America’s second most senior diplomat has expressed sympathy for North Koreans facing hardships and food shortages linked to the pandemic, and renewed calls for the North to return to talks over its nuclear programme.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has recently warned of a “tense” food situation and admitted his country faces its “worst-ever” crisis.
But his government has steadfastly insisted it will not rejoin the talks unless Washington drops its hostility.
I had a terrific strategic dialogue with @mofa_kr First Vice Foreign Minister @jongchoiysu. We spoke about U.S.-ROK relations, our cooperation on multilateral issues like ending the COVID-19 pandemic and addressing climate change, and Indo-Pacific security and prosperity. pic.twitter.com/4kuNuDyNfY— Wendy R. Sherman (@DeputySecState) July 23, 2021
US deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman told reporters in Seoul: “We all feel for the people of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), who are indeed facing all the most difficult circumstances given the pandemic, and what it means as well for their food security.
“We only hope for a better outcome for the people of the DPRK.”
Ms Sherman spoke after meeting South Korean officials, during which the two sides reaffirmed that they will continue diplomatic efforts to convince North Korea to return to the nuclear talks.
“We are looking forward to a reliable, predictable, constructive way forward with the DPRK,” Ms Sherman said.
“We have offered to sit and dialogue with the North Koreans, and we are waiting to hear from them.”
The talks between Washington and Pyongyang have made little headway since early 2019, when a second summit between Mr Kim and then-US president Donald Trump collapsed due to wrangling over American-led economic sanctions.
Mr Kim has since threatened to bolster his nuclear arsenal and build more sophisticated weapons unless the Americans lift their hostile policy, an apparent reference to the sanctions.
Some experts say North Korea may be compelled to reach out to the United States if its economic difficulties worsen.
Outside monitoring groups have not reported any signs of mass starvation or social chaos in North Korea. In recent speeches, Mr Kim has called for his 26 million people to brace for prolonged Covid-19 restrictions, indicating the country is not ready to reopen its borders despite the massive toll on its economy.
It’s wonderful to be back in Seoul. I just met with @USForcesKorea Commander General LaCamera. We discussed CFC's role in defending peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in the Indo-Pacific. 같이 갑시다 ! pic.twitter.com/FR6Q5AXnbn— Wendy R. Sherman (@DeputySecState) July 23, 2021
After Seoul, Ms Sherman is to travel on to Mongolia and then China, the North’s last major ally and aid benefactor.
She will be the highest-ranking US official to visit China since President Joe Biden was inaugurated in January.
During her visit to the north-eastern Chinese city of Tianjin on Sunday, Ms Sherman said she will discuss North Korea with Chinese officials, saying Beijing “certainly has interests and thought” on it.
She said: “The Biden administration has described our relationships with China as obviously a complicated one.
“It has aspects that are competitive, it has aspects where it is challenging, and aspects where we can cooperate.
“And thinking together about bringing the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is certainly an area for cooperation.”