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Commentary: U.S. policy on DPRK casts shadow over resolution of abductions issue

By Komori Yoshihisa, associate correspondent in Washington

 

I can’t help but feel that the Biden administration’s North Korea policy has Japan concerned. The U.S. approach is likely to cast a dark shadow over the resolution of the abduction of Japanese citizens by the DPRK.

 

In early May, the Biden administration announced it had decided its North Korea policy. The policy was described as a “calibrated, practical approach” but specifics were not given. I have been able to discern, however, some of points in the policy from the flow of information in Washington.

 

First of all, I have the impression that the Biden administration is not devoting much energy or resources to the complete denuclearization of North Korea, which should be the highest goal in Korean peninsula affairs.

 

On the diplomatic front, the Biden administration has been busy handling China, Russia, and Iran, and has not been able to put any significant effort toward arranging negotiations with North Korea. Also, senior administration officials have rarely discussed the North Korea issue in concrete terms.

 

“President Biden probably cannot afford to tackle the North Korea issue head-on now,” comments Senior Vice President Victor Cha of the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), an expert on North Korea issues. This also means that the North Korea issue is not given very high priority.

 

Second, the Biden administration’s stance on North Korea lacks any mention of military options. In other words, the Biden administration is not placing any military pressure on North Korea.

 

Scott Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S. Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, acknowledges the effectiveness of military threats, saying, “It is likely that Kim Jong Un seriously considered halting his nuclear program only when former President Trump talked about destroying North Korea.”

 

Third, the Biden administration appears to have agreed to “incremental denuclearization,” which North Korea has consistently wanted.

 

Senior Biden administration officials acknowledged that the new policy toward the DPRK will take a step-for-step approach that involves concrete actions on denuclearization in exchange for corresponding measures in sanctions relief for North Korea. This is incremental denuclearization. So far, North Korea has only benefited from aid and the lifting of sanctions through this method, and he has not taken any real action to destroy the nation’s nuclear weapons.

 

Senior Fellow Robert Einhorn of the Brookings Institution, an expert on the North Korea nuclear issue, said, “With the incremental denuclearization approach, it is difficult to verify whether the DPRK has taken the promised actions. This gives North Korea an advantage.”

 

As described above, the Biden administration’s new North Korea policy risks giving the DPRK too much leeway and allowing it to gain the major benefit of sanctions relief.

 

This could be a hindrance to Japan’s efforts to resolve the abductions issue. In addition to the existing sanctions, North Korea is now suffering from a food shortage, so easing its hardship will reduce its incentive to address Japan’s request for the resolution of the abductions issue. (Abridged)

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