North Korea Tries Familiar Gambit as US Delegation Arrives in Region

North Korea’s first statement to the Biden Administration, a string of crude-yet-colorful threats from leader Kim Jong Un’s powerful sister, were shrugged off by the top U.S. diplomat as he arrived in Asia, but analysts said they could point to new missile tests or other attention-getting moves by Pyongyang.

As U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Asia for strategic meetings with allies Japan and South Korea on North Korea on Tuesday, Kim Yo Jong let the rhetoric fly in remarks carried by the North’s state news agency KCNA.

“I would also like to take this opportunity to issue a word of advice to the new U.S. administration, which is so eager to give off a smell of gunpowder in our land from across the ocean,” she said.

“If it wants to sleep in peace for the coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step,” she added, according to KCNA.

Kim, speaking in her role as deputy director of the United Front Department, a North Korean agency that handles relations with South Korea, also slammed Seoul over annual military drills with U.S. forces that began on March 8.

Though the drills are smaller in scale than in most years — command post exercises using computerized simulation without field training — Kim said that Pyongyang opposes the joint exercises regardless of their size.

“Perhaps, they are expecting ‘flexible judgment’ and ‘understanding’ from us, but it is, indeed, ridiculous, impudent and stupid… They are not ashamed of remaining ignorant of the fact that we are not taken in by their nonsense coating mad dog with sheepskin,” Kim Yo Jong said.

Following meetings in Tokyo Tuesday, Blinken did not address directly Kim Yo Jong’s remarks.

“I’m familiar with the comments you referenced, but the comments I’m actually most interested in today are those of our allies and partners,” Blinken said.

The top U.S. diplomat said the U.S. would engage North Korea from a posture of close cooperation with Japan and South Korea – “a task that I actually started on my first day in office,” with calls to the Japanese and South Korean Foreign Ministers Toshimitsu Motegi and Chung Eui-yong.

“And I prioritized those calls precisely because we so value their input and know the importance of these alliances across every challenge and opportunity we face, including dealing with the DPRK,” he said. 

Kim Yo Jong directed threats at Seoul, including killing off a 2018 bilateral agreement with Seoul on reducing military tensions, shutting down the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, an agency that handles dialogue with the South, and closing other avenues of cooperation with the South.

Yang Moo Jin of the University of North Korean Studies told RFA that Kim’s threats were entirely empty because the organizations she mentioned have long ceased operations.

The Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, “the organization tasked with inter-Korean dialogue, which was suggested as a possibility for elimination in the statement, has already stopped its activities. It is difficult to say that North Korea has made any kind of aggressive move here,” he said.

Kim Yo Jong played a major role last June in North Korea’s cutoff of all communication with the South and its destruction by dynamite of a Seoul-funded joint Korean liaison office inside the North in response to South Korean civic groups launching propaganda leaflets by balloons into North Korean territory.

While her rhetoric merely caught up to reality with South Korea, other experts said

the U.S. delegation’s trip to the region could be a prime opportunity for North Korea to resort to classic brinkmanship tactics to get regional powers’ attention.

“Although we cannot predict the direction of North Korea’s response after the statement, the possibility of provocation using short-range projectiles cannot be ruled out,” Cho Han Bum, a senior researcher at the Seoul-based Korea Institute of National Unification, told RFA’s Korean Service.

Ken Gause of the Virginia-based CNA think tank said Kim Yo Jong’s aggressive tone in the statement was unsurprising.

“It’s perfect timing for North Korea to cause a bit of mischief by doing this. They’re raising pressure, obviously, on the alliance, especially potentially a wedge being driven between Seoul and Washington,” he said.

“But it also sends a signal to South Korea that there is not going to be any inter-Korean dialogue until the United States gets its act in order,” Gause said.

Blinken confirmed that Washington had tried to reach out to Pyongyang through several channels since mid-February, including at the United Nations in New York, but had not received a response.

“This follows over a year without active dialogue with North Korea, despite multiple attempts by the United States to engage.  We look forward to completing the policy review in the coming weeks, and we’ll continue to be in very close touch with Japan with Korea, our partners, as we do so,” Blinken said.

“If the US and South Korea had been waiting earnestly to hear from the North Koreans about their position towards the new U.S. administration, Kim’s comments yesterday should provide a pretty clear picture,” Soo Kim of the California-based RAND Corporation told RFA.

Blinken is due in Seoul on Wednesday and will also meet his counterpart from China in Alaska beginning Thursday. Beijing is Pyongyang’s only ally and is critical to North Korea’s economic survival – a situation driven home by the dire state of the North’s economy after a year-long Sino-Korean border closure to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

David Maxwell of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) called Kim Yo Jong’s rhetoric an “obvious” attempt to cause friction between Seoul and Washington because Pyongyang knows “it must break the alliance to successfully dominate the Korean peninsula.”

The timing of this is perfect, with the 2+2 ministerial talks about to take place in Seoul,” he said.

Maxwell, however, said he saw in the shrill message “the possibility of the continued good cop/bad cop relationship of Kim Yo Jong and her brother.”

“Her statements, again attributed directly to her and published in her voice which is rare, can give Kim Jong Un the ability to walk this back in the future if he chooses to,” he told RFA.

Reported by Soyoung Kim, Jeongeun ji, Albert Hong for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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