U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III arrived in South Korea on March 17, after a two-day visit to Japan.
Before the joint “2+2” ministerial meeting held on March 18, Blinken and Austin met with their South Korean counterparts individually to discuss common interests and shared values, as well as approaches toward North Korea and other countries in the region.
“We hope that the Korea-U.S. relationship will develop into a healthier, more reciprocal, and comprehensive alliance with the U.S. with today’s meeting,” South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong said during the meeting with Blinken.
Chung also stressed that the ROK-U.S. alliance is the foundation of bilateral diplomacy and the continued development of the alliance is the most important task for the two sides. He said that Seoul was pleased to affirm the solidity of the alliance with the results of recent Special Measures Agreement negotiations for defense cost-sharing, in which Biden administration took a different approach than the Trump administration.
Blinken agreed that the alliance between the United States and South Korea is the “linchpin for peace, security, and prosperity for the Indo-Pacific region.” In order to keep the Korean Peninsula safe from the North Korean threat, Blinken emphasized it is important to maintain and strengthen the alliance “to ensure the security and well-being of our people.”
“We’ll continue to work together with the ROK and other allies and partners, including Japan, toward denuclearization of the DPRK,” Blinken said, adding that North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs are shared challenges that threaten the region and the world.
Separately, South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook had a meeting with Austin and shared the view that security cooperation between South Korea, the United States, and Japan is important in responding to North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats and forming a security structure in Northeast Asia. They also discussed the evaluation of the situation on the Korean Peninsula, the transition of wartime operational control, and security cooperation between South Korea, the United States, and Japan.
“The Korea-U.S. alliance is more important than ever due to unprecedented threats from China and North Korea,” Austin said in the meeting. Austin also said on Twitter that the U.S.-ROK Alliance is the linchpin of peace, security, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region. Blinken and Austin both emphasized the same point: that the alliance should be strengthened not only for the security of South Korea, but also for the entire Indo-Pacific region.
Suh agreed with Austin by saying that the context of South Korea’s New Southern Policy and the U.S. India-Pacific strategy is not that different. He also said that the South Korean Defense Ministry will push ahead to build a strong security relationship between South Korea and Japan. That’s an especially notable statement given the current tensions between Seoul and Tokyo; last year the South Korean government strongly considered pulling out of an intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan.
According to South Korea’s Defense Ministry, Suh and Austin agreed to continue joint efforts to transfer wartime operational control to Seoul, based on the progress that has been made since 2006. Additionally, the ministry mentioned that Austin evaluated the springtime joint military exercise, held via computer simulation, but no details were provided.
After the joint meeting and press conference, Blinken and Austin met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the Blue House, where they discussed the role of the United States and South Korea in advancing the North’s denuclearization and cooperation to keep China in check.
While Washington is bent on reinforcing their alliances in East Asia to cooperate in dealing with its adversaries in the region, North Korea is looking to drive a wedge between the South and the United States.
Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, defined the ongoing South Korea-U.S. joint military drills as “hostile acts against the compatriots” (meaning North Koreans) in a statement on March 16. “Whatever and however the south Korean authorities may do in the future under their master’s instructions, those warm spring days three years ago, which they desire so much, won’t come easily again,” she warned, referring to the progress made in inter-Korean relations in 2018. She added, “[W]e cannot but put on the agenda the issue of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, an organization for dialogue with the south which has no reason for its existence.”
The committee is a North Korean state agency that is a counterpart of the South Korean Unification Ministry. After North Korea appointed Ri Son Gwon, who was the chairman of the committee, as foreign minister, it has not decided on a successor, thus leaving the organization inoperative.
Kim also warned Washington that it should refrain from “causing a stink” if it “wants to sleep in peace for coming four years.” It was the first direct statement toward the Biden administration from Pyongyang.
A more critical point she made in the statement was the implication of possible military provocation toward the South. Kim said she had already reported the options for critical measures to Kim Jong Un, raising concerns that new actions will be taken against South Korea. In June 2020, Kim Yo Jong similarly raised tensions in inter-Korean relations by taking issue with the distribution of leaflets to North Korea by South Korean civic organizations established by North Korea defectors. At that time, Kim Jong Un reportedly ordered the suspension of military action against South Korea. However, the North blew up its liaison office with the South in Kaesong as a demonstration of its seriousness. Pyongyang wants Washington and Seoul to bring carrots, not sticks, and lift the devastating economic sanctions led by the United Nation.
Senior North Korean Diplomat Choi Sun Hee also issued a statement on March 17 to confirm that Pyongyang has not responded to outreach from Washington in recent weeks. Choi pointed out that withdrawing hostile policies against North Korea is the way to resume the dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang and added that the Biden administration has only treated North Korea as a threat and demanded “complete denuclearization” without effective efforts.
Blinken and Austin did not comment on the remarks from Kim or Choi during the meeting with their South Korean counterparts.
A Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Choi Young-sam, said on the same day Kim’s statement was announced that Seoul has not changed in its stance that inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korea dialogue should resume early to make progress in complete denuclearization and concrete peace efforts.
As North Korea criticized the Biden administration, inter-Korean relations seem poised for a dark period.
Kim Young-jun, a professor at Korea National Defense University, told The Diplomat that Biden administration is likely to maintain the sanctions and there is a high possibility of it returning to the “strategic patience” approach at any time. In addition to the denuclearization issue, the Biden administration has emphasized “human rights” as a key priority as it looks to strengthen and maintain democracy with its allies.
“I don’t take Kim Yo Jong’s statement seriously because North Korea has consistently asked for an end to the South Korea-U.S. joint exercises,” Kim said. “It is important to pay attention to how this statement should affect the Biden administration’s foreign and security policy in the future.”