Top U.S. and South Korean foreign policy and defense officials have concluded talks in Seoul largely focused on security threats posed by North Korea.
U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin met jointly with South Korean Foreign Affairs Minister Chung Eui-yong and Minister of National Defense Suh Wook on Thursday.
“We are committed to the denuclearization of North Korea, reducing the threat that DPRK poses to the United States and our allies, and improving the lives of all Koreans, including the people of North Korea, who continue to suffer, widespread and systematic abuses there,” Blinken said during a press event, using the abbreviation for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
South Korea hosts roughly 28,000 American soldiers, and during a ceremony this week, the two countries signed an agreement over the cost of stationing these forces, which had been a source of friction between Seoul and Washington during the final years of the Trump administration.
Secretary Austin, a retired U.S. Army general, said the alliance remains “ironclad.”
“The United States remains fully committed to the defense of the Republic of (South) Korea, using the full range of U.S. capabilities including our extended deterrent,” Austin said.
The American officials are representing the Biden administration during its first Cabinet-level overseas trip, which included meetings in Tokyo earlier this week. But the stop in South Korea comes after four years of an often-frayed relations between Washington and Seoul that the new U.S. president appears eager to repair, analysts say.
Hee-jin Koo, a research fellow with the Korean Peninsula Future Forum in Seoul, said the trip to the region by Blinken and Austin is a “turning point” for the United States and its allies.
The secretaries’ visits could improve ties between Seoul and Tokyo but also mend fences between the White House and South Korea’s president, Moon Jae – which Koo says was sometimes “left out” of the Trump administration’s North Korean engagement.
“So it is a reconnection between the U.S. administration and the Moon administration,” Koo told VOA.
But even under new U.S. leadership, there are still differing views on how best to re-engage Pyongyang that the allies will need to resolve, Koo added.
“South Korea is rather torn currently, it is trying to do a balancing act between trying to restore frayed inter-Korean relations as well as enhancing its U.S.-South Korea alliance,” she said.
Washington says it has tried to open-up dialogue with North Korea, reaching out to its Mission to the United Nations in New York as well as through other back channels and has received no response.
But, in a statement carried by Pyongyang’s official Korea Central News Agency on Thursday, First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui said that despite those attempts, her government intends to “disregard” Washington’s overtures.
“No DPRK-U.S. contact and dialogue of any kind can be possible unless the U.S. rolls back its hostile policy towards the DPRK,” Choe wrote. “In order for a dialogue to be made, an atmosphere for both parties to exchange words on an equal basis must be created.”
Choe also criticized joint U.S. and South Korean military exercises that began earlier this month as well as remarks that Secretary Blinken made while in Tokyo, where he said that Washington is considering new “pressure measures” against Pyongyang.
Koo, the analyst, said Pyongyang might be signaling that it wants higher-level contact, like it received during the Trump administration.
“What it wants is to have a status quo, also an easing of the current sanctions. Which has actually pinched North Korea's economy especially amid the pandemic,” she said.
The Biden administration is expected to soon unveil its official policy toward North Korea.
Blinken said the strategy will include input from both South Korea and Japan. But he said China also has a shared interest in seeing North Korea end its nuclear weapons program.
“China has a critical role to play in working to convince North Korea to pursue denuclearization,” Blinken said. "Virtually all of North Korea's economic relationships, it's trade, are with or goes through China, so it has tremendous influence.”
From Seoul, the secretary of state will travel to Anchorage, Alaska, where later Thursday he will meet with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi. It will be the first bilateral meeting between Chinese and American officials since June.Original Article