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U.S. official: Washington to consult closely with allies on North Korea policy

The United States is open to feedback from allies South Korea and Japan as it forms its North Korea policy, a senior U.S. administration official said. File Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
The United States is open to feedback from allies South Korea and Japan as it forms its North Korea policy, a senior U.S. administration official said. File Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI | License Photo

SEOUL, April 2 (UPI) -- A trilateral meeting among U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his counterparts from South Korea and Japan scheduled for Friday will play a key role in finalizing Washington's policy toward North Korea, a senior U.S. administration official said.

"The most important reason for this trilateral is it will give Jake and our team the opportunity to review and discuss our policy review on North Korea," the official said during a background briefing call with reporters on Thursday.

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The policy review, which will guide Washington's approach to Pyongyang, is in its "final stages," according to the official.

"[W]e're prepared to now have some final consultations with Japan and South Korea as we go forward," the official said. "Each of these countries is intensively interested in our planned way forward and we intend to discuss that in some detail."

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The trilateral meeting, the first to be held among the allies during the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, comes as North Korea has ratcheted up tensions by launching a pair of ballistic missiles into the sea near Japan last week.

Friday's meeting will be held at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., with Sullivan hosting his counterparts, Japan's Shigeru Kitamura and South Korea's Suh Hoon.

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The tone of the dialogue will be collaborative, the administration official said.

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"This is the most senior consultation we've had with Japanese and South Korean friends, and so we are very much open and prepared and engaged to take their feedback," the official said. "This is not going to be a one-way conversation...anything that we do with respect to North Korea, we believe we need to do in partnership and in harmony with Japan and South Korea."

The official's remarks echoed similar comments made by U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price during a press briefing on Thursday, in which he said the administration would work in "lockstep" with Japan and South Korea on any approach to North Korea.

A closer working relationship with allies is at the core of the Biden administration's foreign policy, said Joseph Yun, a senior adviser to the Asia program at the U.S. Institute of Peace and former U.S. special representative for North Korea policy.

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"The key pillar of the Biden administration is alliances," Yun said. "They really do believe that Washington neglected its allies in the Trump era. They are very keen to strengthen alliances and bring together like-minded countries. This effort has been particularly pronounced in Asia."

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The trilateral dialogue follows a visit to South Korea and Japan by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin last month.

Washington will have a tricky time navigating its approach to North Korea alongside Seoul, which has pushed for improved relations with the North, and Tokyo, which favors taking a harder line, Yun said.

"It's going to be a challenge for the Biden administration to craft something in between," he said. "Japan's views are much closer to the U.S. in terms of keeping North Korea in a box, while South Korea is much more about engagement."

Some observers have wondered whether Biden will follow a North Korea policy closer to that of the Obama administration, which took an arms-length approach known as "strategic patience." Questions also remain as to whether Washington will revise the all-or-nothing stance it has taken in recent nuclear negotiations, demanding full denuclearization before offering any relief from punishing international sanctions.

In his State Department briefing Thursday, Price said "denuclearization will remain at the center of American policy toward North Korea."

However, Yun said he believes that a number of factors, including North Korea's continued development of its nuclear and weapons programs, will require a new and more nuanced approach.

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"North Korea has made quite a deep advance in nuclear technology, as well as missile technology," he said. "The price has gone up for the United States and South Korea to begin to talk about denuclearization. I don't think they can go back to old language. I don't think they can go back to their previous state of mind."

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