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Diplomats say U.S.-South Korea relations 'reinvigorated' under Biden

Diplomats say U.S.-South Korea relations 'reinvigorated' under Biden
A U.S. diplomat said the nations' relationship has taken a closer turn and reflects an overall strategy toward alliances under the Biden administration. File Photo by Keizo Mori/UPI | License Photo

SEOUL, March 10 (UPI) -- Seoul and Washington have seen improved communications and a stronger commitment to their bilateral alliance under the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, high-ranking diplomats from both countries said on Wednesday.

Ko Yun-ju, director-general for North American affairs at South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, described the new era at a panel discussion.

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"The Biden administration values alliances and that is a turning point to bring new strength to the U.S.-ROK alliance," he said.

"Even though it's been only 49 days since the inauguration, strategic communication between Korea and the U.S. is taking place very frequently at all levels."

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Ko pointed to the quickly concluded negotiations over cost-sharing for the 28,500 U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula as an example of the new tone in the alliance.

Both sides announced that they'd come to terms on a renewed pact, called the Special Measures Agreement, on Sunday after it had gone unresolved since the end of 2019.

"We believe the [agreement] is another good signal, forming a new type of relationship between the two countries," Ko added Wednesday during the panel, which was held online and live in Seoul, co-hosted by the Korea Press Foundation and U.S. think tank East-West Center.

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"On issues of the U.S.-[South Korea] alliance, maybe in the past it was dealt with in a transactional fashion but now it is dealt with in a mutually beneficial and rational manner.

"We believe that this will be a [South Korea]-U.S. alliance reinvigorated. So there's more of a high hope."

Ko's American counterpart, Marc Knapper, who is deputy assistant secretary of state for Korea and Japan, agreed that the relationship has taken a closer turn and reflects an overall strategy toward alliances under the Biden administration.

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Knapper added that Biden has emphasized "steps to strengthen our alliance relationships, to reinvigorate them and really put action behind the words that our alliances are precious and very valuable aspects of our national strength."

"As we've seen the last 49 days, we have really put our money where our mouth is by taking great steps to strengthen not just our alliance with the Republic of Korea but across the board with Japan, with NATO, with others in the Indo-Pacific region," he added.

Knapper said Washington and Seoul are working together on a range of issues like climate change, COVID-19 and regional security, including approaches to North Korea.

The Biden administration is still undergoing a North Korea policy review, one that Knapper said may be concluded soon.

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"Although this is a U.S. government policy review, it is very much informed by the views and the opinions of our of our closest allies who have the deepest and most important stake in this this critical issue," he said. "The review is underway and hopefully it will be wrapped up in the not-too distant future."

Other panelists at the forum weighed in on the outlook for diplomacy with North Korea.

Despite its show of military strength at a parade in January and remarks from leader Kim Jong Un prioritizing the country's nuclear weapons development, North Korea is angling toward restarting negotiations with the United States, said Hong Min, research fellow at the North Korean Research Division of the Korea Institute for National Unification.

"The nuclear weapons advancements declaration that North Korea made should not be read as a provocation but more of a strategic move," Hong said. "They want to have a dialogue with the U.S. and they want to forge a new relationship."

Many observers have been wondering whether North Korea will make any provocative gestures as a way of sending a message to the Biden administration, but Hong said that's unlikely.

"There is very little possibility of provocation by North Korea in the near future," he said. "COVID-19 is affecting the provocation capacity of North Korea. They are suffering from an economic downturn because of the pandemic and they are doing a lot of preventive measures."

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North Korea, which claims that it has no cases of COVID-19, closed its borders in January 2020, severely curtailing economic activity with its main trading partner, China.

Jenny Town, deputy director of 38 North, a North Korea-focused website, cautioned that the Biden administration is going to have to demonstrate a willingness to take a new approach in negotiations after a February 2018 summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, with former President Donald Trump failed to produce an agreement.

"The North Koreans have noted now on several occasions since the failure of the Hanoi summit that they have a declining belief that the nature of U.S.-[North Korea] relations can actually change," she said. "After a lot of talk and a number of commitments, there were few actions and very few results that provided tangible benefits for the North Korean side that they could then use to justify continuing down that course."

Town added that the Biden administration should work to engage with North Korea sooner rather than later as the nuclear-armed state is showing no signs of slowing down its weapons development.

"The biggest challenge that the Biden administration faces is understanding that settling for the status quo means that North Korea's capabilities continue to grow unabated," she said."[North Korea] is not simply waiting to see what happens or if a deal can be reached. They will continue to advance their programs, until agreements are actually signed."

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Knapper said the Biden team was keeping all options open in its policy toward North Korea and is reviewing the approaches of previous administrations.

"Everything on the table," he said. "North Korea is a tremendous challenge that has stumped many administrations, both Democratic and Republican, and so we're going to be looking at how we've handled things in the past -- what's worked, what hasn't and take it from there."

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