South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and U.S. President Joe Biden met on November 13 on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. This 50-minute bilateral meeting came two months after they met on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Madrid, Spain.
Yoon and Biden discussed North Korea’s series of missile launches in the past few weeks. According to the readout of the White House, Biden “reaffirmed the U.S. extended deterrence commitment” to South Korea that covers “the full range of U.S. defense capabilities, including nuclear, conventional, and missile defense.” They also agreed to strengthen their firm coordination and joint military readiness posture while reaffirming that the South and the United States will use every possible resource if North Korea uses its nuclear weapons in any way.
To respond to the North’s record-breaking missile launches this year, Washington has vowed to provide full support under the “U.S. extended deterrence” to defend South Korea. Since Yoon took office in May, Seoul and Washington have reinvigorated their joint military drills. North Korea’s unprecedented missile launches on November 2 were its response to one of those drills – “Vigilant Storm,” the largest-ever South Korea-U.S. joint military air exercise conducted earlier this month. North Korea also launched its Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in response to South Korea-U.S. military exercises this month.
Asking Biden to sustain his interest in consultations between military officials over the building of a powerful and effective extended deterrence system, Yoon also emphasized that it is important to show North Korea that there is nothing it can achieve with its nuclear and missile programs.
Along with the bilateral meeting with Biden, Yoon also met his Japanese counterpart, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, on Sunday. During the 45-minute summit, the two sides also discussed the recent series of North Korean missile launches and strongly condemned them as a grave act of provocation to the security and peace of not only the East Asia region but also the international community. In response, they agreed to strengthen the South Korea-U.S.-Japan security cooperation.
Yoon has been eager to restore the tense relations with Japan, and he also discussed ways to resolve the historical disputes with Kishida, according to the briefing from his office. No specific details were outlined by Yoon’s office.
After their bilateral summits, the leaders of South Korea, the United States, and Japan met for a trilateral summit lasting 15 minutes on Sunday. The discussions covered similar ground to the bilateral summits. Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, said that the three leaders “did coordinate on a joint response in the event there would be a seventh nuclear test by the DPRK” during a press briefing on Sunday. (DPRK is an acronym of North Korea’s official name: Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.)
According to the South’s media reports, the three sides also agreed to share “real-time missile warning data” to cope with the North’s missile launches appropriately. With this, Seoul and Japan will likely normalize their General Security of Military Intelligence Agreement (GSOMIA) – which the Moon Jae-in administration threatened to scrap in the wake of Japan’s trade restrictions on South Korea.
Although Yoon, Biden, and Kishida reaffirmed their joint commitment to tackle the North’s nuclear and missile threats, none of the bilateral or trilateral meetings offered a new approach to renew the deadlocked nuclear talks with North Korea.
Since the Biden administration completed its months-long review of its North Korea policy in April 2021, it has publicly shown its willingness to sit down with North Korean officials with “no preconditions.” However, since the failed Hanoi summit in 2019 between then-U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong Un, Pyongyang has demanded the United States make concessions first if it wants to restore the stalled dialogue. In North Korea’s eyes, the talks collapsed due to Trump’s political decision to say “no deal” in Hanoi; therefore, the United States must demonstrate its seriousness before Pyongyang will engage in more talks. The concessions North Korea seeks are lifting at least partially the devastating economic sanctions and halting South Korea-U.S. joint military drills.
North Korea has not shown any interest in the offers of dialogue from South Korea and the United States, but neither Seoul nor Washington has introduced a new approach to de-escalate the tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Instead, both governments keep repeating their old-school approach.
The Biden administration’s approach seems to be an updated version of the “strategic patience” approach taken by former U.S. President Barack Obama. Washington has used the two-pronged approach on North Korea with carrots (unconditional dialogue) and sticks (scaling up the joint military drill with South Korea). But to most analysts, this passive policy demonstrates that North Korea issues are not a priority for Biden, and the U.S. goal is keeping the status quo on the Korean Peninsula.
To entice Pyongyang back to the negotiating table, Yoon introduced his “audacious initiative,” which offers economic packages to North Korea if the regime shows the “will” to denuclearize the country, in August. However, this plan was not audacious enough to convince Pyongyang, as it was harshly denounced by Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of Kim Jong Un and the main voice on inter-Korean relations. This plan is essentially an updated version of “Vision 3000: Denuclearization and Openness,” the failed plan of the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration. This was pointed out by Kim Yo Jong, who denounced Yoon’s offer as “a replica” of Lee’s.
Ostensibly, it is a good sign that the South, the United States, and Japan are uniting to confront the North’s provocations. However, what should be noted following the meetings of these three leaders is that they are not introducing any new measures to resolve the conflict with diplomacy and dialogue. Kim Jong Un has vowed to strengthen his nuclear power and made clear that his nuclear arsenals are not negotiable anymore, yet South Korea, the U.S., and Japan have not updated their policies to reflect the new reality.
If Seoul, Washington and Tokyo are hoping to stabilize the region peacefully, they will need to try something new to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table.