As high-level talks by top security officials in the US and China ended with putting North Korea’s denuclearization issue at the fore, all eyes are on what kind of changes it could bring on the Korean Peninsula under the Biden administration amid an intensifying US-China rivalry.
Experts say Seoul’s push for reviving the deadlocked nuclear diplomacy with Pyongyang could gain momentum following the meetings, but as to whether the reclusive regime will respond and how South Korea can manage a bickering Washington and Beijing and bring everyone together under a shared goal remains a major challenge.
On Friday (US time), the top security advisers of South Korea, the US and Japan held their first face-to-face meeting at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, the first such talks since US President Joe Biden took office in January.
After the talks, the three countries issued a statement, raising concerns about North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, and reaffirmed their commitment to address and resolve these issues through “concerted trilateral cooperation” towards denuclearization.
They also agreed on the “imperative for full implementation” of relevant UN Security Council sanctions resolutions against Pyongyang, preventing proliferation, and cooperating to strengthen deterrence and maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.
Suh Hoon, South Korea’s national security adviser, told reporters in Washington that the three countries also agreed on efforts to resume the stalled nuclear talks between the US and North Korea at an early date.
Meanwhile in Xiamen, China, South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong met with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, on Saturday, in their first face-to-face meeting since Chung took office in February.
During the meeting, Wang said the two countries will “seek a process for a political resolution” of the Korean Peninsula issue through dialogue.
Chung said both China and South Korea share the goal of “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, and asked Beijing for its constructive role in stably managing the Korean Peninsula and achieving substantial progress on the Korean peace process.
“The talks between Korea-US-Japan and Korea-China served as an occasion to stress the urgency and importance of resolving the North Korean issue,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies. “With Biden’s focus on resolving the North Korean issue through diplomatic ways, and China’s Wang also expressed intention for a dialogue, all the countries’ agreement on the importance of talks in achieving denuclearization could lead to some progress.”
The meeting of Suh and his US and Japanese counterparts, Jake Sullivan and Shigeru Kitamura, came against the backdrop of rising tensions after Pyongyang’s recent missile launches and as Washington is in its final stages of its North Korea policy review and is using the meeting to consult with its Northeast Asian allies.
The State Department on Friday said “denuclearization” will remain at the center of American policy towards the reclusive regime, but did not elaborate further.
Many observers say Pyongyang will wait and see until Washington announces its policy, and decide if it will respond with further military build-up and raise tensions, or engage in a dialogue, answering Biden administration’s earlier behind-the-scenes outreach.
Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University, said Pyongyang could continue to up the ante, as it already took Biden’s future policy into calculation when it recently fired ballistic missiles into the East Sea.
“North Korea won’t respond to talks unless Washington withdraws its hostile policy first, which in the North’s perspective is for the US to ease sanctions. But it is unlikely Biden will give that,” said Park. “Meanwhile, Biden is interested in talks with Pyongyang, but with no conditions attached. The North doesn’t want this, and will continue to raise tensions to gain more leverage”
Another critical issue that remains is how Seoul can do its part as a mediator between North Korea and the US, all the while striking a delicate balance between its main security ally, the US, and biggest trade partner, China, without having to choose a side.
The simultaneous meetings by Seoul officials this weekend in China and the US comes as tensions between the two superpowers run high over trade, technology and human rights, fueling concerns that the talks could give the wrong impressions to either side.
Experts raised concerns that Seoul’s diplomatic room for maneuvering between Washington and Pyongyang’s longtime ally Beijing –- which Seoul sees as instrumental in reinvigorating denuclearization talks between the US and North Korea -- is becoming narrower.
Professor Park noted that Beijing views Seoul as a “weak link” in the South Korea-US-Japan alliance, so it will gradually push Seoul to join side with Beijing’s initiatives, as seen during the latest ministerial talks.
China and Korea’s decision to hold the “two-plus-two” meeting of the countries’ diplomatic security officials –- a similar format was held last month between Washington and Seoul –- and a vice foreign ministerial strategic dialogue in the first half of this year, is a testament to “Beijing’s push for closer coordination with Seoul to wield influence,” he said.
In light of Seoul’s conundrum of having to balance between the rivals, Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University, called for Korea’s alignment to its longtime ally.
“Pursuing an equidistant policy between the US and China would be a strategic disaster for Seoul,” he said. “South Korea’s security interests align with its American ally and its economic interests and democratic values align with the liberal international order. To the extent Beijing enables North Korea’s threats and China itself challenges the international order, Seoul needs its partners in Washington and Tokyo more than ever.”
By Ahn Sung-mi (email@example.com