America’s top diplomat pressed China on Thursday to use its “tremendous leverage” to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, just hours after Pyongyang said it would reject US attempts to resume talks.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke at the conclusion of a high-level security meeting in Seoul with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and South Korean foreign and defense ministers. The first meeting of its kind in five years, the so-called “two plus two” meeting came as President Joe Biden moved to rebuild America’s Asian alliances in the face of growing threats from China and North Korea.
“Beijing has an interest, a strong self-interest, in assisting in the pursuit of (North Korean) denuclearization since it is a source of uncertainty. It is a source of danger and a direct threat to us and our partners,” Blinken said at a press conference.
Since much of North Korea’s external trade passes through China, he believes Beijing has a “important role” to play in persuading the country to denuclearize. Blinken emphasized that UN Security Council resolutions require China to fully implement sanctions imposed in response to North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests.
China, the North’s last major ally and largest aid donor, has long been accused of not fully enforcing sanctions against it. According to some analysts, China believes that establishing a united, pro-US Korea on its doorstep would jeopardize its strategic interests, and that a humanitarian disaster in North Korea could result in swarms of refugees pouring across the border.
North Korea’s first vice foreign minister, Choe Son Hui, confirmed Blinken’s previous statement that Washington had attempted to contact Pyongyang via several channels beginning in mid-February but had received no response.
Choe dismissed the US outreach as a “time-wasting trick,” saying North Korea would continue to reject similar proposals for talks unless Washington ended its hostility. “Since the rise of the new regime, all we’ve heard from the US is a lunatic idea of a ‘threat from North Korea’ and groundless propaganda about ‘full denuclearization,’” she said.
When asked about Choe’s comment, Blinken said he was aware of it, but that he was more interested in hearing from US allies and partners while on a regional tour. Thursday’s talks, according to South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong, focused on North Korea’s declaration and intentions. He expressed South Korea’s desire for the United States and North Korea to resume talks as soon as possible.
Because of disagreements over US-led sanctions, US-led diplomacy focused on North Korea’s nuclear weapons has been stalled for nearly two years. Experts are discussing whether the US and its allies should accept an agreement that would freeze North Korea’s nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief to prevent the country from expanding its arsenal.
Earlier this week, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s influential sister warned the US to “refrain from making a stink,” while condemning joint exercises between the US and South Korea, which her government considers as invasion rehearsals.
According to some analysts, North Korea, which is eager to end sanctions, may escalate tensions with missile tests in order to gain negotiating leverage with the US. The pandemic-related border closure, which has drastically decreased North Korea’s foreign trade, and a string of natural disasters last summer have contributed to the country’s ailing economy.
Blinken, Austin, and their South Korean counterparts said in a joint statement following Thursday’s talks that North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile problems are “a priority for the alliance” and reaffirmed a mutual commitment to resolve them.
Austin said that the United States is completely committed to South Korea’s security, stating that the US will use “the full range of US capabilities, including our expanded deterrent.” For the second day in a row, Blinken blasted North Korea’s human rights record, saying that people in the country “continue to suffer widespread and systemic violations at the hands of an oppressive government.”
Blinken and Austin met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in later Thursday, who was a driving force behind the early stages of US-North Korean nuclear diplomacy in 2018. Moon said that Seoul and Washington will continue to work together to achieve full denuclearization and long-term peace on the Korean Peninsula.
Since Biden took office in January, Blinken and Austin are on their first overseas trip as Cabinet-level officials. They traveled to Japan before arriving in Seoul.
During Thursday’s talks, South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook said the US side repeatedly emphasized the importance of a US-led trilateral security cooperation involving Seoul and Tokyo. He said that South Korea agrees with the US position in principle. In recent years, relations between Seoul and Tokyo have deteriorated drastically due to issues arising from Japan’s occupation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.
According to Blinken, the talks on Thursday centered on China’s position, and “we are clear eyed about Beijing’s consistent failure to keep its commitments.”
“We also addressed how Beijing’s violent and oppressive conduct is jeopardizing the Pacific region’s stability and security prosperity,” he said. “Beijing’s acts underscore the importance of forging a shared approach among our allies at a time when we are witnessing a global rollback of democracy and human rights, including in Burma.”
On his way back to Washington, Blinken will meet with senior Chinese officials in Anchorage, Alaska, while Austin will go on to New Delhi for talks with Indian officials.
Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the United States, said Beijing does not anticipate the Alaska talks to address all of the problems between China and the United States, and that “we don’t have excessively high expectations.” Cu continued, however, that he hoped the meeting would be “a start” and that the two sides will begin a “honest, positive, and practical dialogue process.”
During Thursday’s talks, Chung said there was no direct discussion about South Korea entering an extended version of the Indo-Pacific alliance, known as the Quad, which includes the US, Japan, Australia, and India. South Korea can enter any forum, according to Chung, if it values accountability, openness, and inclusion and serves its national interests.