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US focus on 'interim' steps with N. Korea raises questions about policy direction

By Yonhap

Published : March 7, 2024 - 09:19

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This photo shows Mira Rapp-Hooper, current National Security Council senior director for East Asia and Oceania, attending a congressional testimony on July 23, 2015. (Center of Strategic & International Studies) This photo shows Mira Rapp-Hooper, current National Security Council senior director for East Asia and Oceania, attending a congressional testimony on July 23, 2015. (Center of Strategic & International Studies)

US officials' recent focus on the idea of "interim steps" for a path towards North Korea's ultimate denuclearization is raising a flurry of questions about their intentions and the direction of America's policy on the recalcitrant regime.

The idea has come into the spotlight in South Korea as some observers see it as a potential sign of Washington's greater desire for dialogue with Pyongyang amid little progress in its diplomacy to the North and security concerns heightened by the regime's military alignment with Russia.

The diplomatic gesture came as former President Donald Trump has boasted his personal ties with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during his reelection campaign, stressing that "America was safe" when he was in office from 2017-2021.

Mira Rapp-Hooper, the National Security Council senior director for East Asia and Oceania, first said during a forum on Monday that the United States will consider interim steps on the pathway toward the North's denuclearization.

In a separate forum a day later, US Senior Official for North Korea Jung Pak noted the need for interim steps towards the North's denuclearization, which she underlined would not happen "overnight."

These remarks raised questions about whether the US is poised to employ a policy shift that goes beyond its oft-repeated mantra of the US having "no hostile intent" toward the North and being ready to engage in dialogue with the North "without preconditions."

In the negotiation lexicon for the North, interim steps usually involve such measures as Pyongyang's freeze of its nuclear weapons development in return for sanctions relief or other incentives to encourage the regime's denuclearization efforts.

Asked if those officials' remarks signal any policy shift, Matthew Miller, the State Department spokesperson, said during a press briefing on Tuesday that it does not indicate a change in US policy.

Analysts gave a range of speculation on intentions behind the idea, with some saying that it might be designed to highlight that Washington is interested in reengagement with the North even on small, modest steps.

"They don't want North Korea to have any misperception that the US is only interested in complete denuclearization in the near-term," Frank Aum, a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace, told Yonhap News Agency via email.

Some others called attention to an ongoing US move to manage North Korea-related risks at a time of heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

"(It reflects) growing administration concerns about the risks of escalation on the peninsula in 2024 and interest in exploring possible opportunities to engage with Pyongyang on risk reduction measures and stability," Robert Rapson, a retired veteran American diplomat, said.

Concerns over the escalation of inter-Korean tensions have risen due to North Korea's bellicose rhetoric, continued weapons tests and its nullification of a 2018 inter-Korean military tension reduction agreement.

Speculation has also persisted that the North could engage in provocative acts during the ongoing South Korea-US military exercise and ahead of the parliamentary elections in South Korea next month and the US presidential election in November.

"A central aim has been to show that the chief obstacle to peace has been North Korea's arms buildup and not alliance activities," Patrick Cronin, Asia-Pacific security chair at the Hudson Institute, said of the remarks on interim steps.

"A related aim is to put out an olive branch to show both North and South Koreans that tensions might be reduced if only the Kim regime would permit some engagement," he added.

The issue drew particular attention in Seoul as some have raised worries that Washington could focus more on North Korea's nuclear proliferation issues rather than on the ultimate goal of the regime's complete denuclearization.

Such concerns could rise further particularly if there is a lack of policy coordination between Seoul and Washington. But that may not be the case under the Biden administration that has put cooperation with its allies, including South Korea, at the core of its foreign policy.

"Our position on the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula has not changed," a US National Security Council spokesperson said Monday, in response to a question from Yonhap News Agency.

"While we work towards this goal, there are a number of valuable discussions we seek to have with the DPRK, including on reducing the risk of inadvertent military conflict on the peninsula," the official added. DPRK stands for the North's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Some observers took note of the fact that the talk of interim steps emerged when President Joe Biden and his predecessor, Trump, are gearing up for a likely rematch for the White House in November.

"They're trying to generate a positive news story on a foreign policy area in which the administration has had no success, arguably in comparison to the previous administration and likely future challenger in the presidential election," Aum said.

The scholar added that the US officials may be responding to North Korea analysts in Washington and Seoul, who have expressed concerns about what he said was the "administration's lack of focus and creativity on engagement."

Such concerns have been steadily rising recently as Washington has been preoccupied with a series of ongoing challenges, including the war between Israel and the Hamas militant group and Russia's war in Ukraine.

The display of the US' interest in interim steps also came as opportunities for dialogue with Pyongyang have apparently arisen with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida eyeing a summit with Kim, and Western diplomats working to resume activities in Pyongyang.

"In the wake of recent Tokyo-Pyongyang flirtations with engagement, maybe the US sees a small window of opportunity here," Rapson said. (Yonhap)