Forget about talks on anything between the U.S. and North Korea. That was the latest message from Pyongyang amid fears the North may soon test-fire a long-range missile capable of sending a nuclear warhead anywhere in the U.S.
North Korea dashed the Biden administration’s hopes for fresh dialog with a broadside Thursday proclaiming absolutely no contact “can be possible unless the U.S. rolls back its hostile policy toward the DPRK [the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea].”
The statement, in the name of Choe Son Hui, North Korea’s first vice foreign minister, said the U.S. had “tried to contact us since mid-February through several routes, including New York”—a reference to the North’s UN mission, often the easiest channel through which to get in touch.
The Americans, she said, had “requested to contact us by sending emails and telephone messages”—“even the evening before the joint military drill” with the South Koreans “imploring us to respond to its request through a third country.”
It was all for naught. Choe’s unequivocal response, carried in English by Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency, was dripping with scorn eerily similar to that of Kim Yo Jong, younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, mocking South Korea’s acquiescence to annual exercises. Between them, their statements appeared as a calculated one-two punch—first on Tuesday by Yo Jong mostly targeted at South Korea, then by Choe, the next highest woman in the North Korean hierarchy, at the U.S.
“We don’t think there is a need to respond to the U.S. delaying-time trick again,” said Choe. “We will disregard such an attempt of the U.S. in the future too.”
Choe accused the White House and the departments of state, treasury and justice of having “reeled off a spate of rhetoric” about “additional sanctions and diplomatic incentives.” At the same time, she said, “the U.S. military keeps stealthily putting military threat to us and is committing spying acts against us with lots of reconnaissance assets”—a reference to flights by spy planes south of the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas—amid “aggression-minded joint military exercises targeting us.”
The war games involving U.S. and South Korean command posts, not combat troops on the ground, wound up Thursday after nine days, but the statement left no doubt that the confrontation on the Korean peninsula was escalating sharply. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, meeting their opposite numbers in Seoul on their first visit as members of President Joe Biden’s new cabinet, both emphasized the mounting dangers of North Korea’s nukes and missiles.
A sign of rising tensions was that U.S. officials have taken to calling for “denuclearization of North Korea” rather than “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula”—the wording of the statement signed by Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un at their summit in Singapore in June 2018. In a sign of differences between Washington and Seoul, South Korea’s Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong said “denuclearization” of the peninsula was “correct.” The U.S. withdrew its nukes from South Korea some 30 years ago and the South does not produce them.
The threat of North Korean missile tests consumed U.S. efforts to try to bring the dovish views of South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in in line with reports that North Korea was working feverishly to develop a long-range missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to targets anywhere in the U.S.
North Korea also is believed to have been producing nuclear warheads and modernizing its fleet of submarines. The fear is that a North Korean submarine could fire a submarine-launched ballistic missile or SLBM from close to U.S. shores with greater accuracy than an ICBM or long-range ballistic missile fired thousands of miles away.
Both Blinken and Austin larded their dialog in Korea with tough verbiage to persuade South Korea’s somewhat leftist government of the need to repair an alliance that became increasingly frayed during Donald Trump’s bromance with Kim.
Blinken set the tone, calling the alliance “a linchpin for peace, security and prosperity”—familiar words that U.S. officials have been using for years. He and Austin, he said, would “reaffirm U.S. commitment to the alliance and build on it”—all to bring reluctant members of Moon’s government in line with U.S. thinking.
The final communique, issued by both the U.S. and Korean sides in talks, was a masterpiece of diplomatic double-talk, papering over differences, all agreeing U.S. forces in South Korea “play a critical role.” The statement said North Korea “nuclear and ballistic missile issues” were “a priority” but failed to say what to do about them. The word “shared” showed up eight times—stressing “shared values” against “shared threats” with“a shared commitment to address and resolve these issues.”
Beneath the level of formal statements, the U.S. and South Korea still disagree on how to approach North Korea. “Washington’s and Seoul’s leaderships must confront several unresolved policy differences to establish not only a coordinated North Korea strategy, but also a more robust alliance,” said Mathew Ha of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “One major issue that could spark discord,” he said, “is the South Korean administration’s introduction of inter-Korean engagement programs and incentives to revive inter-Korean diplomacy.”
Kim’s eagerness to conduct nuclear tests reflects the reality that “the fundamentals of North Korea are really not changing,” said Sidney Seiler, officer for North Korea at the National Intelligence Council. “North Korea has the long-term objective of normalizing its nuclear status” that is, gaining recognition as a nuclear power.
By meeting Trump in summits in Singapore in 2018 and in Hanoi in 2019, said Seiler at a panel sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Kim “secured awareness in Washington that North Korea should be dealt with as an equal.” No way, he said, could North-South Korean relations improve “until North Korea gets serious about denuclearization.’
North Korea is “gradually intensifying pressure” by threatening to use ICBMs, said Sue Mi Terry, formerly with the CIA, now a senior fellow at the center, but there would not be “a breakthrough in North-South Korean relations until there’s a breakthrough in U.S.-North Korea relations.”
Victor Cha, who served on the National Security Council during the George W. Bush presidency and now runs the Korea program at CSIS, said clearly the North Koreans “have said they are no longer bound by the moratorium” of the Trump presidency while looking for “a way to get attention.”
North Korea conducted its sixth, most recent underground nuclear test in September 2017 and test-fired an ICBM most recently two months later. The North test-fired numerous short and mid-range missiles before and after Trump met Kim for summits in Singapore in June 2018, in Hanoi in February 2019 and then four months later in the truce village of Panmunjom, but these were not seen as matters of great concern.
Blinken, departing Thursday for a meeting with China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi In Anchorage, was to appeal for Chinese cooperation in persuading North Korea to get rid of its nukes. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki confirmed “the threats from North Korea” would be “part of the discussion with the Chinese.”