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Pentagon Says Diplomacy Critical To Denuclearization Of Korean Peninsula

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By Terri Moon Cronk

The way to the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula lies in exploring diplomacy with North Korea in a calibrated approach, a Defense Department official said Monday.

Richard C. Johnson, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for countering weapons of mass destruction and acting deputy secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense, said the tool of first resort is making sure the United States is upholding the United Nations sanctions against the North Korean regime and U.S. bilateral sanctions. “These tools are very important, not only as a signaling device, [but as a] tool to prevent and reduce threats and to counter proliferation,” he told attendees of the Korea-U.S. strategic forum, which was hosted by the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

“So, I think it’s important to recall that we will continue to do what we are doing. That now and at the Department of Defense, one of the things that we do in support … is to actually spearhead an effort where we’re joined by seven other nations — including Australia, Canada, France, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and the United Kingdom — to enforce the resolutions, particularly preventing North Korea from proceeding [with] illicit, refined petroleum and helping to deny the revenue from illicit sources that comes from their [weapons of mass destruction] and missile programs,” Johnson told attendees of the Korea-U.S. Strategic Forum 2021: The Road Ahead After the Biden-Moon Summit.

In terms of where the United States is going in its attempts to denuclearize North Korea, the U.S. has shown its commitment to reaching out to North Korea to speak with them diplomatically, Johnson said. He cautioned, however, that COVID-19 has been an obstacle. “We have a real challenge on our hands to figure out even the mechanism, the place, the time — all those sorts of things would be an important component.”

Johnson said that although U.S. officials see diplomacy as the tool of first resort, the U.S. will not let diplomacy take a backseat to its efforts to uphold its commitments to allies and partners. “In short, we’ve made very clear our interest in reaching out, but, in the meantime, if we’re not getting feedback from [North Korea] and understanding that COVID is an important component of this, we will have to do other things to make sure that we uphold and maintain strategic stability in the region and protect our allies and partners.” 

Johnson said his colleagues at the State Department are doing all they can to engage with U.S. partners and allies and are meeting regularly. 

“But in the meantime, as they say in English, ‘it takes two to tango’ so we look forward to seeing if we have a dance partner that wants to come to the floor. But we will not stand idly by … ignoring the threats that we see from North Korea’s actions both in its nuclear and its missile programs,” he said.

Johnson added that the United States also assesses that North Korea is also undertaking offensive chemical and biological weapons programs, which are a serious threat to the Korean Peninsula and the entire region, including to U.S. forces in South Korea.

“I hope that we will not see provocations from our North Korean counterparts, if you will. [But] we’re prepared to take practical steps in a calibrated manner, including diplomacy,” Johnson said.

It’s important to reiterate how important extended deterrence is in the U.S. relationship with South Korea, as well as Japan and Australia, he said. “The work that we’re doing to help develop a common operating picture to increase our allies’ understanding of strategic capabilities — [such as] tabletop exercises — are really important.”

“I think at the end of the day our focus is on what can we do with our allies and partners in strong solidarity in making the region a safer and more stable place,” he said.

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