Walking and chewing gum at the same time

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Walking and chewing gum at the same time

The author is a Washington correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

“In relation to the Ukraine situation, for example, do you believe that an ICBM can be launched by North Korea in line with the current situation that’s worsening in Ukraine? Do you think the United States will be able to manage these two situations at the same time?” I asked U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken at a joint press conference following the Korea-U.S.-Japan foreign ministerial meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii, on Feb. 12.

There were concerns that the most troublesome scenario for the United States would be provocations from North Korea at the same time as the Ukraine invasion, as Pyongyang suggested scrapping the moratorium on nuclear experiments and ICBMs.

Secretary Blinken did not rule out the possibility of the two incidents overlapping. He responded, “We can walk and chew gum at the same time.” He was suggesting that the United States would be able to handle what is happening in Eastern Europe and East Asia.

A few days later, it was reported that four B-52H bombers from the U.S. Air Force were moved to the Anderson Air Force Base in Guam in the Pacific. The bombers are big enough to load nuclear warheads, the strategic weapon the U.S. boasted about whenever North Korea provoked with nuclear tests.

The U.S. Pacific Air Force Command explained that the deployment would make an enemy believe that the cost of a military attack in the region would have no benefit or value. It was an intimidation that further provocations would be meaningless. It may have been a coincidence, but that may be what Blinken meant by “walk and chew gum at the same time.”

Having B-52H bombers fly over the Korean Peninsula during the Ukraine crisis could make North Korea quiet, as it did before. But the consequent development would also repeat the past. North Korea will threaten again with updated technology and have a greater edge in negotiation.

Before travelling to Honolulu, I met a U.S. government official deeply involved in the last U.S.-North summit. He said that considering the characteristics of the North Korean regime, it was important to show how serious Washington is about talks in order to have Pyongyang sit at the table. So, North Korea may find it confusing that the Biden administration’s special envoy for North Korea is not exclusive to the position but also serves as an ambassador to another country. Repeating “unconditional talks” to the North also may be seen as an intention to maintain status quo.

Was the United States really considering more creative and proactive ways to “walk and chew gum at the same time?” At the news conference, I asked Blinken whether Biden had any plan for higher-level engagement, such as sending a letter to Pyongyang. He didn’t respond.

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