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‘Squeezing’ N. Korea could backfire: experts

US President-elect Joe Biden. (AP-Yonhap)
US President-elect Joe Biden. (AP-Yonhap)
US President-elect Joe Biden’s potential national security advisers may recommend ratcheting up pressure on North Korea, but such moves, if pushed to the extreme, could backfire and a new strategy may be necessary.

With the new Biden national security team yet to take shape, experts said prospective advisers understand the importance of sanctions to engage Pyongyang in talks.

“These advisers believe Trump squandered the reputational weight of the presidency by meeting Kim Jong-un before securing concrete steps toward denuclearization or improvements in human rights,” said Leif-Eric Easley, an international studies professor at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

Easley was referring to past statements from Tony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, who have both been floated for the post of national security adviser to Biden.

Easley said that since China is a US rival and is hesitant to help pressure the North, Biden could try something else.

“Rather than lead with pressure, a Biden administration may be willing to support humanitarian cooperation with North Korea and restart working-level talks on denuclearization that could lead to sanctions exemptions for inter-Korean economic projects,” Easley said.

As a presidential candidate, Biden publicly promised to make the US alliance with South Korea stronger, in a gesture understood to mean that he would give Seoul more breathing room to put together a more coordinated North Korea policy.

Seoul is a supporter of engagement, whereas Washington is eager to see evidence of disarmament before granting sanctions relief.

Other experts warned against applying maximum pressure on Pyongyang to bring it to its knees.

“Not only will it backfire but guarantee North Korea responds by more ICBM and nuclear weapons tests,” said Harry J. Kazianis, senior director of Korean studies at the Washington-based Center for the National Interest, referring to intercontinental ballistic missiles.

To avoid such a scenario, Seoul should make clear its objective of establishing permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula by drawing Pyongyang back into diplomacy with offers of dialogue, according to Kazianis.

Blinken, who was the US deputy national security adviser when Biden was vice president, has been quoted as saying the North should be squeezed harder to return to the nuclear talks.

“We need to cut off its (the North’s) various avenues and access to resources -- something we were doing very vigorously at the end of the Obama-Biden administration,” Blinken said in a Sept. 25 interview with CBS.

Blinken suggested Washington work closely with Seoul and Tokyo to press Beijing to build genuine economic pressure on Pyongyang. He added that such an effort could yield results like the Iran nuclear deal, which he said was “working” until President Donald Trump tore it up.

Sullivan, in a 2018 interview, also suggested that Pyongyang was not under enough pressure.

“The big danger for American foreign policy in all of this, though, is that, in the current posture, North Korea is sitting pretty. Because they now no longer feel the pressure they were feeling before,” Sullivan told CBS in September 2018, after the first US-North Korea summit in June that year.

By Choi Si-young (
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