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South Korea, US remain split over China, North Korea issues

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From left are U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and Defense Minister Suh Wook during a press conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Seoul, Thursday, after holding a two-plus-two ministerial meeting. Joint Press Corps
From left are U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and Defense Minister Suh Wook during a press conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Seoul, Thursday, after holding a two-plus-two ministerial meeting. Joint Press Corps

Disagreement between Seoul, Washington exposed in 2+2 meeting

By Kang Seung-woo

The much-heralded two-plus-two ministerial meeting between South Korea and the United States, Thursday, highlighted that the long-time allies are not on the same page on several issues, including North Korea and China.

Foreign and Defense Ministers Chung Eui-yong and Suh Wook sat down with Secretaries of State and Defense Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for the first meeting of its kind in over four years. Blinken and Austin also had respective ministerial meetings, Wednesday, upon their arrival from Japan, where the secretaries also had a two-plus-two talks.

Since the arrangement of the first Cabinet-level overseas trip of the Joe Biden administration was made earlier this month, speculation has been rampant that the new American government is set to bolster its Asian alliances in the face of an assertive China. However, China is South Korea's largest-trading partner, so the Moon Jae-in administration has maintained "strategic ambiguity" to the U.S. call for Seoul's participation in its campaign to counter Beijing.

Starting a post-meeting press conference, the American secretaries stressed the need for its allies to stand together against China.

"We also discussed China. We are clear eyed about Beijing's consistent failure to uphold its commitments and we spoke about Beijing's aggressive authoritarian behavior are challenging stability, security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region," Blinken said in his opening speech.

"Beijing's actions make forging a common approach among allies all the more important."

Austin also said, "We have a lot to look forward to as, together, we address global security challenges and engage in long-term strategic competition, mainly with China, which, as some of you know, is our department's challenge in the years ahead."

The defense chief added: "Today we continue to work together to identify areas for collaboration within our respective regional strategies, particularly upholding a rules-based international order in building capacity for partners in the region."

During their respective ministerial talks, they also took a jab at China, with Blinken warning against its use of "coercion and aggression" on the international stage and Austin saying the country posing "unprecedented challenges."

However, the joint statement, issued after the two-plus-two meeting, failed to specify China's behavior, just saying that the alliance supports "the two countries' commitment to opposing all activities that undermine and destabilize the rules-based international order." It is raising speculation that South Korea may have had reservations about the U.S. bashing of China.

This is in sharp contrast to the declaration from the U.S.-Japan two-plus-two meeting that slammed China's "destabilizing behavior," and drew a backlash from Beijing.

President Moon Jae-in poses with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin during their courtesy call to him at Cheong Wa Dae, Thursday. Joint press corps
President Moon Jae-in poses with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin during their courtesy call to him at Cheong Wa Dae, Thursday. Joint press corps

Also, during the press conference, Foreign Minister Chung said there was no discussion about South Korea joining the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), an anti-China strategic forum, comprised of Australia, India, Japan and the U.S.

As for North Korea's nuclear issue, the two sides seemed to disagree on how to resolve it.

The South Korean government has sought to address the decades-long problem by engaging the North Korea regime. As a result, the allies staged a scaled back combined military exercise earlier this month so as not to provoke the totalitarian state.

However, Blinken hinted that the U.S. may weigh an option of putting pressure on North Korea for complete denuclearization of the regime, something that the latter sees as a "hostile act" that prevents the country from holding a dialogue with the U.S.

Chung suggested the new U.S. administration continue to uphold the agreement made at the Singapore Summit between former U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, but the Americans did not mention the issue, just saying all policies were being reviewed.

"President Biden plans to complete a North Korea policy review in the weeks ahead in close coordination and in consultation with the Republic of Korea, with Japan and with other key partners, including reviewing pressure options, and potential for future diplomacy," Blinken said.

The Moon administration is also seeking to regain wartime operational control of South Korean troops from the U.S. before its term ends in May 2022.

Despite the joint statement declaring that they pledged to continue efforts toward the transition, Austin unexpectedly said the transition still has a way to go, raising questions that it may not meet a "self-imposed" deadline.

"While meeting all the conditions for this transition will take more time, I am confident that this process will strengthen our alliance," he said.

The U.S. side has been skeptical of the plan, saying South Korea is not prepared to assume OPCON.

According to some diplomatic observers, amid the intensifying Sino-U.S. competition, American strategists believe that the U.S. holding up OPCON may work to its advantage.

"During the press conference, disagreement between the two countries on some issues, including China, was revealed. It was crystal clear why Blinken and Austin visited South Korea and Japan, to counter China in tandem, but the South Korean side may have wanted a toned-down approach toward Beijing," said Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University.

"What is more important now is what the Biden team's response will be: whether the U.S. government will continue to go with South Korea by convincing it to join either the Quad or other strategic forums, or leave it behind."


Kang Seung-woo ksw@koreatimes.co.kr


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