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U.S. to Focus on Deterring North Korea
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April 2024
By Kelsey Davenport

In the absence of dialogue with North Korea, the United States will redouble its efforts alongside allies to deter Pyongyang, a top U.S. official said.

South Korean and U.S. soldiers pose for photos in March after their joint live fire exercise at a military training field in Pocheon, part of an annual event. (Photo by Jung Yeon-Je/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)Washington still views negotiations with Pyongyang as the only viable pathway to peace on the Korean peninsula and remains focused on denuclearizing North Korea, Jung Pak, the U.S. senior official for North Korea, said March 5 at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

But the United States assesses that North Korea is undergoing a long-term strategic shift, Pak said. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un no longer believes that he can achieve his primary goal, preservation of the regime, through negotiations with the United States or South Korea, she said. Kim is viewing the world through a “new Cold War lens” where he believes that North Korea will benefit from aligning more closely with Russia and China, she said.

Pak said that North Korea currently is not interested in engagement, but the United States continues to reiterate its willingness to engage in talks “at any level” and on “any topic” without preconditions. If there is an opening for diplomacy, denuclearization will not happen “overnight” given the “scope of [North Korea’s] weapons activities and its proliferation,” she said, adding that denuclearization will require “interim steps.”

In the absence of dialogue, Pak said the United States will “redouble” its efforts to deter North Korean aggression.

Pak’s comments came as the United States and South Korea commenced a military exercise, called Freedom Shield, that North Korea described as an “undisguised” military threat that “can never be called defensive.”

During the exercises, the South Korean military conducted drills simulating a strike on North Korean ballistic missile launches and practiced intercepting cruise missiles. North Korea accelerated testing of what it claims are nuclear-capable cruise missiles in recent months. Cruise missiles, which are maneuverable during flight, are more difficult to intercept than ballistic missiles.

The drills also included simulating a response to a North Korean invasion. South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik said that the exercises included field training for special operations forces, which must be “capable of swiftly eliminating the enemy leadership should Kim Jong Un wage war.”

Gen. Paul J. La Camera, head of U.S. forces stationed in South Korea, told The Wall Street Journal in a March 11 interview that the exercises are designed to respond to an array of threats posed by North Korea. Kim must be assured that “positive [actions] will be met with positive actions, and negative will be met with negative,” he said.

As the Freedom Shield exercises wrapped up, North Korea conducted military exercises that included paratroopers simulating an infiltration into South Korea and attacking a South Korean guard post. Kim observed parts of the exercise.

In addition to expanding its missile capabilities, North Korea appears to be working to meet Kim’s goal of expanding the country’s nuclear arsenal.

In a March 4 statement, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi said the agency is continuing to observe activities indicative of the commissioning of the light-water reactor (LWR) at the Yongbyon nuclear complex.

He said that the “continuation and further development” of North Korea’s nuclear program, including the commissioning of the LWR, “are clear violations of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and deeply regrettable.”

Grossi called on North Korea to “cooperate promptly” with the IAEA and effectively implement its safeguards agreement.

Laura Holgate, U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, told the agency’s Board of Governors in a March 6 statement that North Korea’s “dangerous, irresponsible, and escalatory nuclear rhetoric, and its unprecedented number of ballistic missile launches…threaten international peace and security and undermine the global nonproliferation regime.”

Holgate said that North Korea’s “rejection of diplomacy and dialogue underscores” that Pyongyang alone is responsible for “continued provocations.”

North Korea has not responded to U.S. offers for dialogue, but Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, suggested that the country might be open to engagement with Japan.

She said that if Japan “makes a political decision to open up a new way of mending the relations,” the two countries “can open up a new future together.” In addition, if Tokyo “drops its bad habit” of criticizing Pyongyang “over its legitimate right to self-defense” and the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea, there “will be no reason for the two countries not to become close,” she said.

She appeared to be responding to a statement by Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio that called for “boldly” changing the country’s relationship with North Korea.