'No progress will be made on North Korea engagement plan'
By Kang Seung-woo
South Korea and the United States will hold a two-plus-two meeting of their foreign and defense ministers next week, the first of its kind in over four years, a sign of the Joe Biden administration's commitment to restoring their bilateral alliance after four years of neglect under former President Donald Trump.
Although the meeting will showcase the special relationship of the allies, the long-delayed, long-awaited dialogue is not expected to proceed in South Korea's favor, as Seoul is expected to face a tough call from Washington that will ask, if not force, the country to support American policy vis-a-vis China amid the intensifying U.S.-China rivalry, according to diplomatic observers.
In addition, the Moon Jae-in administration, seeking to engage North Korea via U.S. sanctions relief, will likely not see any concessions to Pyongyang from its new U.S. counterpart, as it is still conducting its review of the country, they added.
According to the South Korean and U.S. governments, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will visit here, Wednesday, the first trip to South Korea by Biden cabinet officials since his inauguration in January. They will have a two-plus-two meeting with Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and Defense Minister Suh Wook the following day. The two countries last held such a meeting in October 2016.
"Clearly Washington's top foreign policy challenge coming out of the pandemic is China and trying to contain Beijing's rise, which the Biden administration fears could alter the balance of power. The goal for Team Biden in the two-plus-two (meeting) will be to get Seoul to listen to its concerns on China," said Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest.
"They don't expect agreement, but I would say they do want Seoul to listen and understand their perspective, and they at least hope Seoul gets out of the way of any actions Biden might undertake against Beijing."
Ramon Pacheco Pardo, an associate professor of international relations at King's College London, said, "I think the U.S. will prioritize how to deal with China without pitching the discussion as an anti-China coalition, but rather among partners that share goals and interests."
Both Kazianis and Pacheco Pardo said the U.S. will put pressure on Seoul to join the Quad Plus and other alliances against China "privately but not publicly."
Daniel Sneider, a lecturer of international policy at Stanford University, said the timing of a series of meetings featuring U.S. senior officials is backing up the conjectures.
The first summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) took place Friday, while Blinken and Austin will travel to Japan, where they will also have a two-plus-two meeting with their Japanese counterparts, ahead of their trip to South Korea. Following the Seoul visit, Austin is scheduled to fly to India, while Blinken will join National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Alaska for talks with two top Chinese diplomats: Yang Jiechi, the director of China's Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
|Clockwise from top left are Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Defense Minister Suh Wook / Korea Times file|
The Quad, a strategic forum established in 2007 to counter Beijing, is comprised of Australia, India, Japan and the U.S., but Washington wants to develop it into an Asian version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) by inviting South Korea, New Zealand and Vietnam into a so-called Quad Plus. Given that China is South Korea's largest trading partner, Seoul has been reluctant to join any U.S.-led anti-China coalition.
"This coming week of meetings, beginning with the Quad virtual summit and concluding via the meeting with senior Chinese foreign policy officials in Alaska, is also very much about the Biden administration's desire to signal the primacy of our alliances," Sneider said, adding that China will be the central focus of U.S. foreign policy going forward.
"The China meeting is pointedly coming after the Quad and two-plus-two meetings. The move to quickly settle the defense cost-sharing agreements with South Korea and Japan reflects that approach and was an obvious ― and frankly easy ― step to take early in the administration."
Seoul and Washington recently reached an agreement on how much the former will contribute to the costs of stationing U.S. troops here. A defense cost-sharing deal between Japan and the U.S. was also struck last month.
However, Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said, given that the Quad is fundamentally about bringing together naval forces among U.S. allies against China, South Korea's maritime capabilities in the Western Pacific are limited.
"I would hope that the Biden administration does not try to force Asian partners like South Korea to choose vis-a-vis China," he said.
Unlike previous senior-level meetings between the allies, issues involving North Korea are not likely to take center stage this time, as the Biden team has yet to finalize its policy review of the totalitarian state, along with the U.S.' heavy focus on containing China, seen as its biggest long-term security challenge.
"Obviously North Korea will be a major topic of discussion in the two-plus-two meeting in Seoul ― and in Tokyo ― but the administration is still conducting its review. I am sure they will want to hear the views of our Korean allies as part of that process and I don't expect to see any major new initiative at this point," Sneider said.
The South Korean government, led by Unification Minister Lee In-young, is renewing calls for easing or lifting sanctions on the North Korean regime in order to engage the country as part of President Moon's peace initiative, raising speculation that it may ask the U.S. to consider easing sanctions.
However, the pundits did not see any chances that the U.S. will give serious consideration to these calls.
"They're aware that President Moon has specific ideas for how to approach nuclear diplomacy that are in conflict with Washington's traditional North Korea policy, but that disagreement won't be resolved during this trip. The White House is still undergoing a North Korea policy review and it's unclear what the Biden administration will be willing to do on the issue of unilateral sanctions relief," said Van Jackson, a professor at Victoria University of Wellington and a former Pentagon official.
Kazianis also said, "There is no question the Moon government wants to see sanctions relief on North Korea. However, the Biden administration will not freely give any concessions to North Korea at the moment, considering there is still a policy review that is ongoing or is nearly wrapped up."
Along with the much-heralded two-plus-two dialogue, Blinken and Austin will hold separate bilateral meetings with their counterparts upon their arrival.
"The foreign ministerial meetings discuss regional issues, most prominently, ROK-Japan relations and the strategic imperative to repairing them. The U.S. is very concerned that our two allies are more focused on grievances about each other than the grave security threats in Northeast Asia," Manning said.
Regarding the defense meeting, according to Pacheco Pardo, there will be discussions about a "realistic roadmap for OPCON transfer, joint military exercises, potentially also including freedom of navigation operations." Seoul is seeking to regain wartime operational control (OPCON) of its troops from Washington.
The U.S. ministers are also expected to pay a courtesy call on President Moon as the two sides are coordinating a schedule for that, according to Cheong Wa Dae.
During their stay in Seoul, Blinken, who served as the deputy national security adviser and deputy secretary of state under former President Barack Obama, is anticipated to sign the renewed Special Measures Agreement (SMA) with Chung, which many believe will highlight the U.S. determination to restore its alliance with Seoul, which was undermined by the protracted defense cost talks during the Trump administration.
Also, he will meet virtually with Korean youth leaders and host a virtual roundtable with emerging Korean journalists to discuss the importance of the bilateral alliance in promoting peace, security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and across the globe, according to the state department.
As for Austin, a former Army general who is the U.S.' first African American defense secretary, he is expected to inspect the ongoing combined military exercises or visit the demilitarized zone (DMZ), although the South Korean defense ministry says nothing has been decided yet.
Blinken will leave on Thursday, while Austin plans to stay until Friday.