On February 2, the North Korean Foreign Ministry released a statement criticizing recent statements made by US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin during his visit to Seoul, where he outlined measures to bolster extended deterrence for the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea). In standard terms, North Korea condemned the visit and the news of US-ROK plans for additional exercises later this year.
There were two key points in the statement. First, it mentioned it would not react to “every ill-boding movement shown by the US” in the name of extended deterrence.
Second, it rejected any interest in “any contact or dialogue with the US as long as” these kinds of measures continue.
When reading this statement, it is important to note that the level of the statement (a Foreign Ministry spokesman press statement) is relatively low, which suggests it was not meant to break ground but to check the box after Secretary Austin’s visit. When statements are structured in this format—i.e., here is our principled stand: point one, point two—it is because they are aiming to convey the seriousness (and, to some extent, clarity) of the message.
Key messages within the statement suggest that the North Koreans have decided not to replay what they did last fall—the sort of action-for-action in the military sphere. It seems they felt the need to make clear in advance that when/if they don’t respond to every US-ROK exercise, it isn’t because they are scared or cowed or not paying attention. It could also mean they simply don’t want to expend limited defense supplies unnecessarily, especially given how many drills the US and ROK have been conducting.
Second, the North Korean’s conditional language in reference to dialogue: “not interested as long as…” In some instances in the past, the conditional was important because it suggested the negative was not absolute and that they were leaving room for maneuver. However, that is not always the case, and it’s hard to see how, in the middle of the current situation, they are sending a positive signal.
Still, the question has to be asked, who asked them? Why is the Foreign Ministry bringing up dialogue at all in this way, almost out of the blue? Kim Jong Un said something similar in remarks in October, but that was almost four months ago. For the Biden administration, it may be worth probing to see if this is a door or just the painting of a door on a sheer rock face.