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S. Korea, US seeking nuclear-free North in unison

An official from South Korea’s Foreign Ministry and experts on inter-Korean affairs discuss US policy on North Korea at a virtual forum in Seoul on Wednesday. A US official and US experts took part in the discussion online. (Yonhap)
An official from South Korea’s Foreign Ministry and experts on inter-Korean affairs discuss US policy on North Korea at a virtual forum in Seoul on Wednesday. A US official and US experts took part in the discussion online. (Yonhap)
South Korea and the United States are on the same page on North Korea denuclearization, Seoul and Washington’s senior officials dealing with the issue said Wednesday at a virtual forum co-hosted by the Korea Press Foundation and the East-West Center in the US.

“The two countries discuss a number of ideas on how to get to denuclearization. But we’re headed in the same direction. Things change. And we’re adapting to them at the moment,” said Ko Yun-ju, director general for North American affairs at the Foreign Ministry.

He was referring to the Biden administration’s review of North Korea policy, which is expected to be done in next month or so, according to Reuters. Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the approach could involve more sanctions or diplomatic incentives.

Marc Knapper, deputy assistant secretary of state for Korea and Japan, sided with his counterpart Ko at the forum, saying Seoul and Washington are in close consultations to hear what Korea has to say about the new North Korea strategy.

Local experts who joined the discussion said the new approach should address North Korea’s insistence that Washington drop what it calls its anti-Pyongyang policy. Experts have long interpreted the demand as North Korea’s unwillingness to go nuclear-free or its tactic to pull more concessions.

“Or it’s just that the North is just unhappy that it has yet to see so-called ‘corresponding measures’ from the US following the inter-Korean detente in 2018,” said Hong Min, director of the North Korean division at the Korea Institute for National Unification.

The two Koreas held a number of summits in 2018 and North Korea hinted at abandoning its nuclear arsenal if the US rolled out measures in response. Pyongyang has been silent on Washington since President Joe Biden was voted into office in November.

“It’s all the more ominous. We have absolutely no idea what it’s planning to do,” said Yi Yongin, director of the Hankyoreh Institute of Peace.

Director Hong said North Korea would not press ahead with provocations in the near future because the isolated country under UN sanctions is invested in combating the pandemic and jump-starting its moribund economy. The country is still reeling from the fallout from catastrophic floods a year ago, he said.

Jenny Town, director of 38 North, a website monitoring North Korea, also ruled out imminent North Korea provocation. She noted North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would not want to resume high-profile negotiations that could amount to nothing, either.

Key North Korean individuals handling nuclear talks have either been demoted or removed, so the change could prove to be another setback, she said, adding the progress could not be durable with a new South Korean president coming a year later.

South Korea will elect a new president in March 2022, and a potential conservative leader is seen as not likely to build on the progressive North Korea policies championed by President Moon Jae-in.

Director General Ko said Seoul and Washington are in agreement that they should try a summit despite the raging pandemic, but added nothing is definitive yet, as such a gathering requires careful coordination beforehand.

Presidents Moon and Biden will discuss the global initiative during a videoconference on April 22, which is also Earth Day. The following month, the two leaders will meet again at another summit on green projects that Seoul will host.

By Choi Si-young (siyoungchoi@heraldcorp.com)
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