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N Korea at crossroads

US and South Korea omit 'denuclearization' from joint statement

Seoul affirms importance of trilateral cooperation with Japan

Left to right, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong, and South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook pose before "two-plus-two" talks in Seoul on Thursday.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday urged China to use its influence over North Korea to push the isolated nation to denuclearize.

"China has a critical role to play in working to convince North Korea to pursue denuclearization," Blinken told reporters in Seoul. "China has a unique relationship with North Korea. Virtually all of North Korea's economic relationships is its trade with China ... so it has tremendous influence, and I think it has a shared interest in making sure that we do something about North Korea's nuclear program and about the increasingly dangerous ballistic missile program."

"I would hope that whatever happens going forward, China will use that influence effectively to move North Korea to nuclearization," Blinken added.

Blinken was speaking after so-called "two-plus-two" talks alongside U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook.

But a joint statement issued after the two-plus-two meeting did not use the word "denuclearization," instead calling on "the international community, including North Korea" to implement relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions. It did say that "North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile issues are a priority" for the alliance.

The statement also made no mention of China, reflecting Seoul's desire not to burn bridges with Beijing. This stood in contrast to the joint statement issued after the U.S.-Japan two-plus-two, which acknowledged that "China's behavior, where inconsistent with the existing international order, presents political, economic, military, and technological challenges to the alliance and to the international community."

South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong speaks during the joint press conference with American secretaries at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul on March 18.    © AP

The meeting came hours after North Korea slammed Washington's attempts to initiate contact with Pyongyang.

Choe Son Hui, first vice minister of foreign affairs for North Korea, blasted the attempts at communication as a "cheap trick" that would never be answered until the U.S. dropped hostile policies.

"What has been heard from the U.S. since the emergence of the new regime is only lunatic theory of 'threat from North Korea' and groundless rhetoric about 'complete denuclearization," Choe said in comments reported by Korean Central News Agency state mouthpiece.

Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister to North Korean President Kim Jong Un, had this week criticized the U.S.-South Korea military exercise that concluded Thursday, saying the Biden administration "had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step" if it wanted to sleep in peace for the coming four years.

At the news conference, Chung was asked whether the South Korean government backs the U.S. administration's call for the "denuclearization of North Korea" rather than the denuclearization of the entire Korean Peninsula.

Chung said that "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 the North Korea to follow our suit," and that it is "more correct" to speak of the denuclearization of the peninsula.

Chung said he is closely monitoring statements from Kim Yo Jong and Choe. "It seems North Korea is reviewing its policy toward the U.S., and it seems that North Korea is closely monitoring the dialogue between the Republic of Korea [South Korea] and the U.S. regarding North Korea policy," he said. "I believe it's their own way of sending messages to us and the U.S."

"Today, we briefly discussed this issue," Chung said. "Now we will continue to closely coordinate on this issue with the U.S., and I support the Biden administration's efforts to engage North Korea and hope that the talks will be resumed."

Later on Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Beijing had "noticed" Blinken's comments on its role regarding North Korea. "China holds that the hard-won situation of dialogue and detente on the Korean Peninsula in recent years should be cherished," Zhao said, according to the ministry's translation. "Relevant parties need to meet each other halfway, commit themselves to managing differences, work actively for dialogue and engagement and safeguard regional peace and stability."

He said China would "continue to play a constructive role in this regard."

The omission of China from the two-plus-two statement hinted that the Biden administration was being considerate to Seoul's concerns. In 2017, the country suffered heavy economic consequences via a boycott of Korean products in China, following the deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense system, which Beijing fiercely opposed.

"If the U.S. is going to have a successful policy toward China, it is going to have to grapple with China's propensity to use economic relationship measures as an instrument of diplomatic punishment," said Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"At this point, South Korea is hardly the only ally of the U.S. that has borne those kinds of costs. Japan and Australia, at various times, have also had to deal with that situation," Snyder said. "If the U.S. is going to be effective in providing security in the region to its key partners, it's going to have to develop countermeasures for managing Chinese economic retaliation."

"We can't turn a blind eye to the cost that China is able to impose, and expect our allies to simply absorb those costs," he added.

South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin walk during their visit to the National Cemetery in Seoul on March 18.    © AP

Another country with an important role in counteracting the North's nuclear and missile threats is Japan, the U.S. and South Korean officials agreed.

Blinken and Austin were coming off similar two-plus-two talks in Tokyo. And South Korea has been under pressure from the U.S. to work closely with Japan on security and diplomatic issues, setting aside their disputes over the historical and territorial matters.

"We agreed that military cooperation among the Republic of Korea, the U.S. and Japan matters for peace in Northeast Asia, despite having some historical issues," Suh said.

Seoul has distanced itself from the "free and open Indo-Pacific" concept pursued by Washington and Tokyo, as well as the Quad grouping of the U.S., Japan, India and Australia, partly to avoid alienating China.

Asked at the news conference whether South Korea was considering joining the Quad, Chung replied that "there was no direct discussion about Korea joining the Quad. However, we discussed how we can harmonize and coordinate the New Southern Policy of South Korea and the Indo-Pacific strategy of the U.S."

"The Korean government's position is that if it conforms with the national interest of Korea and transparency and inclusiveness is ensured, we can join any regional cooperative body," he said.

In a joint statement, the two sides said: "The Ministers and Secretaries affirmed the importance of ROK-U.S.-Japan trilateral cooperation and pledged to continue promoting mutually-beneficial, forward looking cooperation to promote peace, security, and prosperity in the region."

Blinken said that the Quad is "an informal grouping of like-minded countries" that have come together to deepen cooperation on a whole host of issues.

"Many of these issues we're also working very closely with the Republic of Korea," he said. "We find that working through some of these subregional groupings, including the trilateral, the work we do with Korea and Japan, is very beneficial in addressing some of the challenges we face."

Blinken said that U.S. President Joe Biden plans to complete a North Korea policy review in the next few weeks "in close coordination and consultation with the Republic of Korea and Japan, with other key partners, including reviewing pressure offers, and potential for future diplomacy."

The U.S. and South Korea also signed a special measures agreement to raise South Korea's payment for the defense cost by 13.9% this year from last year's 1 trillion won ($888 million). The payment will increase at the same growth rate of South Korea's defense budget from next year.

Additional reporting by Tsuyoshi Nagasawa in Washington.

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