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Diplomacy and pressure should go ‘hand in hand’ in US policy toward NK

US President Donald Trump, right, reaches to shakes hands with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un at the Capella resort on Sentosa Island Tuesday, June 12, 2018 in Singapore. (AP-Yonhap)
US President Donald Trump, right, reaches to shakes hands with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un at the Capella resort on Sentosa Island Tuesday, June 12, 2018 in Singapore. (AP-Yonhap)
As the Biden administration is conducting its policy review on Pyongyang with a chance of doubling down pressure on the reclusive regime, a former Trump official on North Korea stressed that the pressure in itself is not “sustainable,” but has to be paired with diplomacy to achieve any kind of progress. 

“Pressure without openness to diplomacy is not sustainable. But diplomacy also on the other hand without pressure, or the openness to diplomacy in negotiation without pressure, will be fruitless. They have to go hand in hand,” Alex Wong, the former deputy assistant secretary for North Korea who is now at the Hudson Institute, said during a virtual forum organized by the Unification Ministry on Friday. 

Wong was referring to Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s remark that the new administration will review the entire approach and policy toward North Korea, with the aim of increasing pressure on the country to return to the negotiating table over its nuclear program. 

The former envoy stressed that if Washington is choosing the pressure strategy -- through enforcing UN sanctions and other elements -- there needs to be a reason behind it, which should be for the “purpose of achieving peaceful, diplomatic negotiated solution.” 

“Without that, it would be very hard in the medium and long term, and perhaps in the short term of keeping that pressure on North Korea,” he said. 

Meanwhile, Robert Gallucci, a former chief US negotiator on North Korea during the Clinton administration, stressed the importance of reviving senior working-level meetings -- such as between the US assistant secretary to under secretary level and their counterparts in Pyongyang -- before leaping to summits. 

He also emphasized that substantive steps need to be taken from the US and the two Koreas for any progress to be made in denuclearization talks, specifically avoiding provocations as a starting point. 

“We need to get an agreement with the North from the beginning that the both sides exercise restraint, that they are going to avoid provocation,” he said. “The North will have to avoid extended-range ballistic missiles tests or engines tests and any nuclear weapons tests. The US and the ROK will have to avoid any large-scale combined field exercises, and the US will further have to avoid any provocative flights or military aircraft or naval activity.” The ROK is the acronym of South Korea’s official name, the Republic of Korea. 

Gallucci’s remarks come as South Korea and the US kicked off their annual springtime combined military exercise Monday. The drills have been reduced in scope due to the coronavirus pandemic, with fewer troops, less equipment and as a computer simulation with no outdoor drills or maneuvers. 

Observers have raised concern that Pyongyang could use the drills, despite their toned-down nature, as a pretext for fresh provocations in the early days of the Biden administration. But North Korea, which in the past lambasted the drills as a rehearsal for invasion, has remained unusually silent. 

Chun Hae-sung, vice minister of unification from 2017-2019, said both Washington and Seoul appear to be managing the situation on the peninsula very well and with prudence, as the US review is still underway. 

“Our task is to manage the situation with stability,” he said. “Some have raised concern and problems in regards to the joint military exercises of South Korea and the US, but we are conducting in an adjusted way, and the North appears to be taking this into account.”

Kim Sang-ki, a researcher at the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification, also said that the North appears to be closely watching what policy the US will roll out. 

“One thing to note is that North Korea has refrained from sending messages or actions that could provoke Washington since the election till today,” said Kim. “This means Pyongyang is carefully watching on what kind of policy Washington will have for North Korea.”

Kim projects that the Biden administration could opt for talks aimed at arms control first and take incremental steps to begin to gradually roll back Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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