The Korea Herald


Biden makes strong case for engagement, but N. Korea unlikely to react soon: experts

By Yonhap

Published : May 22, 2021 - 11:46

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (Yonhap) North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (Yonhap)
US President Joe Biden has demonstrated a clear commitment to engaging with North Korea by appointing a special envoy to specifically deal with North Korea issues, but whether the North will come to the table in the near future remains to be seen, US experts said Friday.

In a joint press conference with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Biden announced his appointment of Acting Assistant Secretary of State Sung Kim as "US special envoy for the DPRK" to "help drive all these efforts" toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

DPRK is short for North Korea's official name, Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Biden described Kim as a "career diplomat with deep policy expertise."

"Appointing Sung Kim as special envoy to North Korea is one pragmatic step. He is an experienced diplomat and, along with the other Biden appointments for posts that might affect issues related to North Korea, indicates a high priority for President Biden," said Celeste Arrington, associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

Kim is a career diplomat who has also served as US ambassador to South Korea. He also held his newly appointed position as special US representative for North Korea between 2014 and 2016 under the Barack Obama administration.

Biden said the US will take "pragmatic" steps toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

"Our two nations also share a willingness to engage diplomatically with DPRK, to take pragmatic steps that will reduce tensions as we move toward our ultimate goal of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," he told the joint press conference.

Arrington noted that Kim, along with other members of Biden's North Korea team, are "well-equipped with expertise and experience to try to take pragmatic steps to reopen dialogue with the North."

Still, she cast doubt over the resumption of US-North Korea dialogue in the near future.

"The summit strongly reaffirmed the US-ROK alliance, aspects of which the DPRK perceives as threatening. President Biden also stated that the North would have to show a serious commitment to discuss its nuclear arsenal. That seems unlikely to happen soon," said Arrington.

Frank Aum, a senior expert on North Korea at the US Institute of Peace, a government-run think tank based in Washington, argued the North may even return to its old habit of provocations before returning to dialogue.

"The bad part with this approach is that it continues to focus more on North Korea as a bad actor that needs to be contained and deterred rather than as a mutual partner," he said of Biden's new approach toward Pyongyang.

"This approach also focuses more on things that the US wants, like denuclearization, rather than on things that North Korea wants. This thinking, which is also endemic on the North Korean side, leads to a cautious and risk-averse approach that prioritizes maximizing leverage before negotiations begin," he added.

The US said it had reached out for engagement with North Korea in mid-February, but the North remained unresponsive. In March, a North Korean vice foreign minister said the North will continue to ignore US overtures until Washington gives up its hostility toward Pyongyang.

North Korea has stayed away from denuclearization talks since leader Kim Jong-un's second summit meeting with then-US President Donald Trump in Hanoi ended without a deal in February 2019.

The Biden administration made clear it will inherit past agreements with the North, including one signed at the first Trump-Kim summit held in Singapore in June 2018, in which Kim committed his country to full denuclearization and the countries agreed to establish a new, peaceful relationship.

"We also reaffirm our common belief that diplomacy and dialogue, based on previous inter-Korean and US-DPRK commitments such as the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration and Singapore Joint Statement, are essential to achieve the complete denuclearization and establishment of permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula," the two leaders said in a joint statement issued Friday.

"President Biden also expresses his support for inter-Korean dialogue, engagement and cooperation. We agree to work together to improve the human rights situation in the DPRK and commit to continue facilitating the provision of humanitarian aid to the neediest North Koreans," the statement said.

At Friday's press conference, Biden said he may meet with the North Korean leader if Kim makes a serious commitment to discuss giving up his nuclear ambitions.

Biden also said, however, that he would not give the North's leader "all he's looking for, international recognition as legitimate, and give him what allowed him to move in a direction of appearing to be more serious about what he wasn't at all serious about."

Aum noted the North Korean leader would clearly prefer a leaders' meeting, which is "more effective at getting to decisions," though he may now have lower expectations following his no-deal Hanoi summit with Trump.

"This is not a bad thing, expectations should be kept modest and realistic," he said.

Harry Kazianis, a senior director at the Center for the National Interest think tank, argued the US would also have to make a serious pre-summit commitment to concessions as Kim has now grown wary of failure.

"I do think a meeting would be useful, but both sides would have to gain clear concessions from the other as no one would want another Hanoi-style failure," he said. "However, right now, neither side seems to be willing to make a first move or have any eagerness to talk."

Patrick Cronin, Asia-Pacific security chair at the Washington-based Hudson Institute, agreed.

"President Biden's appointment of Sung Kim reflects a deep commitment to diplomacy and allied cooperation. But there is no eagerness in Washington to return to a summit unless there is a serious and clear expression of commitment to the eventual goal of denuclearization," he wrote in an email interview with Yonhap. (Yonhap)