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N Korea at crossroads

South Korea faces roadblocks to brokering US-North Korea dialogue

Biden set to be harder than Trump on human rights, risking friction with Seoul

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, center, has made rapprochement with Pyongyang a key policy objective, but it is unlikely that U.S. President Joe Biden will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un any time soon. (Source photos by Getty Images and Reuters) 

SEOUL -- South Korea's top official handling North Korea affairs sees the next few months as a "crucial time" to push for dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang.

With the Biden administration settling into the White House, South Korean Unification Minister Lee In-young communicated this position on Monday to show that Seoul is eager to leverage its alliance with the U.S. to resume talks with North Korea.

Yet it is unclear whether Biden or North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are interested in holding talks. Antony Blinken, Biden's newly appointed for secretary of state, has said the administration will conduct a thorough review of North Korea policy, making it unlikely that Washington will jump to hold summits as the administration of Donald Trump did.

Hours after his confirmation by the U.S. Senate, Blinken held a call with outgoing South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha. They agreed that North Korea's nuclear issue was an urgent matter and agreed to "closely discuss the matter to reach a solution."

After a flurry of diplomacy in 2018 and 2019, talks have been frozen since the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi broke down without an agreement. Moon has made rapprochement with Pyongyang a key policy objective and his administration appears determined to make lasting progress toward North Korean denuclearization by the time he leaves office in May 2022.

North Korea's economy is currently withering due to comprehensive international sanctions, and the effects of the pandemic having cut off trade across its border with China. While Kim is keen to win sanctions relief from the U.S., he may refuse to come to the table.

"North Korea is biding its time. Before a summit they will want some kind of guarantee about sanctions relief from the U.S.," Kim Jae-chun, a professor of international relations at Sogang University in Seoul, told Nikkei Asia. "The U.S. is unlikely to promise anything, as North Korea is not a front-burner issue for Biden, and his administration plans to enact a more principled kind of diplomacy."

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha is stepping down. Speculation abounds that her replacement related to comments she made in December expressing incredulity at North Korea's claim to have zero coronavirus cases.

Once Biden begins to openly address the issue of North Korea, he is also likely to be more insistent than the Trump administration was on human rights abuses in the North, a topic that could create friction not only with Kim but with counterparts in South Korea.

Moon's government has refrained from criticizing the North, and made moves opponents have described as intended to muzzle domestic condemnation of North Korea in an effort to placate Kim's regime.

Last week, the presidential Blue House announced that Foreign Minister Kang would be stepping down after three and half years in office. Speculation abounded this week that Kang's replacement, around the time of the change of leadership in the U.S., was related to comments she made in December expressing incredulity at North Korea's claim to have zero coronavirus cases.

Kim Jong-un's influential younger sister Kim Yo Jong castigated Kang's remarks as "reckless" and claimed that North Korea would "never forget" what she had said.

In a Jan. 21 editorial, the conservative Chosun Ilbo newspaper pointed out that Moon had replaced two other ministers after they publicly criticized North Korea. "He just does what Kim Jong Un and his sister demand," the editorial said of Moon.

Another move that garnered significant attention was a bill passed in South Korea's legislature last month prohibiting activists from launching balloons filled with leaflets criticizing North Korea over the border.

The government argues that the legislation is necessary to protect South Koreans living near the border from the possibility of a North Korean counterattack.

U.S. lawmakers have been among the critics of the bill, calling it an unjust infringement on freedom of expression, possibly setting up a roadblock in the Moon administration's efforts to encourage dialogue.

"The Blue House doesn't seem to fully appreciate the degree of dismay it has created by this attempt to prevent information and expressions of support from reaching the North Korean people," Evans Revere, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. State Department official with extensive experience in negotiations with North Korea, said of the anti-leaflet law.

"The Biden administration will make human rights a major policy priority -- a move that will have strong Congressional support. I expect there will be a lot said about this issue as the new administration focuses on the plight of the North Korean people," Revere told Nikkei.

Despite challenges in Washington and Pyongyang, Moon's push for dialogue with North Korea retains robust support at home. According to a survey of South Koreans released in December by the Korea Institute for National Unification, nearly 72% of respondents had a positive impression of the summits between Trump and Kim and 73% were in favor of the two sides holding further meetings.

"There's a perception of South Korean society as being deeply divided between liberals and conservatives, but on the question of North Korea, both sides give similar answers," Lee Sang-sin, a research fellow and author of the report, told Nikkei.

Lee said the results of his surveys show that liberals and conservatives differ in their approaches to North Korea, with those on the left mostly in favor of unconditional dialogue with Pyongyang, and conservatives generally preferring that North Korea take steps toward denuclearization first.

He said, "There is a consensus that we cannot risk another war with North Korea and the only way we can avoid that is through negotiation."

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