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North Korea on Agenda as Blinken and Austin Head to Seoul

North Korea is likely to feature prominently as the U.S. secretaries of state and defense touch down for talks in South Korea.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken boards a helicopter in South Korea.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken boards a helicopter after arriving at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, on March 17. LEE JIN-MAN/POOL/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Blinken and Austin head to Seoul, a Japanese court rules a same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional, and the White House celebrates St. Patrick’s Day.

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North Korea Looms Over Seoul Visit

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Blinken and Austin head to Seoul, a Japanese court rules a same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional, and the White House celebrates St. Patrick’s Day.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.

North Korea Looms Over Seoul Visit

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin are in Seoul today for the second stop of their Asia tour, as rumblings from North Korea threaten to upend the trip.

Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attempted to insert herself into proceedings with a statement on Tuesday signaling displeasure at joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States. Her remarks came as U.S. officials worry that North Korea may be about to resume its missile testing after a three-year break.

The U.S. response has so far been muted, that’s partially because the White House’s Korea policy is still under review. “The reviews are hanging over the entire trip,” Foreign Policy’s Jack Detsch told me as he headed to Seoul with Austin. “And that’s limiting the ability for the U.S. to get into the more sticky bits in the alliance—like getting South Korea and Japan to interoperate much better despite the historical animus.”

Despite that roadblock, the trip has gone largely to plan. On Tuesday, Blinken and Lloyd, along with Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi issued a joint statement admonishing China for “destabilizing behavior” and reaffirmed U.S. backing of Japan’s administration of an island chain claimed by China.

The D-word. Although the administration has yet to publicize its Korea strategy, they have provided one rhetorical hint. In several statements, Biden administration officials have described a commitment to the “denuclearization of North Korea,” a departure from the Obama administration’s call for “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”

“On an issue where words are carefully parsed, this is a noticeable shift,” Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser under President Obama tweeted.

The Trump-era phrasing is considered particularly hostile in Pyongyang’s reading as it stokes fears of regime change of the kind Muammar al-Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein experienced after they stopped pursuing nuclear weapons. Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, has called the Biden administration’s approach, indicated by the phrasing, as “an unforced error.”

Rocking the boat? Elsewhere, the Biden team has shown some sensitivity to North Korea. White House national security aides reportedly complained to the U.S. Department of Justice over the language used in announcing a Feb. 17 indictment of three North Koreans on cybertheft charges. John Demers, the assistant attorney general for national security, called North Korea “a criminal syndicate with a flag” and “the world’s leading bank robbers.” The statements risked provoking Pyongyang, officials told NBC. “Until we have a better sense of how we’re going to approach this problem, we’re trying not to make waves,” one official said.

What We’re Following Today

Dutch elections. Dutch voters begin a three-day voting period today to elect a new parliament following the resignation of Mark Rutte’s government in January over a child benefit scandal. Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) is expected to win the most seats, although polls predict a strong showing from the far-right Party for Freedom, led by Geert Wilders. If polls prove accurate, the VVD will seek to form a coalition government, the makeup of which is uncertain. In 2017, parties took a record 225 days to decide on forming a coalition.

Japan’s same-sex marriage ban ruled unconstitutional. A Japanese court has ruled that the government ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, opening a pathway that could see same-sex unions recognized by law. The Sapporo District Court made the ruling in a case brought by three gay couples who had also sought compensation as a result of the ban.

The judge denied the compensation request, but ruled that the ban violated Article 14 of Japan’s constitution which prohibits discrimination “because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin.” In a joint Asahi Shimbun/University of Tokyo poll published in May 2020, 46 percent of Japanese people supported same-sex marriage, 23 percent opposed it, and 31 percent were neutral on the issue.

St. Patrick’s Day at White House. U.S. President Joe Biden will host Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin virtually in his second bilateral meeting since taking office as the White House celebrates St. Patrick’s Day. Vice President Kamala Harris will hold a virtual meeting between Northern Ireland political leaders Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill as worries over Brexit trade issues put pressure on the Good Friday peace agreement.

Keep an Eye On

U.K. to increase nuclear capacity. The United Kingdom is set to increase its nuclear weapons stockpile from 190 warheads to 260 as part of a shift in the country’s defense policy. The recently published governmental review also calls for deeper economic ties with China, while still regarding the country as a national security threat. If the report’s recommendations are followed, it could mean cuts to U.K. conventional military forces. 

Anti-China sentiment. Americans are more hostile to China than ever before, according to a new Gallup poll; 45 percent of Americans polled now say China is the “greatest enemy” of the United States, and the proportion holding a favorable opinion of China has fallen to 20 percent—its lowest level since Gallup began asking the question. Although increased anti-China rhetoric has undoubtedly contributed to the surge in sentiment, insecurities may have also played a role: When asked who they thought the leading economic power was today, 50 percent of Americans polled said China. Only 4 percent said Iran was their greatest enemy, down from 19 percent the previous year.

Odds and Ends

A year of lockdowns may have made you sick of Zoom calls, but our evolutionary cousins are only getting started. Zookeepers at two Czech zoos, worried about the lack of stimulation for their captive chimpanzees, have set up video conferences between their enclosures, allowing the apes to interact from roughly 90 miles away.

“At the beginning they approached the screen with defensive or threatening gestures,” said Gabriela Linhartova, an ape keeper at Dvur Kralove, told Reuters. “It has since moved into the mode of ‘I am in the movies’ or ‘I am watching TV’. When they see some tense situations, it gets them up off the couch, like us when we watch a live sport event.”

That’s it for today.

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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