Why Pyongyang Won’t Pursue Dialogue With US
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Why Pyongyang Won’t Pursue Dialogue With US

Hankyoreh Column

Given North Korea’s stronger nuclear arsenal, the pervasiveness of anti-North Korean sentiment in the US, and the intensifying rivalry between the US and China, another North Korean nuclear crisis at this point might not be manageable.

A few days ago, American and European experts held a videoconference about the North Korean issue. One and all, the experts seemed confused about North Korea.

The Biden administration has expressed its hopes of reaching a diplomatic breakthrough with the North through a calibrated, pragmatic, and gradual approach. Furthermore, Biden showed his sincerity by promising to respect the Panmunjom Declaration and Singapore Statement and to support inter-Korean engagement, dialogue and cooperation in his summit with the South Korean president on May 21. He even seized that occasion to make the surprise appointment of a special envoy to North Korea.

The experts are having trouble understanding why North Korea refuses to respond to the US’ overtures.

So far, the US has reportedly made four attempts to engage in dialogue with Pyongyang, which may explain why the US has recently been acting as if it’s tried all available options. That’s exemplified by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s repeated remarks about the ball being in North Korea’s court.

But North Korea’s response has been icy. That was made plain by North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Son-gwon, who said in a June 23 statement that “we are not considering even the possibility of any contact with the US [. . .], which would get us nowhere, only taking up precious time.”

So why has North Korea made that kind of response? The domestic situation is likely a big factor.

Given the mountain of internal challenges facing the North — challenges including COVID-19, a shortage of food, and the economic downturn resulting from protracted sanctions — it can’t afford to engage with the outside world.

That was aptly illustrated by a punitive staff reshuffle at a recent expanded meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea politburo.

As part of its long-term emergency disease control measures, North Korea is installing concrete walls and high-voltage fencing on its borders. It’s also refusing to allow relief workers to enter the country out of fear that they’d spread COVID-19, even after asking international bodies to send COVID-19 vaccines.

Shoring up the home front appears to be more important to Pyongyang than dialogue with Washington or Seoul.

However, the US’ stance is another problem.

While North Korea repeatedly tested nuclear weapons and missiles in 2017, it adopted a moratorium on nuclear weapons and ICBM tests in 2018, after the mood shifted to dialogue. That was also when Pyongyang destroyed its nuclear test site at Punggye Village and shuttered its missile launch site at Tongchang Village.

But rather than taking corresponding measures, the US has maintained a punitive stance toward the North. The US imposed 27 unilateral sanctions on the North during Donald Trump’s four years in office, and little changed even after his summit with Kim Jong-un in Singapore.

The same is true of the Biden administration. There’s also a strong sense in the US that the summit with Kim was an act of charity that elevated Kim’s international standing and legitimacy.

Under Kim’s principle of “power for power and goodwill for goodwill,” it would be easy to conclude there’s no point in joining talks with the US as long as the Americans refuse to see things from the North Koreans’ point of view.

The fact is that, while the Biden administration’s North Korea policy emphasizes pragmatism, it’s still not very proactive. When North Korea said it’s willing to denuclearize when the conditions are right, those conditions are the US revoking the “policy of hostility” that the North says threatens its survival and impedes its people’s right to development.

Survival-related demands made by Pyongyang include the US halting joint military exercises with South Korea, refraining from forward-deploying strategic weapons to the Korean Peninsula, adopting an end-of-war declaration, building a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, and normalizing relations with the North. When North Korea talks about “the people’s right to development,” it’s calling for sanctions relief.

Setting aside the accuracy of North Korea’s demands, the Biden administration has never staked out an exact position on those matters. When it’s clear there’s nothing to gain, nobody in Pyongyang would be eager to take part in working-level talks with the US that will lead to nothing but a reprimand for the people involved.

Ultimately, we can trace this back to Pyongyang’s calcified distrust for the US North Korea policy. Pyongyang’s basic impression is that the Biden administration isn’t prioritizing the North Korean nuclear talks and is more focused on stabilizing the situation through the military deterrent and cooperation with allies than on reaching a fundamental breakthrough.

Furthermore, the North Koreans seem skeptical about whether the Biden administration is willing or determined to overcome the anti-North Korean consensus that has taken shape in the US Congress and in think tanks in Washington.

When it comes down to it, the North Koreans and the Americans find themselves in something of a Catch-22. Pyongyang refuses to engage in dialogue until Washington offers a concrete incentive, while Washington refuses to make a specific move until Pyongyang joins dialogue. In short, there’s a trust gap.

Such uncertainty leaves the possibility that we’ll see another crisis.

A crisis can sometimes bring a novel breakthrough. But given North Korea’s stronger nuclear arsenal, the pervasiveness of anti-North Korean sentiment in the US, and the intensifying rivalry between the US and China, another North Korean nuclear crisis at this point in time might not be manageable, as past crises have been, leading to disaster.

Theory points to several ways to avoid this crisis. The US needs to demonstrate a flexible and pragmatic attitude, as it has promised to do. North Korea should also look beyond its domestic issues and seek compromise while setting aside the unilateral demands it has been making.

And it’s up to South Korea to apply creative diplomacy to turn the situation around. That’s the destiny we cannot avoid, despite our frustration and fatigue after three decades of the North Korean nuclear problem.

 

The original post is available on the Hankyoreh website here. Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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