The DPRK and the United States in the Summer of 2021

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On June 18, 2021, speaking at the plenum of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, Kim Jong-un analyzed in detail the political trend of the new US administration’s relations with the DPRK. He explained the relevant strategic and tactical countermeasures and courses of action to maintain relations with the US in the coming days.  The Party Secretary-General stressed the need to prepare for both dialogue and confrontation, but especially to prepare fully for confrontation, “to protect the dignity of the DPRK and its interests for independent development.”

As the Republic of Korea’s media noted, this was the first time Kim had commented on US policy toward North Korea since President Joe Biden took office. Therefore, the reader should be reminded what the lack of engagement between DPRK and the United States looked like and what to expect from this gesture by Pyongyang.

After Joe Biden joined the White House in January, Reuters reported on March 12 by reference to a senior US administration official that Washington is trying to use various communication channels with Pyongyang, particularly with the so-called “New York Channel”. However, since mid-February, there has been no response.

On March 17, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) published a statement by DPRK First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui indicating that the US had tried to make contact. “Nevertheless, we think there is no need to respond again to US flirtations that want to buy time”: negotiations are not possible until Washington abandons its “hostile policy” toward Pyongyang. The chance that we had in Singapore and Hanoi will no longer exist, and the DPRK will treat the United States based on the principle of “force for force, good for good.” The First Vice Foreign Minister noted that “first there must be an atmosphere in which the parties will be able to conduct a dialogue based on parity. But even after the change of power, the US continues to spread hysterical rumors about some “threat from North Korea” and recklessly demands complete denuclearization.”

On April 30, the US announced that it was finalizing a new policy on North Korea. North Korea responded with belligerent rhetoric. One statement was made by the “first sister,” the other two by representatives of the Foreign Ministry. Kwon Jong Gun, director general of the Department of US Affairs of the Foreign Ministry of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), threatened that the US would face a very grave situation because “the US chief-executive made a big blunder.”

In a separate press release, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the DPRK considered the new course “a clear sign that America is preparing for an all-out confrontation with the DPRK. It is also a clear answer to how we should approach the new administration in the United States.”

Although ROK experts expected the statements to be “followed by new provocations,” such as the launch of short-range missiles, this has not yet happened.

In a May 4 webinar hosted by the Washington Times Foundation, former CIA official and former Special Envoy for Six Party Talks with North Korea, Ambassador Joseph DeTrani pointed out that North Korea may still be willing to give up its nuclear weapons for the right price. Still, they will likely wait to see how serious and committed to diplomacy the new US administration is. Christopher Hill, former US ambassador to South Korea and top US envoy to the six-party talks, also said that the North’s rhetoric should not be taken as a “definitive statement.”

Alexandre Mansourov, Adjunct Professor at the Security Studies program at Georgetown University, argued that “Pyongyang is likely to stick to its traditional way of communicating with the new US administration, first by provoking to see how truly the American side is willing to reach out”.

In turn, an article appeared in the Korea Times noting that to resolve the Nuclear Issue of the Korean Peninsula, an Iranian analogue officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), could be applied if it were reinstated. “These principles include mutual respect and the need to consider the security interests of all parties to the process, a step-by-step approach, and the principle of reciprocity, the absence of which hindered further progress during the 2018 and 2019 summits. The principle of a step-by-step approach can be implemented based on the action plan for a comprehensive settlement of the problems of the Korean Peninsula developed by Russia and China.” The author is Anton Khlopkov, director of the Moscow Center for Energy and Security Studies (CENESS) and chairman of the 2022 Moscow Nonproliferation Conference.

On May 11, 2021, a spokesman for the Ministry of Reunification, Republic of Korea, said that North Korea accepted the US offer to explain the contents of the new policy towards Pyongyang. Allegedly the North Korean side said that the US offer was “well received”. At the same time, the official stressed the need to continue monitoring the actions of the DPRK without drawing unequivocal conclusions.

