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Early Signals to North Korea Seen as Key to Keeping Door Open to Diplomacy

North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, speaks during the first short course for chief secretaries of the city and county party committees in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this undated photo released on March 5, 2021, by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency

Experts are urging the Biden administration to send an early signal to North Korea, conveying its interest in keeping diplomacy open even as Washington conducts policy reviews on how to deal with the regime so that it can gauge Pyongyang’s response for possible talks.

“I believe that as part of the administration’s policy review, it makes sense to establish a private channel of communications to reach out to North Korea and to evaluate North Korea’s response,” said Scott Snyder, director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“That message should indicate parameters and framing for potential follow-up dialogue opportunities.”

Sen. Edward Markey and Rep. Ro Khanna urged President Joe Biden to “promptly seek” talks with North Korea in a letter sent on Wednesday.

“We hope that your administration’s North Korea policy review concludes that a step-by-step process — which tailors sanctions relief to the scope of a North Korean commitment to freeze and unwind its nuclear and ballistic missile programs — is the wisest course of action,” Markey and Khanna said in the letter.

The Biden administration has been highlighting the threats of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs but did not indicate it has reached out to North Korea as it conducts its policy review on deciding how to deal with North Korea, which is expected to take some time.

Commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Philip Davidson said, “North Korea will remain our most immediate threat to peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific” unless “the nuclear situation is resolved” and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “agrees to complete denuclearization.” He made the remark on Wednesday at an event hosted by the U.S.-based Institute for Corea-American Studies, a non-profit, non-partisan group focused on improving ties between the United States and Asia-Pacific Rim nations.

While detailing the top foreign policy priorities of the U.S. in his speech on Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken mentioned North Korea as posing “serious challenges” without elaborating.

Blinken, in his nomination confirmation hearing in January, said, “We have to review, and we intend to review, the entire approach and policy toward North Korea because this is a hard problem that has plagued administration after administration.”

As of February, there has been no sign that the administration has made contacts with North Korea as indicated by State Department spokesperson Ned Price.

Price said in February that “a lack of direct engagement with North Korea” should not be taken “as an indication that the challenges of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs … [is] not a priority.”

'Not giving any message at all'

Ken Gause, director of the Adversary Analytics Program at CNA, a U.S.-based research and consulting firm, said failing to send early signals for talks could give North Korea a free pass to raise threats. He suggested making gestures for talks to lock North Korea in a position away from testing weapons.

“Right now, the Biden administration is not giving any message at all, which leaves North Korea basically to do whatever North Korea wants to do,” said Gause.

The U.S., he added, “should send a message” that Washington is “interested in being flexible” and that its policy is “not going to be a repeat of the Obama administration" but will include "elements of what the Trump administration tried to do” so that North Korea “won’t be doing any more testing or provocations.”

“That message needs to be sent sooner than later,” said Gause.

Former President Barack Obama’s policy of strategic patience toward North Korea entailed “modernizing” alliances with key U.S. partners including Japan and South Korea as it sought to isolate Pyongyang without taking actions toward diplomatic engagement.

Contrarily, former President Donald Trump sought direct engagement with Kim through summits and the exchanges of personal letters which undercut its attempts to apply maximum pressure on Pyongyang with political, military and economic tools.

Some critics of Obama’s strategic patience of “wait and see” fear that that approach — or any delay in approaching North Korea — will have the clock ticking against the U.S.

Kurt Campbell, White House National Security Council Indo-Pacific coordinator for current administration, said at a December event hosted by the Atlantic Council and the Korea Foundation that Biden should avoid Obama’s “prolonged period of study” in search of ways to counter North Korea.

That approach, said Campbell, who served as the top U.S. diplomat for Asia under the Obama administration and is considered an architect of its “pivot to Asia” strategy, allowed North Korea took “provocative” steps.

North Korea conducted four nuclear tests under the Obama administration.

'New nuclear capabilities'

According to Evans Revere, former U.S. State Department official with extensive experience negotiating with North Korea, however, Pyongyang is unlikely to change its objective to further enhance its nuclear weapon and missile programs regardless of actions the U.S. takes.

“North Korea’s game plan for dealing with the Biden administration has already been laid out and was presented by Kim Jong Un in his speech to the eighth Party Congress," said Revere. "The key point of that speech was the decision to carry out a major nuclear and missile build up.”

Kim, at the Eighth Party Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea held in January, said Pyongyang is seeking to have “new nuclear capabilities aimed at attaining the goal of modernization of the nuclear force.”

“It’s been my experience that North Korea acts in accordance with a well-planned strategy," said Revere. "There is very little in what the U.S. could say or do to cause North Korea to be deflected from the path that it is on.”

But, he added, the U.S. should still convey willingness to remain open to diplomacy as a means to achieve denuclearization.

“It is important that Washington keep the channels to Pyongyang open," said Revere. "[It must] ensure that [North Korea] understands that the U.S. is prepared for dialogue, [and] reiterate the essential importance of denuclearization.”

Bruce Klingner, a senior researcher at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, offered a different perspective. He said Biden’s foreign policy team should convey a message expressing interest in diplomatic engagement but avoid rushing to head off provocations.

“To rush into negotiations out of fear of preventing another North Korean violation of U.N. resolutions [would] be a mistake,” he said. “[However,] the Biden administration should publicly comment that it will, like previous U.S. administrations, seek to engage Pyongyang diplomatically.

“Washington and Seoul should also privately urge the regime to refrain from provocations and warn that a nuclear or missile test would undermine diplomacy and lead to a tougher policy,” he added.

The United Nations Security Council has adopted nine major sanctions resolutions barring North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear tests since first conducting them in 2006.

Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin are planning to make their first visit to Japan and South Korea later this month, marking the Biden administration's first international trip by Cabinet officials.

This story originated in VOA's Korean Service. Original reporting contributed by Dong Hyun Kim and Joeun Lee.