The White House’s review of U.S. policy toward North Korea has entered its “final stages,” a senior Biden administration has said, a day ahead of a key meeting between top security officials from the United States, Japan and South Korea.
Nuclear-armed North Korea returned to the spotlight last week in dramatic fashion, launching two short-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan after having been largely overshadowed by growing Sino-American frictions and the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year.
While U.S. officials have remained mum on details of the policy review, President Joe Biden has put a heavy emphasis on the importance of working with allies to help craft the policy.
Friday’s meeting between U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his Japanese and South Korean counterparts, Shigeru Kitamura and Suh Hoon, in Annapolis, Maryland, will be evidence of that.
The White House has touted the meeting — the first national security adviser-level multilateral dialogue of the administration — as “reflecting the importance we place on broadening and deepening our cooperation on key issues” in the region.
“I expect us to talk primarily on issues associated with the maintenance of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula,” a senior administration official said Thursday during a telephone briefing with reporters.
Every aspect of North Korea policy will be up for discussion, including prospective arenas for diplomacy, nonproliferation issues and Pyongyang’s relations with its sole ally, China, as well as domestic circumstances in the isolated country, the official added.
“The primary goal is to ensure that we have a deep, shared understanding of circumstances that are taking place … in North Korea, that our goals and assessments of what we want to achieve are in alignment,” the official said.
But the U.S. and its two allies could find themselves at odds depending on the policy review’s outcome. While Tokyo has generally favored pressuring Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile programs, Seoul has pushed for a loosened sanctions regime and engagement with the North.
The Biden administration, meanwhile, has delivered mixed messages on its stance, with officials referring to their commitment to the “denuclearization of North Korea” during last month’s visit to Tokyo but omitting a similar reference on their trip to Seoul.
Asked about the policy review at a news conference Thursday, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price reiterated that “denuclearization will remain at the center of American policy toward North Korea.”
“We also know that any approach to North Korea, in order to be effective, will be one that we will have to execute in lockstep with our close allies, including in this case, our treaty allies, Japan and South Korea,” he said.
Any differences regarding postures toward the North that emerge at Friday’s meeting could be smoothed out during bilateral talks that the senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said would be used “to ensure that we’re on the same page.”
Completely abandoning the goal of denuclearization and accepting the North as a nuclear power would be deeply unsettling for Japan and South Korea and could increase the likelihood of them pursuing their own nuclear programs, dealing a serious setback to global nonproliferation.
The White House understands this, observers say, and is likely to stake out the middle ground.
“The Biden administration is likely to adopt an approach that reaffirms the goal of complete denuclearization (however much it may privately doubt the target will ever be realized) while pursuing near-term measures to limit North Korean nuclear and missile capabilities as initial steps in a long-term process explicitly aimed at reaching that ultimate objective,” Robert Einhorn, a former special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control at the U.S. State Department, wrote last week on the North Korea-watching blog 38 North.
Washington is also hoping to use the North Korean nuclear issue as a point of common concern among the two U.S. allies, with an eye on rebuilding fractured ties between Japan and South Korea.
Tokyo-Seoul relations have soured as tensions arising from historical issues touched off a trade dispute, something that at one point nearly led South Korea to bolt from a joint intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan seen as crucial to defending against North Korean threats.
On Thursday in Tokyo, senior officials from both country’s foreign ministries held an in-person meeting for the first time since October, but remained far apart on the issue of wartime labor and so-called comfort women, who suffered under Japan’s military brothel system before and during World War II.
But ramped-up missile testing by North Korea could force the Biden administration’s hand on taking a harder line against the country, dealing a blow to the prospects of diplomacy with Pyongyang.
Biden has vowed unspecified “responses” if North Korea continues to escalate its tests — remarks that were met with criticism from a top regime official, who vowed to continuously expand its “most thoroughgoing and overwhelming military power.”
Experts say Washington actually coordinated with Tokyo and Seoul on a muted public response to the recent tests to avoid unwanted escalation and maintain space for diplomacy.
“But Pyongyang is implementing a premeditated strategy of advancing military capabilities and raising tensions,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
As for Friday’s meeting, the officials will also discuss a range of other issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic, combating climate change and ensuring robust supply chains. Ironing out differences in their approaches to China is also likely to be high on the agenda.
Seoul has taken a cautious approach in its relations with China even as Washington and Tokyo voice explicit concerns about Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the region. South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong is on Friday scheduled to visit China — not the U.S. — for his first trip abroad.
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