Joe Biden, the president of the United States, has appointed a special envoy to engage North Korea in dialogue, saying he and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in remain “deeply concerned” about Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal.
At a joint news conference on Friday, Biden also said he would meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un – under the right conditions.
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The US president told reporters at the White House that his ultimate goal was the complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, but he said he was “under no illusions” about the difficulty of getting North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenals.
“We both are deeply concerned about the situation,” Biden said, speaking alongside Moon. “Our two nations also share a willingness to engage diplomatically with [North Korea] to take pragmatic steps that will reduce tensions” on the Korean Peninsula.
To help drive that effort, Biden said, veteran State Department official Sung Kim would serve as special US envoy for North Korea.
A Korean-American diplomat, Sung Kim served as special envoy for North Korea under former President Barack Obama and helped set up former President Donald Trump’s summits with Kim.
He has also been ambassador to South Korea, the Philippines and Indonesia and most recently served in an acting capacity as the top US diplomat for East Asia.
Pyongyang has thus far rebuffed US entreaties for diplomacy since Biden took over from Trump, who had three summits with Kim and the two famously exchanged “beautiful letters”.
Kim nonetheless refused to give up his nuclear weapons but did impose a freeze on testing them. He has not tested a nuclear bomb nor launched an intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017, although experts believe his arsenal has steadily grown.
Moon, for whom engagement with North Korea is a legacy issue before he leaves office next year, said Sung Kim’s appointment “reflects the firm commitment of the US for exploring diplomacy and its readiness for dialogue with North Korea”.
He said he expected a positive response.
Asked if Biden would consider following up Trump’s headline-grabbing but ultimately fruitless summits with Kim, the US president said it would have to be on entirely different terms.
The North Korean leader must commit to a “discussion about his nuclear arsenal”, Biden said, and allow his advisers to meet with their US counterparts to lay the groundwork ahead of such a summit.
“I would not do what had been done in the recent past; I would not give him all he’s looking for – international recognition as legitimate and allow him to move in the direction of appearing to be more … serious about what he wasn’t at all serious about,” he said.
Biden’s comments appeared to reflect a shift in his thinking.
The White House had said in March it was not Biden’s intention to meet with the North Korean leader.
Jenny Town of 38 North, a Washington-based North Korea-watching project, said Sung Kim’s appointment was positive given the Biden administration had signalled it was in no hurry to fill the post.
However, it has given no indication of what concessions it might offer to bring about talks.
“The problem has been that the administration has only talked about denuclearisation and continues to characterise any interactions with North Korea as nuclear negotiations,” she told the Reuters news agency.
“So, it’s still a tough sell to get the North Koreans back to the table, but obviously, Moon is going to push very hard.”
While Moon said Biden had expressed support for intra-Korean dialogue and cooperation, Town said this would not mean much unless Washington, which has refused to ease sanctions on Pyongyang, allowed Seoul the space to move forward with this.
The White House announced last month that it had completed a review of North Korea policy and Biden would diverge from the strategies of his two most recent predecessors, rejecting both Trump’s deeply personal effort to win over Kim and Obama’s more hands-off approach.
But the Biden administration has yet to detail what its third way to prod the North to abandon its nuclear programme will look like.
In their day of talks, Biden and Moon also reaffirmed a strong alliance between the two countries after the strains created by Trump, who badgered Moon as weak and threatened to pull US troops out of South Korea.
Moon was the second foreign leader – after Japan’s prime minister – to visit the White House since Biden took office in January, and Biden said their conversations were those of “old friends”.
The two also discussed China and Taiwan.
Taiwan has complained of repeated military pressure from Beijing with China’s air force making frequent forays into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone.
“We’ve shared the view that peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait is extremely important, and we agreed to work together on that matter while considering special characteristics in relations between China and Taiwan,” Moon said.
In another win for Moon, who has faced pressure at home for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said the US and South Korea had agreed on a vaccine partnership that would combine US expertise and Korean production capacity.
He said this would help supply COVID-19 vaccines in the Indo-Pacific region, while Biden said the US would provide vaccinations for 550,000 South Korean soldiers.