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US back to waiting on NK amid standoff

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspects construction sites for apartments in Pyongyang on August 21, 2021. (KCNA-Yonhap)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspects construction sites for apartments in Pyongyang on August 21, 2021. (KCNA-Yonhap)
The US is being forced back to former President Barack Obama’s strategic patience on North Korea, as Pyongyang rebuffs any diplomatic outreach and shows no signs of returning to nuclear negotiations, experts said Wednesday.

During his visit to South Korea that ended Tuesday, US special representative on North Korea Sung Kim reiterated that Washington is ready to meet with Pyongyang anytime, anywhere and without preconditions.

But Pyongyang is likely to leave Washington hanging, according to experts. 

“The US will have to wait. The regime (North Korea) still isn’t responding. And it won’t, at least for the time being,” said Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korean Studies at Ewha Womans University.

Pyongyang, which recently referred to Washington’s outreach as a trick to mask its intention to invade the regime, threatened a more serious security crisis for Washington and Seoul over their annual summertime joint military drills that end Thursday.

“An inter-Korean breakthrough isn’t feasible unless the North breaks the status quo and the South floats a more viable option for engagement,” Park said, noting the Moon administration’s obsession with resuming inter-Korean economic projects hampers that effort.

Tours to the North’s Kumgangsan have been halted since 2008, when North Korea shot a South Korean tourist after she allegedly wandered into a military zone. The joint industrial park was suspended in February 2016 after North Korea’s nuclear tests.

“Resumption (of the projects) just won’t happen because of UN sanctions. And their reopening has little to do with either reviving nuclear talks or reconnecting with North Korea, which shut down its borders and would not want tourists pouring in,” Park said.

Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute, said neither US President Joe Biden nor President Moon Jae-in seem to have a working strategy on North Korea.

“The Biden administration doesn’t seem to press North Korea hard enough so that it feels it has to make headway on denuclearization in order to see some economic prosperity it says it wants,” Cheong said, adding the Moon government is too preoccupied with inter-Korean projects.

North Korea’s denuclearization affects South Korea as much as it does the US, so Seoul should not leave it to Washington alone to address it over its nuclear talks with Pyongyang. South Korea has to engage just as much, though Moon, who leaves office in May next year, has little time, according to Cheong.

“Biden outlives Moon but is overwhelmed by Afghanistan,” said Choi Kang, acting president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. Choi was referring to the US decision to pull out troops from Kabul, which has been gripped by chaos during the withdrawal.

“North Korea has not been a priority on Biden’s foreign policy and it won’t be for some time unless Pyongyang forces him to think twice. Perhaps provocation. But even then, it’s unclear if Washington would offer anything drastically different from what we see now,” Choi said.

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