Experts say sanctions relief would get North Korea’s attention to return to talks as the country faces economic decline.
US President Joe Biden will explore diplomacy but not seek any “grand bargain” with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as he embarks on a new approach to pressuring Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, the White House said on Friday.
“Our goal remains the complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula,” Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, told reporters.
US policy will see “a calibrated, practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy” with North Korea, she said.
The new approach follows a review of North Korea policy by the incoming Biden administration after three headline-grabbing meetings between Kim and former US President Donald Trump failed to make any progress in convincing Pyongyang to give up its weapons.
The policy of Barack Obama, who refused serious diplomatic engagement with North Korea in the absence of any steps by Pyongyang to reduce tensions, also made little impact.
“Our policy will not focus on achieving a grand bargain, nor will it rely on strategic patience,” Psaki said.
North Korea, so far, has refused diplomatic entreaties from the Biden administration. Pyongyang wants the United States and its allies to lift economic sanctions imposed over its weapons programmes.
Psaki did not provide details of what the administration’s next step might be beyond discussions with allies. Biden met Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga two weeks ago and is to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in on May 21 at the White House.
The US had consulted with South Korea throughout the policy review process and Washington had informed Seoul of its conclusions in advance, the South Korean foreign ministry said.
“The two countries will discuss the direction of North Korea policy at the scheduled summit and meeting of foreign ministers in May and continue cooperation to have the North Korea-US talks resumed shortly.”
Last month, Moon urged Biden to engage directly with Kim on denuclearisation, saying he favoured “top-down diplomacy”.
Jenny Town, director of 38 North, a Washington-based North Korea monitoring programme, said the broad strokes of the Biden policy sound good so far.
“But the details will matter greatly to assessing how successful the administration might be with this ‘new approach’. Not sure there’s much to say until we see more,” she said.
There are ongoing concerns that North Korea might return to testing nuclear devices. North Korea launched two suspected ballistic missiles into the sea near Japan in March.
The White House did not say whether it would offer concessions to convince North Korea to return to talks.
The Biden administration has simultaneously signalled a hard line on human rights, denuclearisation and sanctions, while making diplomatic overtures that officials say have been rebuffed by Pyongyang, which has long demanded sanctions relief.