U.S. President Joe Biden’s point man for North Korea said Washington was ready for talks “anywhere, anytime” with Pyongyang, providing a strong signal the White House is prepared to revive a stagnant disarmament dialogue with the North.
Sung Kim, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, said after discussions Monday in Seoul with South Korean counterpart Noh Kyu-duk and Japan’s Takehiro Funakoshi that the Biden administration’s policy called for “a calibrated, practical approach,” which includes possible diplomacy with North Korea.
“We continue to hope that the DPRK will respond positively to our outreach and our offer to meet anywhere, anytime, without preconditions,” Sung Kim said, referring to North Korea by its formal name. He also said the U.S. will press ahead with United Nations sanctions put in place to punish North Korea for its tests of nuclear devices and missiles that could carry warheads to the U.S. mainland.
Their meeting was the first among the envoys since Biden took office. It came just days after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said last week the country is ready for “both dialogue and confrontation,” offering the highest-level opening for discussions since Biden replaced Donald Trump, who met Kim three times.
But Kim Jong Un tempered his comments at a high-level meeting of his ruling party with a call to “get fully prepared for confrontation in order to protect the dignity of our state and its interests.” The words served as a reminder to Washington of the security risks posed by his nuclear arsenal, which only grew larger during Trump’s term in office.
“We took note of Chairman Kim’s recent statement, referring to both dialogue and confrontation. We will be prepared for either,” Sung Kim a career diplomat who has worked on North Korea-related issues under Republican and Democratic administrations, said ahead of the three-way meeting.
The last major statement from North Korea on dialogue came in March when First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui called U.S. attempts for communication a “time-delaying trick.”
“It’s a good sign that Sung Kim’s reiterating Washington’s existing position that it is, and has always been, ready to talk. The problem is, North Korea doesn’t seem ready,” said Duyeon Kim, an adjunct senior fellow in Seoul at the Center for a New American Security.
“It’s increasingly clear through their actions that they do not want to risk their survival during a pandemic by holding direct talks,” she said.
One of the major messages Kim Jong Un delivered at the ruling party meeting was the need to improve the economy, offering a rare warning of dire conditions by saying the food situation was “getting tense.” North Korea battles chronic food shortages. Conditions were made worse by typhoons last year that wiped out crops and by Kim’s decision to shut borders due to COVID-19, slamming the brakes on the little legal trade it has.
North Korea’s economy will barely grow in 2021 after its worst contraction in decades as the country continues to struggle with the pandemic, international sanctions to punish it for its nuclear and missile testing and a lack of trade with China, Fitch Solutions said in April.
The Trump administration demanded the “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” of North Korea before it would ease up on sanctions. The demand was a nonstarter for North Korea, which calculates that nuclear arms will prevent a U.S. invasion and abandoning them as tantamount to political suicide.
The Biden administration has indicated it could be willing to look at an incremental approach where it gives targeted rewards in return for disarmament steps. Biden has also sought the help of allies Japan and South Korea in building a united front against the security threats posed by the likes of North Korea and China.
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