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N Korea at crossroads

North Korea seeks sanctions relief offer before any US talks

History shows both strategic patience and maximum pressure approaches failed

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's regime appears reluctant to talk with the Biden administration unless Washington changes its approach on the isolated nation.   © KCNA/Kyodo

SEOUL -- North Korea has rejected the Biden administration's diplomatic olive branch, referring to Washington's proposal to hold talks as "hostile."

"The U.S. has tried to contact us since mid-February through several routes including New York," North Korea's First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui said in a statement published Thursday by the Korean Central News Agency, a state media outlet. "But we don't think there is a need to respond to the U.S. delaying time trick again."

The North Korean diplomat made it clear that her country would not be sitting down with any U.S. officials until Washington changes its rhetoric and policy approach.

"In order for dialogue to be made, an atmosphere for both parties to exchange words on an equal basis must be created, Choe said. "It will only be a waste of time to sit with the U.S. as it is not ready to feel and accept new change and new times."

Choe's comments appear to be referring to recent remarks made by some members of Biden's administration. Particularly, Secretary of State Antony Blinken made several comments this week in South Korea that didn't go down well in Pyongyang.

"The authoritarian regime in North Korea continues to commit systemic and widespread abuses against its own people," Blinken said on Wednesday. "We must stand with the people that demand fundamental rights and freedom against those who repress them."

The White House is in the process of conducting a wholesale review of the North Korea policy. The review includes an "evaluation of all available options to address the increasing threat posed by North Korea," Blinken told a news conference in Tokyo on Tuesday.

Even though the U.S. has reached out to North Korea through diplomatic channels, Pyongyang is unlikely to respond positively without a clear shift in rhetoric and Blinken's comments don't seem to have helped.

History shows that neither the strategic patience approach or the maximum pressure approach of previous U.S. administrations have delivered any substantive agreement aimed at achieving the eventual denuclearization of North Korea. Analysts see offers of sanctions relief as the only way to get Pyongyang back to the negotiating table.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a joint news conference after "two-plus-two" talks in Seoul on Thursday.   © Reuters

Jeffrey Robertson, an associate professor at Yonsei University, is skeptical about any progress in Washington-Pyongyang relations under the Biden administration.

"Given the statements to date, it looks as if the Biden administration will similarly succumb to a disabling drought of policy ideas on North Korea," he told Nikkei Asia.

Despite the in-person summits between former President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Pyongyang failed to make substantive progress in having sanctions reduced. As such, the North Koreans seem more reluctant to jump into talks any time soon.

Robertson said "North Korea requires clarity that there is actually tangible benefit to be gained from interaction. It gains nothing from interaction for interaction's sake."

Similarly, Jung Kim, an assistant professor at the University of North Korean Studies, told Nikkei Asia that North Korea is less inclined to accept any invitations by the Biden administration because of a perceived lack of effort on the U.S. side.

"[North Korea] thinks that since they have made more policy concessions than the United States, without corresponding policy concessions from the latter, no negotiation should resume," Kim said.

Washington has consistently stuck with the all-or-nothing strategy that led to the collapse of the 2019 Hanoi summit. Despite that failure, Biden seems unwilling to implement any significant changes to Washington's North Korea policy.

"It seems that Washington is ready to adopt a North Korea policy that is close to the Obama administration's strategic patience policy," Kim said.

During Barack Obama's presidency, North Korea conducted four nuclear tests and more than 50 missile and rocket launches.

Choe's recent remarks reaffirm Pyongyang's unwillingness to sit down with the U.S. as long as Washington continue to stick to these approaches.

Michael Brodka, a U.S. military intelligence officer focused on North Korea, says Pyongyang is unlikely to agree to talks with Washington if sanctions relief is not on the table.

"I don't think Kim is likely to come to the table unless he thinks Washington is serious about easing sanctions," Brodka said. "We know that was a big push from North Korea during the Hanoi summit, but the Trump administration was adamant about complete and verifiable denuclearization before any sanctions relief."

"I don't think Kim wants to repeat that dialogue and likely won't act until Washington shows him something different."

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