The United States, South Korea and Japan began a day of talks on Friday to discuss President Joe Biden's long-awaited review of North Korea policy and other pressing concerns, including a shortage of semi-conductor chips.
The talks between Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and his Japanese counterpart, Shigeru Kitamura, and South Korea's national security adviser, Suh Hoon, got underway at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, a US official said.
It is the most senior-level meeting between the three allies since Biden took power on Jan. 20 and comes against a backdrop of rising tensions after North Korean missile launches last week.
Biden said last week the United States remained open to diplomacy with North Korea despite its ballistic missile tests, but warned there would be responses if North Korea escalates matters.
The senior administration official said the Annapolis talks would include discussion of the missile launches, the extent of coronavirus infections within North Korea, and recent diplomacy between Pyongyang and its main ally, China.
"The primary goal is to ensure that we have a deep, shared understanding of circumstances that are taking place on the peninsula, in North Korea," he told reporters, noting that some reports indicated North Korea has been on a total lockdown due to the pandemic.
The White House has shared little about its review of policy toward North Korea and whether it will offer concessions to get Pyongyang to the negotiating table to discuss giving up its nuclear weapons.
However, State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Thursday that denuclearization would remain at the center of policy and any approach to Pyongyang will have to be done in "lockstep" with close allies, including Japan and South Korea.
Biden's predecessor, Republican Donald Trump, held three meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un but achieved no breakthrough other than a pause in nuclear and intercontinental ballistic tests. Biden, a Democrat, has sought to engage North Korea in dialogue but has been rebuffed so far.
Pyongyang, which has long sought a lifting of international sanctions over its weapons programs, said last week the Biden administration had taken a wrong first step and revealed "deep-seated hostility" by criticizing what it called self-defensive missile tests.
The US official said the North Korea review was in its final stages and "we’re prepared now to have some final consultations with Japan and South Korea as we go forward."
Joseph Yun, who was the US special envoy for North Korea under both former President Barack Obama and under Trump, said the policy options were obvious: "You want denuclearization and you want to use your sanctions to get to denuclearization."
"But how to make the first step, so that at least North Korea is persuaded not to do anything provocative. That's the challenge." he said.
Some proponents of dialogue are concerned that the Biden administration has not highlighted a broad agreement between Trump and Kim at their first meeting in Singapore in 2018, and warn this could make it difficult to build trust.
Asked whether that agreement still stood, the official said: "I understand the significance of the Singapore agreement," but did not make clear to what extent the issue would be part of the Annapolis talks.
The three officials are also expected to discuss a global shortage of semi-conductor chips that has forced US automakers and other manufacturers to cut production.
The shortage stems from a confluence of factors as carmakers, which shut plants during the Covid-19 pandemic last year, compete against the sprawling consumer electronics industry for chip supplies.
"It would be fair to say our three countries hold many of the keys to the future of semi-conductors manufacturing technology and we will seek to affirm the importance of keeping these sensitive supply chains secure," the official said.
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