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In talks in Seoul, top US officials consider North Korea’s choices.



In talks in Seoul, top US officials consider North Korea's choices.
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In talks in Seoul, top US officials consider North Korea's choices.

In talks in Seoul, top US officials consider North Korea’s choices.


President Joe Biden’s top diplomat and defense chief arrived in South Korea on Wednesday, fresh off a stop in Tokyo, a day after North Korea made sure it had their attention by warning the US to “refrain from making a stink” amid deadlocked nuclear talks.

As Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin meet with South Korean officials this week, they will discuss ways to get North Korea to restart talks.

Nuclear negotiations have been delayed for more than two years, and some analysts believe the US and its allies should settle for an agreement that would freeze North Korea’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief — and likely leave Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons in place.

Austin and Blinken will meet with their South Korean counterparts for separate talks on Wednesday and a joint “two plus two” meeting on Thursday, marking the first time the two countries have spoken in five years.

South Korea is the second stop on their regional tour, which aims to reinforce America’s Asian alliances in order to better deal with China and North Korea’s increasing threats. They joined forces with Japanese officials in Tokyo on Tuesday to condemn China’s “coercion and violence” and reaffirm their commitment to ridding North Korea of all nuclear weapons.

Since a February 2019 summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un collapsed over disagreements over US-led sanctions, U.S.-led diplomacy on that last subject has been in limbo. In response to what he described as US hostility, Kim has threatened to expand his nuclear arsenal.

Kim Yo Jong, Kim’s sister and a senior official in her own right, blasted the US for continuing to hold routine military exercises with South Korea, which North Korea considers as invasion rehearsals.

In a tweet, Kim Yo Jong said, “We take this opportunity to alert the new US administration.” “It had better not make a stink at its first attempt if it wishes to sleep in peace for the next four years.”

Some analysts believe Kim Yo Jong’s statement is a pressure strategy, and that Pyongyang could try to escalate tensions with weapons tests in the future to increase its leverage in negotiations with Washington.

When asked about Kim Yo Jong’s remarks at a press conference in Tokyo, Blinken said he was aware of the remarks but was more interested in hearing from allies and partners.

Washington reached out to North Korea via multiple channels beginning in mid-February, according to Blinken, but has received no response. He said the Biden administration plans to finish its policy review on North Korea in the coming weeks, and that it is considering both “additional pressure measures” and “diplomatic paths.”

Shim Beomchul, an analyst at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy in Seoul, believes the Biden administration will strike a deal with North Korea similar to the 2015 agreement that halted Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Although the US is unlikely to abandon its long-term commitment to denuclearizing North Korea, he believes that reducing the country’s nuclear capability to zero is not a feasible diplomatic target in the near term.

Trump blew up the Obama administration’s 2015 Iran agreement in favor of “maximum pressure,” and the Biden administration is attempting to revive it.

In an op-ed published in the New York Times in 2018, Blinken, then the managing director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, argued that the best deal the US could strike with North Korea would “more than likely look like what Barack Obama accomplished with Iran.” An interim agreement, he said, “would buy time to negotiate a more comprehensive settlement, including a minutely sequenced road map that would necessitate sustained diplomacy.” That was President Obama’s response to Iran.”

Other analysts agree that an agreement close to the one struck with Iran will not succeed with North Korea. While Iran has yet to build a bomb, North Korea has already produced hundreds. They say that when some of the most painful sanctions are lifted, North Korea, which has a history of derailing negotiations by vehemently rejecting verification procedures, will see no reason to denuclearize.

“Anyone can easily argue that (accepting) a nuclear freeze would allow North Korea to retain its current nuclear weapons. But I ask them what other choices they have” to achieve North Korea’s denuclearization, according to Kim Yeol Soo, an analyst at the Korea Institute for Military Affairs in South Korea.

Another potential issue for discussion between the US and South Korea is whether South Korea can actively engage in US-led efforts to counter China’s increasing influence in the region.

South Korea is a long-time ally of the United States, with about 28,500 American troops stationed there. However, since its economy is so reliant on trade with China, taking any action that could be seen as aggressive by its largest trading partner is difficult. South Korea faced economic retaliation from China after allowing the US to mount an anti-North Korean missile defense shield on its soil in 2017. China considers the system’s radar as a security threat.

South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook told lawmakers Tuesday that the US hasn’t formally invited South Korea to join an extended configuration of the so-called “Quad” party, which includes the US, Japan, Australia, and India, and that the Americans are unlikely to do so during this week’s talks.

The Quad has been characterized by China as an effort to curb its ambitions.

The allies are likely to consider Seoul entering an extended Quad format, known as the Quad Plus, according to Kim Yeol Soo, but they will never publicly announce it to avoid enraging China. South Korea should join the Quad Plus, according to Kim, in order to express its views clearly and avoid being sidelined on issues affecting the nation.

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