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IFANS Focus An Analysis of the North Korean Nuclear Issue in the Moon-Biden Summit: What is Pyongyang Thinking? HWANG Ildo Upload Date 2021-06-11 Hits 427
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I. Reading Between the Lines of the Joint Statement
II. The Biden Administration's Perception and Judgment
III. Outlook: Pyongyang's Calculations 



Pyongyang's first public response to the Moon-Biden summit released through the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 31, 2021, deviated from the usual pattern. The 1,200-character long article is unusual in that it deals exclusively with the termination of missile guidelines and underscores that Kim Myung-chul, the author of the article, does not officially represent the regime's stance. The part related to the North Korean nuclear talks in the article only vaguely addresses the review of the Biden administration's North Korea policy outlined in late April. The statement by North Korean Foreign Minister Kwon Jung-keun on May 2 showed the same pattern by only mentioning President Biden's less relevant speech to Congress on April 29 while ignoring White House spokesman Jen Saki's announcement regarding the end of the review of North Korea policy.

Pyongyang's unusual response, inconsistent with its strategic interests, seems relevant to its reservation on the stalled nuclear talks. The same holds for its late responses to messages and actions by Seoul and Washington. Ironically, the North's reticence clearly shows the key characteristics of the Moon-Biden summit's discussions on the North Korean nuclear issue, which calls for drawing up mid-to-long-term principles, not short-term measures.
 

I. Reading Between the Lines of the Joint Statement

Then, what did Seoul and Washington aim to achieve in their discussions on the North Korean nuclear issue during the summit? Did the two sides aim to find concrete ways to resume inter-Korean talks and the North Korea-U.S. talks as soon as possible? Or, did the two sides aim to agree on the basic principles needed to deal with the North Korean nuclear issue in the coming years? It can be inferred that the North Korean nuclear issue in the summit's joint statement is clearly described based on the latter question. Instead of mentioning joint efforts to resume the stalled nuclear talks soon, the statement consists mainly of the general argument or rule-setting process based on the principles and directions agreed upon at the summit that will steer future nuclear talks. 
 
The joint statement revolves around the reaffirmation of the two-pronged strategy that simultaneously seeks dialogue and sanctions, the importance of diplomatic and peaceful approaches and of refraining from adopting military measures, recognition of or respect for the critical agreements made in 2018, adoption of pragmatic and phased approaches aimed at achieving a complete denuclearization, the principle of close cooperation between the U.S. and South Korea, along with the recognition of South Korea's engagement in shaping inter-Korean relations and cooperation, and the need to address human rights issues and humanitarian assistance issues.

The characteristics of the joint statement will also significantly affect how the summit agreement will work for inter-Korean and North Korea-U.S. relations in the short or medium term. Pyongyang's unusual response suggests that the North is relatively unlikely to judge that the terms or atmosphere of the talks are ripe based on the results of the talks. This means that North Korean officials also recognize that the joint statement was not designed for this purpose. On the other hand, the various principles contained in the joint statement clearly show the framework in which the two countries will maintain their response to the North Korean nuclear issue. By hinting that such principles will be maintained for at least four years under the Biden administration, it focused on preparing a minimum safety valve to prevent the situation from worsening due to Pyongyang's high-intensity additional provocations such as nuclear and ICBM tests.

For South Korea, utilizing the summit to resume the stalled North Korea-U.S. talks as soon as possible would have been a viable option. For instance, the Yongbyon model, proposed at the Pyongyang Declaration in September 2018 and the Hanoi Summit in 2019, can be developed to make the Yongbyon+&, and the U.S.' consensus on it can be considered the best possible scenario. Instead, it can be interpreted that the summit has decided that establishing mid-term principles is more appropriate than making short-term breakthroughs, given the format of discussions between the two heads of state.

 
II. The Biden Administration's Perception and Judgment

At the same time, however, it is premature to rule out the possibility that Washington is not poised to make short-term breakthroughs. The Biden administration's review of its North Korea policy centered around a sophisticated and practical approach differentiates it from the previous administration's North Korea policy and acknowledges the practical limitations of negotiations in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue. However, the details of the review remain unclear at this point. Instead, various signs show some discrepancy between Seoul's expectations and how much weight Washington under President Biden is giving to the North Korean issues. This is because domestic issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic, economic downturn, racial issues, and other international issues such as the U.S.-China competition, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the restoration of nuclear negotiations with Iran remain unabated and overlapped. It appears that these circumstances led to the Moon administration's judgment that sketching out the overarching framework for stably addressing the North Korean nuclear issue is as vital as generating tangible results considering the nature and characteristics of the summit.
 