On the same day, May 11, the American CNN TV channel reported that Joe Biden’s administration announced its readiness to provide the DPRK with humanitarian aid, including a vaccine against COVID-19.

However, ROK experts have stated that the chances of Pyongyang requesting vaccines from the United States are slim. There is a deep-seated distrust or aversion to American and Western products in North Korea, plus Pyongyang is not interested in American vaccines because it can get Chinese or Russian ones.   “If there is going to be an exchange of vaccines, it will happen as a symbol only after Washington and Pyongyang meet, and the former offers a humanitarian exchange.”

On May 18, Kurt Campbell, Deputy Assistant to the President and Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs on the National Security Council, said in a written interview with Yonhap News Agency that the US would build on the agreements reached with Pyongyang at the 2018 summit in Singapore in its North Korea policy. He also noted that the USA would use every opportunity to solve the problem that previous administrations have failed to solve. Regarding sanctions on Pyongyang, Campbell said it was too early to discuss lifting them.

Nevertheless, Campbell said,

“US policy toward North Korea is not directed toward hostility but solutions. It aims to achieve complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula eventually.”

On May 23, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the best way to achieve complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is through diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang.  There should be “calibrated diplomacy” on the part of the USA and “clear steps” on the part of North Korea.  “We’re waiting to see if Pyongyang wants to cooperate. The ball is in their court,” stressed the US Secretary of State.  At the same time, he recalled that anti-North Korean sanctions remain in place because Pyongyang “continues to engage in activities prohibited by the United Nations.” Moreover, Pyongyang’s nuclear program has become more dangerous and further developed.

In May and June 2021, Ned Price, Spokesperson for the US Department of State periodically stated that the USA sought diplomatic engagement with the DPRK. However, on June 15, Daniel J. Kritenbrink, Nominee for Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, noted that North Korean policy must combine tough sanctions with pressure and effective diplomacy to ensure that “the North and other countries comply with UN Security Council resolutions.”

On June 16, at a webinar organized by the National Committee on North Korea, a Washington-based nongovernmental organization, and the East Asia Institute (EAI), an independent think-tank based in Seoul, the American and South Korean experts noted that the United States and South Korea must make more conciliatory gestures to bring the DPRK back to the negotiating table. Examples of such were the suspension of planned joint military exercises or the official announcement of the end of the Korean War. Advocates of this view included Moon Chung-in, former Special Advisor to President of South Korea for Foreign Affairs and National Security; Frank Aum, senior expert on North Korea at the US Institute of Peace; and Susan Thornton, former American diplomat and former acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs agreed that the United States should do more to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table rather than just wait.

So Kim Jong-un spoke out, and the gossip began. South Korean experts interpreted Kim’s gesture as an invitation to dialogue. Still, some of them pointed to the ambivalence of his position. Others said that Kim Jong-un’s remarks echoed his previously stated position of “responding to kindness with kindness and to harshness with harshness

Some experts said the US-South Korea summit could have influenced Kim’s statement. The two countries’ leaders reaffirmed their commitment to comply with the Singapore Declaration. However, it was noted that Pyongyang would still demand the easing or lifting of sanctions. In addition, while Trump solved issues in a top-down style (the leaders agreed on the main things, and then the working groups refine the details), Biden works the other way around. All the leaders’ negotiations only validate what was worked out earlier. In this situation, personal charisma does not work.

Of course, there has also been talk that Kim’s change of position reflects the deterioration of internal conditions in North Korea: a bad habit of explaining all Pyongyang’s actions aimed at dialogue by a lack of food and internal problems has worked. In this context, conservative media outlets like the Korea Herald even warned Seoul in advance not to give in to Pyongyang’s speeches and to keep up with the United States.

On June 20, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan called Kim’s comments “an interesting signal,” saying, “We’ll wait to see if they follow up with any more direct messages to us about the potential way forward.”

