Facing a new realityAt the two-plus-two meeting in Seoul on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken denounced the human rights situation in North Korea and China. He also urged the Moon Jae-in administration to take a common approach to China’s increasing offensives in the region. It was the first time for a U.S. Secretary of State to call for a joint reaction to human rights oppressions in North Korea, Hong Kong and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in China.
In an earlier meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong, Blinken reportedly urged Seoul to stipulate its position on the human rights situation in North Korea and China, and improve its relations with Japan. Such demand came after Blinken’s earlier discussions with other U.S. allies. If the Moon administration sticks to its strategic ambiguity and avoids a choice, its diplomatic leverage will shrivel.
Such concerns have already turned into a reality. In a meeting Thursday with Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, President Moon stressed cooperation with Washington to achieve the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” despite Blinken’s more precise wording, “denuclearization of North Korea.” When Foreign Minister Chung underscored the need to “succeed the U.S.-North agreements in Singapore,” Blinken did not show an immediate reaction. The Biden administration brands Trump’s summit in 2018 with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il as diplomatic failures.
Such talking past each other is almost inevitable after the Moon administration ignored rapid changes in the U.S. government’s North Korea policy. Blinken’s call for a joint reaction to the human rights situation in North Korea and China translates into some sort of a “red line.” But the Moon administration is bent on promoting its own Korean Peninsula Peace Process after scaling down the joint Korea-U.S. military exercises for three consecutive years. Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s younger sister, has demanded a complete scrapping of joint drills.
For the Biden administration, which wants to use both carrots and sticks with North Korea, a leaders’ summit cannot take place immediately. Our government must devise strategies with Washington to draw Pyongyang to the negotiating table, while restoring security cooperation with the Biden administration.
If the Moon administration finds it difficult to join U.S. pressure on China in fear of economic retaliations, it must at least make effort to improve North Korean human rights to help the alliance stay afloat. The government must consider its participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue as it could help strengthen its maneuverability, as seen in the cases of Japan, India and Australia.