Roughly speaking, the Biden administration's North Korea policy or the direction of negotiations on North Korea's nuclear weapons program is structurally formed amid tensions between the principle of "practical approach for concrete results" and the principle of "human rights and values." More specifically, with some figures in the Biden administration showing a preference for the former while the others for the latter, the prime variable would be which side will exert greater influence in the implementation process. During the presidential election campaign last year, figures representing the two sides drew their lines, but since President Biden took office, those who lean toward the principle of "human rights and values" have been selected more for critical posts.
 
Since then, the Biden administration has put value diplomacy at the forefront in criticizing or reflecting on the Trump administration's unilateral diplomacy. Before and after the R.O.K-U.S. 2+2 talks in March, it was evident that the principle of "human rights and values" is at the center of the Biden administration's policy toward the North Korean nuclear issue. However, as South Korea's efforts at mediation continue, some changes have been made, resulting in a North Korea policy package reviewed at the end of April. However, it would be a stretch to say that the package is based purely on the Biden administration's inclination toward a pragmatic line aiming to yield concrete results as soon as possible by employing the Yongbyon model or the Yongbyon+& model. This is why the Biden administration has yet to draw up a specific plan. 
 
Instead, the main contents of the joint statement reflect the Biden administration and Secretary of State Tony Blinken's focus and style, which value balanced foreign policy and consideration for U.S. allies. To be more specific, the joint statement clearly mentioned respect for  the Panmunjom Declaration and Singapore Agreement signed during the Trump administration, and used the term "denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula" while not including outright statements on fundamental issues such as human rights. Such approach, which aims to spot the middle ground where neither South Korea nor Japan is likely to oppose, suggests that U.S. policy toward North Korea's nuclear weapons program will not be significantly lopsided. Considering the atmosphere in Washington's political circle before and after March, the joint statement could be considered a meaningful step forward as it provided a detailed contour of the Biden administration's principle or policy line in steering its North Korea policy. 
 

III. Outlook: Pyongyang's Calculations 

The unusual attitude shown in the KCNA's May 31 article may have something to do with the fact that the summit's joint statement consists primarily of the rule-setting process at the general level. If the statement had mentioned initial denuclearization measures that the U.S. is willing to propose or accept & a formula of corresponding measures, the North's response would have been more direct and straightforward. Since the collapse of the Hanoi Summit in 2019, Pyongyang has used the stalled negotiations as an opportunity to strengthen its short-range and tactical nuclear capabilities and has virtually "managed" the situation with reservation until the direction of the U.S.-China competition under President Biden is fleshed out. This is why it cannot be overlooked that the North might maintain a passive stance for the time being.
    
On the other hand, there is no doubt that a step-by-step approach, which starts with initial measures, is what  Pyongyang has preferred since the Hanoi Summit. In particular, Pyongyang, which closely watched Washington's remarks on human rights around March, may have been relieved by the review of North Korea policy or the joint statement of the R.O.K.-U.S. summit. Moreover, it is likely that as long as the U.S. maintains this stance, North Korea has less space to conduct another ICBM test. It is also worth noting that the North's "holding-out" strategy is facing various internal limitations seen from a broader perspective. As the partial easing of the border blockade that hovered around April was postponed indefinitely, it can be inferred from the state media's reports such as the Rodong Sinmun that the Kim Jong-un regime is under considerable pressure in the domestic economic situation.
    
However, it would be helpful to deliberate on how the U.S.' pragmatic approach to the North Korean nuclear issue will interplay with other issues such as addressing human rights issues and designating state sponsors of terrorism. This is because the Biden administration's stance aims primarily not to deal with the North Korean nuclear negotiations and these fundamental issues at the same table, but that does not mean that Washington will avoid commenting on such issues or take a reserved stance. This is why the Biden administration will likely adopt different policy measures to address such issues, just as in Iran's JCPOA case, and the U.S. is unlikely to lift the current specific indigenous sanctions against North Korea concerning the issues simultaneously  with the conclusion of the North Korean nuclear talks. Furthermore, this would be the greatest risk in narrowing the gap between Washington and Pyongyang. The possible scenario, in that case, is that Pyongyang will voice grievances whenever Washington brings the Kim regime's violation of human rights and other universal values to the picture while Washington will likely be reluctant to give up its principle of steering the nuclear talks and addressing the fundamental issues separately.
     
Viewed in this light, it appears that the Moon and Biden administrations have finished the first round of coordinating their respective policies toward the North Korean nuclear issue. The next step is to formulate and implement concrete measures based on the principles and consensus established through the first Moon-Biden summit to make a breakthrough in the stalled nuclear talks. North Korea's top policymakers are likely keenly interested in Seoul and Washington's discussions in the face of aggravating domestic situations. One thing clear is that the fastest and most effective option for Pyongyang to satisfy this curiosity will be walking back to the negotiating table.


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