On June 21, Kim Jong-un indirectly responded by saying that during trilateral talks with his North Korean and Japanese colleagues. He hoped that the North Koreans would respond positively to the US offer to “meet anytime, anywhere, without preconditions.” From the American perspective, this is already a substantial concession. At the same time, Sung Yong Kim stated that the Biden administration would implement all UN Security Council sanctions resolutions and called on the other United Nations members to do the same. Ned Price followed Sung Kim in expressing the same hope.

By the way, the appointment of Sung Kim as a special envoy in North Korea was taken by the author as a positive sign. Kim is not hawkish and competent. Kim served as Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, headed the delegation to the Six-Party Talks on the North Korean Nuclear Issue. Despite some pressure and persistent calls, the State Department has not yet appointed a special envoy on human rights in the DPRK.

In response, Kim Yo-jong issued a brief statement on June 22. She rebuked the US for what is called wishful thinking in English. She noted that “erroneous expectations will lead to deeper disappointment.” “The US seems to be trying to present the situation in such a way as to find solace for itself,” she stressed.

The next day, June 23, KCNA published a statement by North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Son-gwon:

“We are not even considering the possibility of any contact with the United States because it will lead to nothing and will only take up precious time.”

However, on June 22, in response to Kim Yo-jong’s statement, Ned Price suggested waiting to see if any action would follow those statements. The State Department spokesperson also responded to Ri Son-gwon’s statement by saying that “we remain open to diplomacy and hope that the DPRK will respond positively to our efforts for dialogue.” On the same day, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced that “Leading with diplomacy, the United States will continue to work to mitigate North Korea’s destabilizing and provocative behavior and maintain peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.”

Of course, the situation was discussed by experts, and as usual, everyone had their own opinion. Of note is the position of Ambassador DeTrani, who has suggested that the US should ask China to urge the North to return to the negotiating table. Another former US envoy to the Six-Party Talks, Christopher Hill, said the US should consider reconstituting the multilateral process: “We need other countries to be engaged and other countries who have a substantial interest in a positive outcome.” Hill also stressed the need to include China in any multilateral format. Moreover, according to DeTrani, any joint work between Beijing and Washington on the North Korean issue could even improve their bilateral relations.

On July 1, Ned Price again noted that the United States looks forward to a constructive response from North Korea and remains ready to engage with it anytime, anywhere. “We believe that through clear, practical engagement with our allies and partners, as well as with the DPRK, we can make progress on what remains our goal, which ultimately is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. That’s what we’re focused on.”

But the author would point out that both sides are now de facto committed to a policy of mutual non-doing. Ritualistic statements and gestures from both sides aside, neither Pyongyang nor Washington intends to escalate the situation. Both demonstrate a theoretical readiness for dialogue, expecting the other side to take the first step, which will be something more than just a declaration of readiness. In the meantime, the situation familiar from the end of the Trump administration has continued for six months (which is a good thing!). The door for dialogue is “closed but not locked.”

And Kim’s gesture increases the likelihood that the parties will be able to talk through the slit. Biden may not go for an open dialogue, but there may be some hidden or “second track” contacts. It is unlikely to lead to any meaningful result. Still, such activity could indirectly reinforce the de facto “double freeze” that has been in place since Kim and Trump switched to a pragmatic approach that still suits both. The DPRK avoids additional sanctions and can focus on the economy. For the USA, in the current situation, North Korea is not the most important and painful problem.

In the mass consciousness of the United States, the DPRK as enemy number one is not going anywhere. According to a poll by the Korea Economic Institute of America, ¾ of Americans responded that it was “important” or “very important” for the United States to reach an agreement with the DPRK on denuclearization. 54% supported a tentative deal that would partially dismantle North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. It should be noted that 57% of the respondents have placed the DPRK as an enemy, Russia is in second place with 52%, and in third-place China and Iran with 48%.

But if a problem cannot be solved, it can be left on hold, and while criticizing Trump, one may continue his approach as the most realistic.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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