SEOUL – As the Biden government concludes its first high-level diplomatic tour of Asia on Thursday, it is counting on international alliances in the region to contain the growing threat posed by North Korea’s ballistic missiles and nuclear capabilities.
But the country perhaps best placed to influence Pyongyang has increasingly seen President Biden as an adversary: China.
After meetings in South Korea and Japan this week, the government is facing a diplomatic stalemate that irritated former President Barack Obama and led former President Donald J. Trump to declare his love for Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea , in a manic but ultimately foiled urge for a breakthrough.
At stake is the risk posed by North Korea’s weapon systems and repressive domestic policies with surveillance, torture and prison camps international officials have said Equal to human rights violations. Recent attempts by the Biden administration to open a communication line were rejected by North Korea, so American officials urged their partners in the region to join a pressure campaign against Pyongyang.
“With respect to North Korea, the most important contact or engagement is our partners and allies – that is a big part of the reason we are here,” Foreign Secretary Antony J. Blinken told reporters Thursday after talks in Seoul with Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and the South Korean Foreign and Defense Ministers.
He said the Biden administration was in close consultation with the governments of South Korea, Japan and other allied nations “who are concerned about the actions North Korea is taking”.
But China belongs to North Korea Major financial and political benefactorand Mr. Blinken acknowledged that Beijing “plays a crucial role” in all diplomatic efforts with Pyongyang. He suggested China was also concerned about North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
“China has a real interest in helping,” said Blinken. “So we are looking to Beijing to play a role in developing what I believe is in everyone’s interest.”
Whether the United States can recruit Beijing to attend will become clearer after talks later Thursday and Friday in Anchorage, Alaska, when China’s two top diplomats meet with Mr Blinken and White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. American officials have billed the talks as a blunt exchange of political views.
The containment of North Korea is discussed in Anchorage, among other places. It is one of the few areas where American officials believe they can cooperate with China as the Biden administration continues to face Beijing’s military expansionism, crackdown on democracy, and its democracy economic constraint in the Indo-Pacific region.
Mr. Blinken previously referred to China as America’s “greatest geopolitical test of the 21st century,” and the Biden administration has done so issued strict warnings and financial sanctions against Beijing, including on Wednesday, in response to some of its actions.
“Given its political and economic ties with North Korea and its overall strength in the region, it makes sense to enlist China’s support,” said Frank Aum, North Korea expert at the US Peace Institute in Washington.
However, Mr. Aum also noted that China has no control over a number of demands North Korea has made in return for disarmament, including lifting US sanctions and ending joint US-South Korean military exercises.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in is keen to see the United States resume diplomatic talks with North Korea and other regional powers. He has repeatedly argued that a nuclear weapons-free Korean peninsula is possible and has insisted that Mr Kim is willing to give up his arms and focus on economic growth should Washington provide the right incentives.
After meeting the US envoy, South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong said he hoped for a “resumption of dialogue” between the United States and North Korea and that the Seoul government would continue to support Washington’s efforts to establish a diplomatic mission. Contact with Pyongyang.
He also suggested that Mr. Trump’s direct diplomatic approach provided “basic principles” for achieving denuclearization and peace in the Korean Peninsula.
“Our experience over the past three years has shown that it is possible to solve the nuclear problem if North Korea is persistent on the basis of close cooperation between South Korea and the United States,” said Chung.
It’s been more than a year since North Korea spoke directly to American officials, Blinken said in Tokyo. And this week’s Seoul meeting was the first between South Korean foreign and defense ministers and their American counterparts in five years.
Mr. Moon’s political portfolio rose when he helped bring Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim together for two summit meetings. But after the second, in 2019, ended abruptly without reaching an agreement on easing American sanctions or the pace of North Korean disarmament, Mr Moon sought to regain its relevance in the negotiations. In June last year, North Korea blew up the joint inter-Korean liaison office on its side of the border. This was the first in a series of measures that threatened to reverse a fragile détente.
Officials in North Korea will reject Washington’s attempts to enter into dialogue “unless the US resets its hostile policies,” said Choe Son-hui, the country’s first assistant foreign minister, on Thursday. “So we will continue to ignore such an attempt by the US in the future.”
Ms. Choe cited military exercises the United States had conducted with South Korea and spoke in Washington of imposing more sanctions on the North than examples of this hostility. In a diatribe released hours after the senior US envoy landed in Tokyo earlier this week, North Korea warned the Biden government not to “cause a stink”.
North Korea has not conducted any weapons tests since short-range missiles were launched in March last year. However, during a military parade in October, a new untested ICBM was unveiled that looked larger and more powerful than the I.C.B.M. It was tested in late 2017 before Mr Kim began diplomacy with Mr Trump.
At a party conference in January, Mr. Kim vowed to further develop his country’s nuclear capabilities and stated that there would be new I.C.B.M. would build with solid fuel and make its nuclear warheads lighter and more precise.
Analysts said Pyongyang was closely following Mr. Blinken and Mr. Austin’s trips to Tokyo and Seoul this week for clues about the Biden government’s approach. It is expected that, after observing Washington, North Korea will decide whether to resume weapons testing and create a new cycle of tension for leverage.
Mr. Moon is anxious to save his once proud diplomacy over North Korea. His meeting with Mr Blinken and Mr Austin on Thursday should “send a strong message calling for the United States to be more flexible to include North Korea in the dialogue,” said Lee Byong-chul, a North Korea expert at Kyungnam University institute for Far East studies in Seoul.
“North Korea’s sentiment towards Moon Jae-in is disappointing,” said Lee. “Moon has been in a difficult position since talks between North Korea and the United States collapsed.”
Mr Blinken said the American stance on North Korea would include a mixture of regional pressure options and the potential for future diplomacy when the current policy review of the Biden administration is completed as early as next month.
Mr. Aum, the North Korea expert at the U.S. Peace Institute, said the policy could include forcing China to do more to contain North Korea, possibly by deploying additional weapon systems in the region or conducting major military exercises with South Korea – both would irritate Beijing.
China has largely urged North Korea and the United States to solve the impasse on their own, despite calling for sanctions and a break in American military exercises with Seoul in exchange for Pyongyang freezing its nuclear and missile tests.
“All parties should work together to maintain peace and stability on the Korean peninsula,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said this week. “China will continue to play a constructive role in this process.”
Steven Lee Myers and John Ismay contributed to coverage from Seoul.