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US, South Korea Vow 'Pragmatic Steps' to Reduce Tensions, Denuclearize North Korea

2021-05-21 -- U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Friday said they would pursue diplomacy with North Korea to try to reduce tensions over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons and missile programs.

"We both are deeply concerned about the situation," Biden said after talks with Moon at the White House. "Total denuclearization is our objective."

Biden, hosting his second foreign leader since he took office in January, said he had appointed Ambassador Sung Kim to be special envoy to address North Korea and would coordinate policy toward Pyongyang with ally South Korea and take "pragmatic steps" to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

"The most urgent common task that our two countries must undertake is achieving complete denuclearization and permanent peace on the Korean peninsula," he said.

The White House announced last month that it had completed a review of North Korea policy and Biden would seek a "third way" between predecessor Donald Trump's personal outreach to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whom he met three times, and Barack Obama's "strategic patience" toward Pyongyang.

Moon said he and Biden had "reaffirmed the strength" of the nations' 68-year-old alliance and "affirmed the common vision for developing it into an even stronger one."

"And Korea will closely work with the U.S. to achieve complete denuclearization and establish permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula," he said.

Friday's meeting followed statements this week by White House senior Asia adviser Kurt Campbell that the administration of Biden, the sixth U.S. president to face Pyongyang's nuclear program, is now looking for a "new and different approach" to achieving the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

"Previous approaches have failed. We are under no illusions on how challenging this is," Campbell said in a May 18 interview with South Korea's Yonhap news service.

"This is one of the hardest national security problems the world is facing. That's why we have to try with everything we have, but also have realistic expectations," Campbell said, adding that it is still too soon to discuss sanctions relief as an inducement for Pyongyang to return to talks.

"United Nations sanctions on the DPRK remain in place, and we will continue to enforce them," Campbell said, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The U.S. will reach out to the United Nations and North Korea's neighbors for help in finding diplomatic solutions, and will build its own efforts on agreements made by previous administrations, Campbell said.

Those efforts include a denuclearization agreement signed in Singapore between former U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June 2018 in which both sides pledged to work toward better relations and a stable peace on the Korean peninsula.

A second meeting between the two leaders held in February 2019 in Hanoi, and a third held at the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea in July that same year, ended with no further progress made.

Hopes for a new round of talks between the U.S. and North Korea may be premature, however, two experts on the region said in a discussion hosted by Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies ahead of Friday's summit.

"Kim Jong Un has insisted that he won't give up anything unless the U.S. lifts sanctions first, even for a step-by-step approach," said Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA officer, researcher, and senior fellow at CSIS. "So that's a nonstarter for the Biden administration," Terry added.

U.N. sanctions aimed at depriving North Korea of resources that can be channeled into its nuclear weapons and missile programs prohibit U.N. member nations from exporting certain goods into North Korea.

"So my point is that there is an impasse there," Terry said. "[The] Moon administration has a very short period of time, less than a year, to make progress. So they have a sense of urgency, a little bit of desperation to move forward on North Korea."

Pyongyang may not be interested in resuming talks, though, said Victor Cha—a former Director for Asian Affairs in the White House's National Security Council, and Korea Chair at CSIS.

"You know, North Korea's shut down because of COVID. They're not returning phone calls. They're not really interested in any sort of return to the table right now," Cha said.

Reported by RFA's Korean Service. Written in English by Paul Eckert and Richard Finney.

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