By Kang Seung-woo
Despite the highly hyped visit of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to South Korea last week, there were no major new initiatives for how to deal with North Korea, probably because the Joe Biden administration hasn't finished the review of its policy toward the country.
Ahead of their arrival in Seoul, the United States attempted several ways to get in touch with North Korea, but the officials were more focused during their stay on the North Korean regime's nuclear program and human rights abuses, a move questioning the diplomatic undertone in its "two-track" approach to engaging Pyongyang.
North Korea sought to insert itself in the secretaries' trip to South Korea by announcing that it will ignore the U.S.' overtures unless it drops its hostile policy toward the country, but it did not opt for any expected provocative actions, a decision hinting that the North may take a wait-and-see approach to the new American administration until the policy review process is finished in a few weeks.
"Although the Biden administration policy toward North Korea has not yet been released, aspects of it emerged during the secretaries' trip. The administration affirmed its commitment to dialogue with North Korea, insistence on denuclearization as an objective rather than more limited arms control goals, and advocacy for human rights in North Korea," said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst and senior researcher at the Heritage Foundation.
According to the joint statement of the two-plus-two meeting between foreign and defense ministers of South Korea and the United States, Thursday, the two sides reaffirmed a shared commitment to address and resolve North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile issues, while Blinken criticized the North for committing "systemic and widespread abuses against its own people" during his meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong, Wednesday.
As for the Biden team's focus on human rights violations in North Korea, Ramon Pacheco Pardo, an associate professor of international relations at King's College London, said, "I think this is partly the result of the Biden administration's belief in the need to uphold human rights, and partly a reaction to Trump's disregard for this issue when dealing with North Korea."
However, Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University, said its rebuke of North Korea's human rights violations in Seoul is in line with its campaign to counter China.
"The Biden administration's foreign policy is defined by democracy and human rights, and by championing them it is seeking to rally its allies in order to contain China. In that respect, the U.S. takes issue with China as well as North Korea in terms of the human rights issue," Park said.
During his Asian tour that also featured a trip to Japan, Blinken affirmed the U.S. commitment to human rights, criticizing China for its use of "coercion and aggression" on the international stage in violation of human rights laws.
Relations between the U.S. and North Korea have been deadlocked since a nuclear summit between former U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un failed to reach a deal in February 2019. Even after, the U.S. made multiple attempts to reach out to the reclusive state to continue the dialogue, but the North has remained unresponsive, causing the U.S. to scratch its head.
Earlier this month, South Korea and the U.S. conducted a downsized combined military exercise so as not to provoke North Korea, which ended up with another harsh denunciation from Kim Yo-jong, the North Korean leader's sister and de facto No. 2 in the hierarchical regime.
"North Korea has conditioned any dialogue on the U.S. ending its hostile policy which the regime has defined as ending all U.S. and international sanctions, the U.S.-South Korean alliance, the presence of U.S. forces in Korea and the extended deterrence guarantee, any criticism of the regime, and even South Korea's constitutionally protected freedoms of media and speech," Klingner said.
Pacheco Pardo expected there will be a diplomatic process between the U.S. and North Korea, but only once Washington finishes its policy review.
"I don't think there is any incentive for Pyongyang to react to the U.S.' overtures until then, since it doesn't know what goals and policies Washington will focus on. I would expect North Korea to sit down with the U.S. if partial sanctions relief is at least being considered. Clearly this is Pyongyang's short-term goal, so it would have little incentive to sit down with the U.S. if it isn't even a possibility," he said.
Park said it is anyone's guess to analyze what the North Korean regime wants at this point, with little chances of the U.S. lifting sanctions.
"North Korea wants the easing of sanctions, but the Biden administration is adamant about maintaining them, leaving few options for the U.S. to bring the North back to talks. Under that situation, it is challenging to predict when and based on what it will agree to dialogue," he said.
According to the Biden administration, since a working-level meeting between the two countries in Stockholm, Sweden, broke down in October 2019, there has been no active dialogue despite multiple attempts by the U.S. to engage.
"Officials from the Trump administration tried to find what North Korea wants in a bid to keep their talks alive, but it just ignored them, which is now the same situation for the Biden administration. The North just urges the U.S. to capitulate to its terms," Park said.