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(LEAD) (News Focus) S. Korea, U.S., Japan show unity against N. Korea's provocation, outlook for dialogue remains uncertain

All News 17:01 February 13, 2022

(ATTN: ADDS more background info in paras 7-8, Russia, China issues in last paras)
By Byun Duk-kun

HONOLULU, Feb. 12 (Yonhap) -- South Korea, the United States and Japan demonstrated their united front against North Korea's provocative mode via trilateral talks among their top diplomats in Honolulu on Saturday.

Experts, in general, gave a positive assessment of the high-level session itself among the regional powers meant to find ways to engage with North Korea, especially its timing, despite no immediate breakthrough in sight.

"Such a meeting is always good to exchange views considering there is a high probability North Korea will continue to test more missiles -- and maybe even an ICBM -- between now and April," said Harry Kazianis, senior director at the Washington-based Center for the National Interest think tank.

The trilateral event of South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi followed seven rounds of North Korean missile launches in January, the largest number of missile tests conducted by North Korea in a single month.

North Korea has also threatened to consider restarting "all temporarily-suspended activities," possibly suggesting a resumption of its nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile testing.

Pyongyang has maintained a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing since late 2017.

Keen attention has been paid to whether Chung and his counterparts would agree on a fresh offer for Pyongyang in a bid to bring it back to the negotiating table.

Chung's aides in Seoul talked about a "creative idea," but no new incentive for the North has been unveiled.

South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong (L), U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (C) and Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi pose for a photo during their trilateral foreign ministerial talks in Honolulu on Feb. 12, 2022, in this photo provided by the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

Frank Aum, a senior expert on Northeast Asia at the U.S. Institute of Peace, agreed the meeting may have been useful but that little progress would have been possible on how to engage with North Korea.

"The meeting will be helpful to convey trilateral unity and strengthen trilateral coordination," he told Yonhap News Agency.

"However, since Washington and Tokyo are not on the same page with Seoul on North Korea policy and since Tokyo and Seoul are still far apart on historical issues, there may be very little tangible outcomes from the meeting," Aum added.

Kazianis too highlighted the importance of cooperation between South Korea, Japan and the U.S., saying, "All of the allies must be on the same page but also see if there is some way to create an atmosphere to get the DPRK to take a different path."

DPRK stands for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, North Korea's official name.

The North has avoided denuclearization negotiations since late 2019. It also remains utterly unresponsive to numerous overtures the U.S. made since President Joe Biden took office in January 2021.

Chung earlier said he and his U.S., Japanese counterparts will discuss ways to engage with North Korea.

He offered no direct response when asked how they planned to bring the North back to the dialogue table.

"We discussed various ways with regard to this issue," Chung said when asked what specific measures have been discussed to engage with North Korea. "But I believe we cannot introduce such steps at this point in time."

Aum said restarting dialogue with North Korea would require a "stronger signal" from the U.S.

"The U.S. will need to provide a stronger signal that it is serious about developing new relations with North Korea, which could include a willingness to declare an end to the Korean War," he said, adding other steps may include partial sanctions relief for North Korea and the provision of humanitarian assistance, such as COVID-19 vaccines to the impoverished country.

He also said the U.S. may have mistakenly ignored the North Korea problem.

"Washington has ignored the North Korea problem as it deals with other higher priority issues like China, Russia, Afghanistan, Iran, climate change and COVID, among other things," Aum said.

"But as we are seeing, Washington will likely have to expend greater time and resources now and in the future to deal with North Korea when it could potentially have -- as the American saying goes 'nipped that problem in the bud' by taking greater conciliatory measures with Pyongyang earlier," he added.

This composite photo, released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency, shows its intermediate-range ballistic missile, Hwasong-12, being launched on Jan. 30, 2022. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

Bruce Klinger, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a think tank also based in Washington, said the U.S. will unlikely offer concessions to North Korea for its return to dialogue.

"Since North Korea has repeatedly violated U.N. resolutions and issued provocative threats, the U.S. should not offer yet more concessions to induce Pyongyang back to the negotiating table," he told Yonhap News Agency in an email interview.

Klinger argued the U.S. may have instead wanted to impose additional sanctions on North Korea after the North fired an intermediate-range ballistic missile on Jan. 30 (Seoul time), the longest-range ballistic missile launched by Pyongyang since late 2017.

"South Korea would have rejected such entreaties as the Moon administration desperately seeks to resume dialogue with Pyongyang at all costs in the last months of its tenure regardless of North Korean behavior," he said, referring to South Korea's Moon Jae-in administration that is set to step down in May.

The U.S. had called for two U.N. Security Council meetings amid the barrage of North Korean missile launches in January but failed to push for new sanctions on North Korea due to opposition from China and Russia.

Kazianis said the recalcitrant North is unlikely to return to dialogue for the time being, regardless of what concessions it gets.

"North Korea does not see the value of talks at the moment, mainly as its relative positions have been weakened due to the COVID-19 lockdowns the Kim regime has imposed," he said. "Combined with an international climate that sees North Korea as a secondary or even tertiary issue, Kim will likely wait at least a few months before either engaging in talks -- or testing an ICBM or nuclear weapon."

Klinger pointed out the U.S. remains committed to a diplomatic solution for now but that how the North Korea issues unfold from here will depend on the path North Korea takes.

"It remains uncertain whether Pyongyang will go further up the escalation ladder slowly or quickly," he said..

"But having demonstrated its willingness to break one of its previous moratoriums, the United States and its allies will await the upcoming North Korean birthday anniversaries with greater trepidation to see if the regime dumps another foreign policy crisis into the lap of the Biden administration," he said, apparently referring to the 80th birthday of late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, which falls on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the latest gathering of the three countries' top diplomats came in the midst of Washington's standoffs with Beijing and Moscow.

"The Secretary and Foreign Ministers discussed the Russian military buildup along Ukraine's borders and shared unwavering support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. They committed to work closely together to deter further Russian escalation," read the joint statement.

It did not mention China but noted they emphasized the importance of trilateral cooperation to "strengthen the rules-based economic order and ensure prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and the world," as they discussed common approaches to address priorities, including critical supply chains.

bdk@yna.co.kr
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