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Biden's Asia policy

White House seeks 'denuclearization of Korean Peninsula': Psaki

Spokesperson says administration is prepared for 'some form of diplomacy'

White House press secretary Jen Psaki signals a subtle change in the Biden administration's approach to North Korea.   © AP

NEW YORK -- White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that the Biden administration is pursuing the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, a position that is in line with South Korea's position and possibly a step back from previous calls for the denuclearization of North Korea.

At the daily press briefing, Psaki was asked about a report by Beyond Parallel on Tuesday that carries a satellite image showing North Korea moving its submersible missile test barge located at the Sinpo South Shipyard. The report says the move could signal preparations for a forthcoming submarine-launched ballistic missile test.

While declining to comment on the report, Psaki said: "Broadly speaking, we have a clear objective as it relates to North Korea, which is denuclearizing the North Korean Peninsula -- the Korean Peninsula, I should say."

"We're, of course, continuing to enforce sanctions. We're consulting with allies and partners. We are prepared to consider some form of diplomacy if it's going to lead us down the path toward denuclearization," she said.

When U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited South Korea in March, he told reporters after a two-plus-two meeting -- alongside U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook -- that U.S. President Joe Biden was planning to complete a North Korea policy review in the weeks ahead.

"The goals of this policy are clear," Blinken said. "We are committed to the denuclearization of North Korea, reducing the broader threat the DPRK poses to the United States and our allies," referring to North Korea by its official name.

In the same news conference, Chung said, "Rather than talking about the denuclearization of North Korea, if we can say the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, we are very much more confident that we can convince North Korea to follow our suit." He added that it was more "correct" to call for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation, said there is a danger of over-analyzing statements, especially before the North Korea policy review has been released.

"Some officials, particularly those who have not been well steeped in years of working on the North Korean issue, may not understand the difference between the two terms and inadvertently use them interchangeably, not realizing the negotiating history that goes along with that."

Klingner said the difference between the "denuclearization of North Korea" and the "denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula" is subtle. "The prevalent U.S. view is that any negotiations would be to get North Korea to denuclearize because there are no U.S. or South Korean nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula," he said. "Denuclearization means North Korea abandoning its nuclear weapons."

But Klingner noted that when Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs during the administrations of President George W. Bush and Barack Obama, agreed to the term denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, it was at North Korea's request "because they didn't want to feel singled out."

It was an acceptance that had ramifications which we're seeing even today, Klingner said.

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