A quiet North Korea

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A quiet North Korea

The author is a Washington correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

In October 2000, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang to prepare the meeting between U.S. President Bill Clinton and North Korean Chairman of the National Defense Commission Kim Jong-il. North Korea’s abandonment of nuclear weapons and the establishment of U.S.-North relations were to follow. Before Albright’s Pyongyang visit, North Korean Vice Marshal Jo Myong-rok visited Washington and even scouted a location for its embassy.

However, everything was reversed the next month. In the historic presidential election that led to a recount suit, Al Gore failed to extend the Democratic administration, and elected Republican President George W. Bush reversed the North Korean policy. North Korea took back its cards. Because of this experience, North Korea believes that talks with the U.S. should happen at the beginning of the administration if it wants to negotiate with Washington.

A month after the inauguration of Joe Biden in January, there’s no news between the North and the U.S. Some predicted possible provocations in time for Kim Jong-il’s birthday on February 16, but there was no special event or a message to the U.S. As North Korea remains quiet, the U.S. hasn’t made a move. In the four-and-half-hour Senate confirmation hearing for Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the North Korean issue was not mentioned much. He briefly said that U.S. policy on North Korea would be reviewed with allies. State Department spokesperson Ned Price recently said that the lack of contact with North Korea was not because it’s not urgent but because the U.S. was in close consultation with allies and partners.

However, if a contact is to be made with North Korea, the successor of Stephen Biegun, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea leading the talk, should be appointed. Sources in Washington say that there is a possibility of removing the post for various reasons. A Washington figure knowledgeable in North Korean affairs predicted that the Biden administration would not pay direct attention to North Korean issues in the first 100 days. It is not something that can bring immediate results compared to Iran or China issues. Also, there are many urgent issues such as Covid-19 vaccines, economic stimulus and national integration.

It is concerning how long this uncomfortable silence will continue. If North Korea provokes, each side will have markedly less cards to play. Unless it is a top-down decision style of Trump, it would be harder to start the talks. North Korea would not want to waste the valuable time of the early days of a new administration in the U.S. That’s why we should care more about North Korea policy when Pyongyang is quiet.

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