US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has met his Japanese and South Korean counterparts in Hawaii to discuss the threat posed by nuclear-armed North Korea after Pyongyang began the year with a series of missile tests.
Blinken said at a news conference after the meeting on Saturday that North Korea was “in a phase of provocation” and the three countries condemned the recent missile launches.
“We are absolutely united in our approach, in our determination,” Blinken said after his talks with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong.
The three released a joint statement calling on North Korea to engage in dialogue and cease its “unlawful activities”. They said they had no hostile intent toward North Korea and were open to meeting Pyongyang without preconditions.
Some experts say North Korea is using the weapon’s tests to put pressure on President Joe Biden’s administration to resume long-stalled nuclear negotiations as the pandemic puts further strain on an economy already battered by decades of mismanagement and crippling US-led sanctions.
The Biden administration has offered North Korea open-ended talks but has shown no willingness to ease the sanctions without meaningful cuts to the country’s nuclear program.
North Korea has rebuffed US offers to resume diplomacy, saying it won’t return to talks unless Washington drops what it says are hostile polices. The North bristles at both the sanctions and regular military exercises the US holds with South Korea.
The tests also have a technical component, allowing North Korea to hone its weapons arsenal. One of the missiles recently tested – the Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile – is capable of reaching the US territory of Guam.
It was the longest-distance weapon the North has tested since 2017.
North Korea appears to be pausing its tests during the Winter Olympics in China, its most important ally and economic lifeline. But analysts believe North Korea will dramatically increase its weapons testing after the Olympics.
The recent tests have rattled Pyongyang’s neighbours in South Korea and Japan.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who helped set up the historic talks between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and former President Donald Trump in 2018 and 2019, said in January that the tests were a violation of UN Security Council resolutions and urged the North to cease “actions that create tensions and pressure”.
The Security Council initially imposed sanctions on North Korea after its first nuclear test in 2006. It made them tougher in response to further nuclear tests and the country’s increasingly sophisticated nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
China and Russia, citing the North’s economic difficulties, have called for lifting sanctions like those banning seafood exports and prohibitions on its citizens working overseas and sending home their earnings.
Blinken arrived in Hawaii from Fiji, where he met with Acting Prime Minister Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum and other Pacific leaders to talk about regional issues, especially the existential risk posed by climate change. It was the first visit by a US secretary of state to Fiji since 1985.
He started his Pacific tour in Australia, where he met his counterparts from Australia, India and Japan. The four nations form the “Quad”, a bloc of Indo-Pacific democracies that was created to counter China’s regional influence.
Hayashi and Chung held a separate bilateral meeting on Saturday for about 40 minutes before seeing Blinken. Japan’s Foreign Ministry said they reaffirmed the importance of cooperating together and with the United States to respond to North Korea and to achieve regional stability.
Blinken also met separately with Chung. He met Hayashi earlier this week in Australia.