US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (2nd L), US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (L), South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong (2nd R) and South Korean Defence Minister Suh Wook (R) pose for photos before their Foreign and Defense Ministerial meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul on March 18, 2021. Photo: AFP / Lee Jin-man / POOL

North Korea said Thursday it will ignore all US efforts to foster contact or dialogue unless Washington changes course, hours before President Joe Biden’s top envoys held talks in Seoul.

The comments came with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin in the South for the second leg of an Asian tour to bolster a united front against the nuclear-armed North and an increasingly assertive China.

The pair have repeatedly called for the “complete denuclearization of North Korea” on their trip, which began in Japan.

That American phrasing encountered an unspoken South Korean challenge Wednesday when differences between Washington and Seoul could be detected in their readouts of the defense chiefs’ meeting Wednesday.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Austin and South Korean Defense minister Suh Wook had expressed commitment to achieving “the denuclearization of North Korea.”

On the other hand Seoul’s defense ministry said that they had “shared objectives of achieving the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and a permanent peace in the region” – which is pretty much the same terminology Pyongyang uses to describe its own goal of a peace treaty and US troops pullout from the South.

The specific “North Korea” phrasing used by Washington is anathema to Pyongyang, which insists upon the broader and more ambiguous reference to the peninsula as a whole, terminology that could be taken to include withdrawal of the US nuclear umbrella over the South.

The difference threatens to put Seoul on the horns of a diplomatic dilemma: Since Hanoi, Moon’s administration has repeatedly tried to reach out to Pyongyang but has been regularly rebuffed.

North Korean statement

North Korea’s Thursday announcement came in comments from its first vice foreign minister Choe Son Hui.

There could be neither contact nor dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang “unless the US rolls back its hostile policy towards the DPRK,” Choe said in a statement carried Thursday by the official Korean Central News Agency, referring to the North by the initials of its official name, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“Therefore, we will disregard such an attempt of the US in the future, too.”

The “new regime” in the US, she added, had only put forward a “lunatic theory of ‘threat from north Korea’ and groundless rhetoric about ‘complete denuclearisation.'”

Pyongyang has closed its borders for more than a year to try to protect itself against the coronavirus pandemic that first emerged in neighbouring China.

It had maintained silence during the first weeks of the Biden administration, with state media not even mentioning the new US leadership until this week.

Blinken’s comments in Japan had “seriously rattled us”, Choe added. 

“We are curious what senseless rhetoric he would make in south Korea to take the world by surprise.”

No response

The US envoys, having held joint talks with their counterparts, were due to meet Thursday with President Moon Jae-in, who brokered the talks process between Kim and then US president Donald Trump in 2018.

Blinken and Austin are consulting on a review of Washington’s policy towards the North being carried out by the new administration.

Trump’s unorthodox approach to foreign policy saw him trade insults and threats of war with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un before an extraordinary diplomatic bromance that saw a series of headline-grabbing meetings, beginning in Singapore.

But ultimately no progress was made towards Washington’s declared aim of denuclearizing North Korea, with a second summit in Hanoi in early 2019 breaking up over sanctions relief and what Pyongyang would be willing to give up in return.

The North remains under multiple international sanctions for its banned weapons programs, which it says it needs to deter a possible US invasion.

Shortly before Biden’s January inauguration, leader Kim decried the US as his country’s “foremost principal enemy” and Pyongyang unveiled a new submarine-launched ballistic missile at a military parade.

Choe said Thursday that for talks to take place, Pyongyang and Washington would have to meet as equals.

“We make it clear that we won’t give it such opportunities as in Singapore and Hanoi again,” she said.

Since mid-February, Washington has attempted to reach out to Pyongyang “through several channels,” state department deputy spokesperson Jalina Porter said earlier this week.

“To date, we’ve not received any response from Pyongyang,” she added.

So far, the North has refrained from carrying out any direct provocations since Biden was inaugurated, but is now beginning to amplify its rhetoric.