SEOUL—For South Korea and its allies in Washington, there’s a certain phrase that has come to define their approach to North Korea: “Anytime, anywhere.”
Shortly after taking office, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration made clear it was willing to begin talks with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program anytime, anywhere, and without preconditions. Now, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s administration is echoing the same talking point, with South Korean Unification Minister Kwon Young-se saying his country was willing to engage with the North Koreans “whenever, wherever.”
There’s just one problem: North Korea isn’t picking up the phone.
Ever since a pair of high-level summits between former U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ended without any diplomatic breakthrough, Pyongyang has effectively ceased all communications with Washington and Seoul. All the while, it is scaling up its ballistic missile tests and is widely expected to conduct another nuclear weapons test in the coming months, ramping up pressure on both countries to find some way to address the growing threat of a nuclear-enabled North Korea.
“We’re doing everything we can, but North Korea has to respond,” said one South Korean official, who declined to speak on the record. “Twenty years later, nothing has really changed except their arsenal has become bigger and stronger.”
There’s a sense in both Seoul and Washington that North Korea likely won’t be ready to talk until after its long-expected test of another nuclear weapon so that, at least in the minds of North Koreans, it reengages its enemies from a position of strength. Another factor that leads South Korean and U.S. officials to believe North Korea isn’t ready to engage in any major dialogue on its nuclear weapons program is that the country is grappling with its own domestic struggles. North Korea is reeling from a historic drought that is straining its anemic food supply as well as from a devastating outbreak of COVID-19. So far, Pyongyang hasn’t responded to any offers from either Seoul or Washington for humanitarian aid or COVID-19 vaccines.
“If North Korea is more concerned with fine-tuning its weapons than the state of its domestic affairs, these terms don’t give it much incentive to engage in dialogue with the U.S. or [South Korea],” said Dana Kim, an expert on North Korea with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
North Korea has already launched 31 ballistic missile tests this year, beating the previous record-high of 25 in 2019, and a new nuclear weapons test, if carried out, would be the country’s seventh, showcasing steady progress in expanding its nuclear weapons program despite the international community’s best efforts to halt it.
This puts both Seoul and Washington in a major bind, but that doesn’t mean either country is coasting, according to interviews with South Korean officials and experts in Seoul. (Foreign Policy reported from Seoul as part of a journalism fellowship organized by the Atlantic Council and Korea Foundation.)
The new Yoon administration is looking to expand its security cooperation with the United States, including expanding military exercises with U.S. forces that had been scaled back during the Trump administration. Both countries are also reviving an Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group, a group of experts from both countries that assesses how to deter and defend South Korea against North Korean nuclear weapons, South Korean officials said. Under Yoon’s conservative government, South Korea has unveiled plans to expand its military capabilities, purchase U.S. air defense systems, and continue developing its own missile defense systems, called the Korea Air and Missile Defense system.
The United States, meanwhile, has pushed South Korea and Japan to cooperate more on defense and security on a trilateral basis, despite political tensions between the two countries over their historical grievances. And all three countries have committed to tightening the economic noose around North Korea by maintaining crushing international sanctions.
“Channels for direct engagement with North Korea might be dormant right now, but strengthening trilateral cooperation sends very clear and powerful messaging,” said Kim of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Yet there’s a sense in some South Korean policy circles that top officials in the United States aren’t focused enough on the North Korean threat, busy as they are with the war in Ukraine and wider geopolitical competition with China. Among the criticism leveled at the Biden administration is that, while it has offered talks “anytime, anywhere,” it hasn’t detailed a specific road map for what those talks would entail. But the counterpoint to that criticism goes back to square one: Even the best-laid road map won’t get very far if North Korea isn’t interested in talking.
“It does take two to tango at the end of the day,” said a former senior U.S. official, who requested anonymity to speak about the Biden administration’s internal deliberations. “And it boils down to the fact that the North Koreans just haven’t reciprocated to anything we’ve thrown their way.”
Then there are questions about the efficacy of North Korea sanctions. Over the course of decades, the so-called Hermit Kingdom has found ways to skirt international sanctions and line its coffers with foreign currency, despite Washington’s best efforts to stay one step ahead. This could prove all the more difficult as relations between Washington and Beijing sour, given China’s outsized role in propping up North Korea’s economy and the varying degrees to which it lets North Korean sanctions violations slide. There’s also the fact that with North Korea’s economy already sanctioned to the hilt, there’s not much left that Washington or its allies can add to the mix to pressure Kim Jong Un.
“We always talk about massive pressure and expansive sanctions on North Korea, but we don’t have much to add,” said Moon Chung-in, who was a top advisor to former South Korean President Moon Jae-in and is currently chairman of the Sejong Institute think tank. “I really don’t see what items are left to add to the sanctions list.”