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Global perspective: US-China tension may offer new opportunity for N. Korean diplomacy

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is seen in this file photo. (Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service)

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, First Secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK), adopted a policy of "parallel construction of economy and nuclear arsenal" in March 2013, less than a year and a half after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.

    At that time, few observers expected the reclusive country's rapid advance in missile development four years later. Following its successful development of a large-scale rocket booster in March 2017, North Korea has test fired medium-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles one after another since May of that year. In November, Pyongyang launched the Hwasong-15 missile that is said to be capable of reaching the east coast of the United States. Kim Jong Un thus declared the completion of the national nuclear arsenal.

    Behind the parallel policy stood an acute understanding of the duality of military power -- establishing a nuclear arsenal brings not only deterrence, but also major diplomatic leverage. In his report to the 8th Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea in January this year, Kim Jong Un pointed out that "strong defense capability never precludes diplomacy but serves as a powerful means to propel it in the right direction and ensure its result." In other words, Kim Jong Un sought to overwhelm the United States with a skillful combination of military and diplomatic power.

    However, the U.S.-North Korea summit held in Hanoi in February 2019 did not come to fruition. From North Korea's point of view, this was because then President Donald Trump, who wanted to have a dramatic effect, did not allow for a phased denuclearization. After the summit, then Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son Hui stated that North Korean side proposed to "dismantle even the huge uranium enrichment plant" in Yongbyon, but the U.S. side "did not respond at all."

    For Kim Jong Un, the outcome of the Hanoi meeting came as a shock. If he had agreed to a blanket denuclearization, the lifting of economic sanctions would have been possible, but North Korea's security could not have been guaranteed. Step-by-step denuclearization and the establishment of a peace regime were essential. This approach was in line with South Korean President Moon Jae-in's "Korean Peninsula Peace Process." The U.S. side, however, was worried about the possibility of North Korea's deception or cancellation of an agreement.

    In any case, even after the Hanoi meeting, Kim Jong Un did not abandon his "parallel" policy. In fact, at the December 2019 plenary session of the party's Central Committee, which summarized the Hanoi talks, Kim Jong Un said, "The stalemate between the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the United States is inevitable and has become long-term." He emphasized that the U.S.-North Korea confrontation "has been compressed into a confrontation between self-reliance and sanctions." In short, he called for a "frontal breakthrough battle" to overcome the economic sanctions through self-reliance.

    There was also no change in the nature of the strategy against the U.S., which was to skillfully combine military and diplomatic power. In his report to the 8th Party Congress, Kim Jong Un demanded sophistication in preemptive and retaliatory capabilities through the introduction of strategic missiles with multiple warheads and nuclear submarines, and the development of tactical nuclear weapons. He also stated that "the key to establishing a new relationship between the DPRK and the U.S. lies in Washington reversing its hostile policy toward the DPRK" and that "the DPRK will continue to deal with the United States on the principles of strength versus strength and good versus good."

    However, for North Korea, the economic burden of pursuing a "parallel" path has been unbearably large. In addition to the economic sanctions based on United Nations Security Council resolutions, there was a combination of hardships caused by quarantine measures against the new coronavirus since the beginning of last year, the resulting border blockade with China, and typhoon damage last summer. Therefore, the basis of the newly-launched five-year national economic development plan was also "maintenance strategy" and "reinforcement strategy."

    However, the changes in international politics after the inauguration of the Biden administration, namely, the growing confrontation between the U.S. and China and the U.S. diplomacy of reinforcing alliances, may offer new opportunities for North Korean diplomacy. This is because China, which is increasingly at odds with the U.S., is trying to extend a helping hand to North Korea.

    On March 18 and 19, top U.S. and Chinese diplomats -- Secretary of State Tony Blinken, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Communist Party Political Bureau member Yang Jiechi, and State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi -- met in Anchorage and had a heated discussion. On March 23, "oral letters" exchanged between Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping were released. The official newspaper of the Workers' Party of Korea, Rodong Sinmun, reported that President Xi's letter included the sentence, "We are ready to provide a more prosperous life for the people of both countries." As if to confirm this, there are reports that aid supplies for North Korea have been brought to the city of Dandong on the Sino-North Korean border.

    On the other hand, on March 17, the same day that Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrived in Seoul, Choe Son Hui released a statement that said, "Unless the U.S. reverses its hostile policy toward the DPRK, there will be no U.S.-North Korea contact or dialogue." In addition, on March 25, two "new tactical guided missiles" were test fired into the Sea of Japan. Furthermore, when President Joe Biden pointed out that the missile test firing violated UN resolutions, Workers' Party Secretary Ri Pyong Chol objected immediately.

    Now the U.S. government's comprehensive review of its North Korea policy is underway in close consultation with Japan and South Korea. However, the more opinions that are taken into account, the more multifaceted the results will have to be. After condemning North Korea's new missile test as a violation of UN resolutions, Biden added that he was prepared for some form of diplomacy, but "it has to be conditioned upon the end result of denuclearization." It is likely that a "comprehensive agreement and phased implementation" of denuclearization is being considered along with enhanced deterrence.

    At the Anchorage meeting, the top diplomats of the U.S. and China also discussed the North Korea issue. Interestingly, in his statement after the meeting, Blinken categorized the North Korea issue as one where the interests of the U.S. and China intersect, just like Iran, Afghanistan, and climate change. The U.S. and China have not clashed head-on on this issue.

    Looking ahead to the future of U.S.-North Korea relations, the third anniversary in June of the Singapore joint statement, in which North Korea committed to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, will be the first hurdle to clear in improving their ties. If the Biden administration can reaffirm the "establishment of new U.S.-DPRK relations" and the "building of a peace regime," working-level negotiations for "complete denuclearization" will resume. However, since there will be a presidential election in South Korea in March next year, it is unlikely that the negotiations will make rapid progress.

    (By Masao Okonogi, Professor Emeritus, Keio University)

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