US President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of state has said the incoming administration will launch a full review of Washington’s approach to North Korea with the aim of increasing pressure on the country to return to talks over its nuclear weapons programme.
At his Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Antony Blinken said the United States would also look at providing humanitarian help to North Korea, which is facing its most severe challenges since some three million people died in a famine in the 1990s.
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“I think we have to review, and we intend to review, the entire approach and policy toward North Korea, because this is a hard problem that has plagued administration after administration. And it’s a problem that has not gotten better – in fact, it’s gotten worse,” Blinken told legislators.
The pledge came as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un earlier this month called the US his country’s “principal enemy” and promised to expand its nuclear and ballistic missiles programme, despite punishing international sanctions. North Korea also unveiled what appeared to be a new submarine-launched ballistic missile, which state media called the “world’s most powerful weapon”.
Some analysts say the display of military might is a sign North Korea may resume nuclear and ballistic missile tests, which Kim suspended in 2018 amid talks with outgoing US President Donald Trump. Those talks have since collapsed following disagreements on disarmament steps and North Korea’s demand for the removal of sanctions.
Observers say Biden, who is set to take office on Wednesday, must treat North Korea as a “top priority” to prevent the country from further advancing its nuclear and missiles arsenal – a move that some fear will allow Pyongyang to seek concessions for simply reducing tensions over making progress on denuclearisation.
Blinken’s commitment on Tuesday for a review of Washington’s North Korea policy came in response to a question from Democratic Senator Ed Markey, who asked whether he would, with the ultimate aim of North Korea denuclearising, support a “phased agreement” that offered tailored sanctions relief to Pyongyang in return for a verifiable freeze in its weapon programmes.
Blinken said the purpose of a review would be to “look at what options we have, and what can be effective in terms of increasing pressure on North Korea to come to the negotiating table, as well as what other diplomatic initiatives may be possible”.
This would start with consulting closely with allies and partners, particularly with South Korea and Japan, he said, adding: “We do want to make sure that in anything we do, we have an eye on the humanitarian side of the equation, not just on the security side of the equation.”
The United Nations says North Korea is facing widespread food shortages amid international sanctions, border closures due to the coronavirus pandemic, as well as devastating floods that destroyed tens of thousands of homes as well as vast swathes of farmland last year. Kim himself has said the past five years were the “worst of the worst” in North Korea and pledged to make the country’s economy self-sufficient.
Some reacted to Blinken’s announcement of a policy review with scepticism.
“The ritual begins,” tweeted Joshua H Pollack, editor at the Non-Proliferation Review. “First: the policy review. Second: settling on the same policy, but – crucially – under another name. (Just don’t forget to talk about “breaking the cycle.”) Third: the same results. Fourth: rueful acknowledgment that all efforts have failed. Fifth: policy review.”
The ritual begins. First: the policy review. Second: settling on the same policy, but—crucially—under another name. (Just don’t forget to talk about “breaking the cycle.”) Third: the same results. Fourth: rueful acknowledgment that all efforts have failed. Fifth: policy review. https://t.co/5qanbo4LJB
— Joshua H. Pollack (@Joshua_Pollack) January 19, 2021
Ankit Panda, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, tweeted: “I’ll hold this administration to the same standards as the outgoing one on NK policy: pretending that North Korea will disarm if we continue to apply more pressure in just the right ways is doomed to fail.”
I'll hold this administration to the same standards as the outgoing one on NK policy: pretending that North Korea will disarm if we continue to apply more pressure in just the right ways is doomed to fail. And there's no shortage of ideas outside government on how to proceed.
— Ankit Panda (@nktpnd) January 19, 2021
Meanwhile, in South Korea, President Moon Jae-in nominated a former national security adviser who played a bridging role in the 2018 summit between Kim and Trump as the country’s next foreign minister.
Moon has long championed engagement with the North and his office said in a statement that Chung, 74, had been “involved in every issue in the US-South Korea relationship” and was the “best expert in the field of diplomacy and national security”.