administration’s 2015 deal in favor of what he described as maximum pressure on Iran, and the von Biden administration sought to revive him.
In a 2018 New York Times statement, Blinken, then chief executive of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, argued that the best deal the US could get with North Korea “will most likely look like what will Barack Obama has reached out to Iran. He said that an interim deal would “buy time to negotiate a broader deal, including a meticulously ordered roadmap that requires sustained diplomacy. That is the approach Obama has taken with Iran. “
Other experts say an Iranian-style deal won’t work for North Korea. Iran didn’t build a bomb, but North Korea has already made dozens. They say North Korea, which has in the past derailed agreements with its vehement opposition to review processes, will find no reason to denuclearize if some of the most painful sanctions are lifted.
“Anyone can easily say that with a nuclear stop, North Korea could preserve its existing nuclear weapons. But I ask them what other options they have to realize the denuclearization of North Korea, said Kim Yeol Soo, an analyst at the South Korean Institute for Military Affairs.
Another possible topic during the US-South Korea talks this week is whether South Korea should actively participate in US-led efforts to contain China’s growing strength in the region.
South Korea is a long-time ally of the United States and is home to approximately 28,500 American troops. However, the economy is heavily reliant on trade with China, making it difficult to take what is considered provocative for its largest trading partner.
South Korean Defense Minister Suh said Tuesday the United States had not formally proposed South Korea to join an expanded format of what is known as the “quad” group, which includes the United States, Japan, Australia and India, Americans will be in talks Probably not make such a suggestion this week.