Two members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee this week urged the Biden administration to proceed with caution in potentially easing sanctions against North Korea as a way to re-open denuclearization negotiations, particularly as South Korea gears up for presidential elections.
Having recently returned from a trip to South Korea, where they met with parliamentary peers and President Moon Jae-in, Rep. Young Kim (R-Calif.) said any new talks should begin with Washington pushing “for verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” of the peninsula.
Kim and her colleague Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.) expressed concern over a new round of negotiations beginning as the United Nations agency charged with monitoring nuclear activity earlier this month called the North Korea’s re-opening of a reactor “deeply troubling” and in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Bera said that Moon, who was elected in 2017 on a campaign pledging to improve relations with Pyongyang, could be moving for “a resumption of dialogue with North Korea [as] a legacy item,” despite Pyongyang closing its borders since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and ignoring the Biden administration’s offers to meet again.
The South Korean constitution limits the president to a single term. New elections are scheduled for March.
Both members of Congress mentioned that a new Korean administration might have a very different approach to Pyongyang.
“When it comes to North Korea … it’s really hard to predict what [it] would do,” Kim, who was born in Inchon, said during Wednesday’s Center for Strategic and International Studies online forum.
Bera agreed that Kim Jong-un’s regime “is hard to get a reading” on. He cited known problems in the North with the pandemic, malnutrition, a stalled economy and the leader’s own health as key “internal domestic issues” that also seem to affect the regime’s approach to foreign affairs.
Bera, who is a doctor, said an offer of COVID-19 vaccines to the Pyongyang “could be a door opener,” but he added that the North would also have to be transparent as to who is getting the shots. Kim said the same standard of transparency should apply to all shipments of humanitarian aid to North Korea.
This month, Pyongyang rejected China’s offer of 3 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine.
Both representatives said that in their talks with Moon and members of parliament, they found the alliance between Washington and Seoul strong. Bera said the May summit meeting between President Joe Biden and Moon brought the “relationship to a high point.” The relationship suffered a strain over share of the cost of American forces on the peninsula during the Trump administration.
On the American pullout from Afghanistan, Bera said he tells constituents “not to read too deeply” into Biden’s decision. “Korea is a totally different country,” a democracy, and the United States’ “commitment to the region is greater.”
Kim, whose southern California district is one-third-Asian American, said she tries to alleviate her constituents’ concerns by saying what she has said to congressional colleagues: “We will be there … the U.S. can lead.”
When it comes to Seoul’s relations with Beijing, its largest trading partner, Kim said the difference comes down to “long-term interests” with Washington. “We have values” that the Chinese don’t share.
“It’s not a question of the U.S. or China,” Bera added. “This is also a battle of ideas” that includes trade, freedom of navigation through international waters, and democracy. But “I don’t think Korea wants to formally enter a Quad Plus One” arrangement as a counter to Beijing in the Indo-Pacific.
Kim did see combating the COVID-19 pandemic as a way the Quad – an informal security arrangement between the U.S., Japan, Australia and India and South Korea – “could come together.”