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Blinken, Austin Work To Revive Asian Alliance To Counter China, North Korea

NOEL KING, HOST:

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin are in Seoul, South Korea, today. Their trip to Asia, which included Japan, is the first cabinet-level foreign trip of President Biden's administration. And much of their focus will be on China and North Korea. Earlier this week, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un warned the Biden administration against, quote, "causing a stink" if it wants peace. Secretary Blinken was asked about that in Tokyo. And here's how he responded.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: I'm familiar with the comments you referenced. But the comments I'm actually most interested in today are those of our allies and partners. That's why we've come to this region. That's why we've come to Japan, precisely to listen to our allies and to discuss how collectively we might seek to address the threat from North Korea.

KING: With me now is Jenny Town. She's a senior fellow at the Stimson Center who closely watches North Korea. Good morning, Jenny.

JENNY TOWN: Good morning.

KING: U.S. intelligence agencies reportedly think North Korea is preparing to carry out its first weapons test since President Biden took office. Now, the White House says it wants diplomacy. It wants denuclearization. But North Korea has a history of provocation, a history of reneging on promises. Do you think this is possible under this administration?

TOWN: I do think it's possible that the North Koreans may decide to test the new administration or raise the stakes at the beginning, especially if they don't feel that this is a priority issue. But I think it's also possible that they may just do some bluster now to bring attention to it without actually doing something that would bring negative attention to them when they have so many domestic problems going on at the moment.

KING: Do you think that North Korea has a vested interest in working with the Biden administration?

TOWN: I think they - you know, they've expressed now pretty consistently over the past year that they have a declining belief that the nature of the relationship with the U.S. can actually change whether it's the Trump administration or the Biden administration. So I think, you know, they've sort of telegraphed that the door to diplomacy is still unlocked. But it's not necessarily open. And it's up to the U.S. and South Korea to take the actions to open that door. And, you know, I think that's sort of what they're looking for now is not only what are the early signals, but if there's also some kind of actions that this administration is willing to do to show that different outcomes are actually possible and that there is a reason to come back to the table.

KING: Let's talk about those possible actions. Should the Biden administration consider an Iran-style nuclear deal with North Korea, do you think?

TOWN: Well, in some degrees, yes - in the idea that, you know, we need to be looking at this as a long-term process and be willing to put in the hard work of actual diplomacy and sustained negotiations over time and stop thinking about this as an issue where we can, you know, have a quick negotiation. I think one of the biggest lessons from Iran - the Iran deal is that it took, you know, 11, 12 years to negotiate. And we keep thinking that, with North Korea, we can do this over lunch, right...

KING: Right.

TOWN: ...Like, within a year, you can have an agreement and that that should be executed within, you know, about a year or two as well. And that's just the wrong approach.

KING: It's going to take time. Jenny Town is director of the 38 North program at the Stimson Center. Jenny, thanks for being with us.

TOWN: Great. Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.