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2008/11/06 11:24 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 28 (November 6, 2008)

   *** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

N.K. Keeping Mum on U.S. Election, Likely to Take Wait-and-See Attitude

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- While a number of countries around the world have sent congratulatory messages to U.S. president-elect Barack Obama following his landslide victory in the U.S. presidential election, North Korean media remained silent as of Nov. 6 morning, running routine verbal attacks against U.S. military moves.

   The North's state news agency accused both the United States and South Korea of conducting a large-scale joint military drill in the South, named Hoguk Exercise, to "pull down the DPRK (North Korea) by force of arms." "The U.S. and South Korean warmongers are escalating the moves for a war to invade the DPRK while asserting the North should be pressurized by a military edge," it claimed.

   Obama's election might be welcome news for North Korea, which views defeated candidate John McCain as a "variant of Bush." Obama said earlier he was willing to meet leaders of so-called rogue states, including North Korea, Iran, and Cuba, after sufficient preparations.

   North Korea watchers, however, expect Pyongyang to take a wait-and-see stance for the time being before issuing an official response to the transition in Washington. When George W. Bush was elected in 2000 to end the Clinton administration's rule, North Korea did not provide direct comments for nearly three months. It opened verbal attacks only after Bush took office and adopted a tougher line against Pyongyang.

   Experts point out that Obama's administration will pursue a policy of direct engagement with the socialist regime only when it complies with the ongoing denuclearization process.

   Obama supports "aggressive, sustained and direct diplomacy" in dealing with the North. During a primary debate, he expressed willingness to meet with shunned leaders like North Korea's Kim Jong-il within his first year as president. Obama later toned down his plan, saying such meetings would occur only after adequate preparations.

   "Early in the Obama administration, I expect Washington will make a high-level statement that the U.S. is prepared to normalize relations with Pyongyang and sign a peace treaty ending the Korean War, but only after North Korea has completely eliminated its nuclear weapons and dismantled its nuclear facilities," Gary Samore, vice president of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, said in an e-mail interview. The 1950-53 war ended with an armistice.

   North Korea may have reason to expect Obama to follow in the footsteps of his party predecessor, Bill Clinton, who agreed to provide the energy-strapped country with light-water reactors and considered a trip to Pyongyang.

   The Obama camp's foreign policy team includes Madeleine Albright, who met with the North Korean leader in Pyongyang during the waning days of the Clinton administration in response to the North's Vice-Marshall Jo Myong-rok's trip to Washington.

   However, the conciliatory mood turned icy with the inception of the Bush administration. For much of its tenure, the Republican government took an uncompromising approach to Pyongyang, although it softened its stance following the North's nuclear test in October 2006. Last month, President George W. Bush rescinded the two-decade-long designation of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism in return for its acceptance of a plan to verify its nuclear claims.

   "For North Korea, eight years of waiting is over. North Korea views Obama's election as an opportunity to eliminate mistrust and hostile policies between the two sides," Kim Seong-bae, senior researcher at Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul, said. "North Korea and the U.S. will have more direct negotiations."

   He said the Obama administration may pursue a resolution to the nuclear crisis through a "big deal" or grand bargain, using light-water reactors and normalization of ties with Pyongyang as bargaining chips. The U.S. may also bring the missile and human rights issues to the negotiating table, Kim said.

   "I don't think Obama's election will automatically lead to a deal. It would take several months to form a new diplomatic team and have consultations with related nations on the North Korean issue," he said. "Negotiations with North Korea are expected to get underway in full swing in the latter half of next year after the new government handles the issue of pulling out troops from Iraq.

   He said Pyongyang will be more active in talks with Washington, with the aim of normalizing bilateral relations no later than 2012 to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of its founding leader, Kim Il-sung.

   Lending credence to the prospects for brisk direct talks are recent comments by Obama's key foreign policy adviser, Frank Jannuzi. He commented on the need for North Korea and the U.S. to establish a diplomatic mission in each other's capitals to facilitate the dismantlement of the North Korean nuclear program, according to South Korean experts who met Jannuzi last month.

   South Korean government officials, however, say it is still too early to paint a rosy picture. "As shown so far, talks with North Korea are unpredictable and progress largely depends on its attitude," a Foreign Ministry official said.

   North Korea wants to be acknowledged as a nuclear power, and the six-party talks on the nuclear crisis are now in place, he added. The Bush administration in 2003 launched the Beijing-based talks also attended by South Korea, China, Russia and Japan in 2003, and in 2004 called Clinton's 1994 Agreed Framework with the North a "failure."

   Samore, who served as the deputy for the U.S. delegation that negotiated the bilateral deal, said the Obama administration will not make reckless concessions.

   "I expect it to basically continue the current strategy to disarm North Korea through 'action for action' incremental steps under the auspices of the six-party talks," he said. "The Obama administration will want to make a strong statement that it is not willing to accept or tolerate North Korea as a nuclear-armed power."

   Samore said the North's alleged uranium enrichment program and proliferation may emerge as the main sticking points again. "Assuming that the disablement of the Yongbyon facilities and verification of North Korea's plutonium declaration is completed (or almost finished) by the time Obama takes office at the end of January, the next important step will be declaration and verification of North Korea's secret enrichment program and proliferation activities," he said.

   South Korean Unification Minister Kim Ha-joong said Nov. 5 he expects the new U.S. administration led by Barack Obama to contribute positively to the promotion of peace on the Korean Peninsula and inter-Korean relations. In a lecture at Yonsei University in Seoul, Kim said Obama's administration is expected to make positive efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem and improve U.S.-North Korean relations.

   Analysts say the election of Obama will likely widen North Korea's footing in its campaign to push Seoul back to an engagement policy pursued by South Korea's previous two liberal administrations. But North Korea is unlikely to show immediate interest in mending worsening ties with South Korea, focusing instead only on improving relations with the United States and recovering its economy, they said.

   "North Korea, in the short term, would not respond to South Korea's calls to restore relations in a bid to press it to change North Korea policy," Cho Seong-ryeol, a senior fellow at Seoul's Institute for National Security Strategy, told Yonhap News Agency by phone.

   The two Koreas' once reconciliatory ties turned chilly after South Korean President Lee Myung-bak -- a staunchly pro-U.S. conservative -- took office in late February. Lee has said big economic cooperation programs with the North signed at last year's summit between his predecessor Roh Moo-hyun and North Korean leader Kim will proceed, pending progress in the communist state's nuclear disarmament, a position which irritated Pyongyang.

   Pyongyang has spurned Lee's repeated dialogue offer and stepped up harsh rhetoric against him and his government.

   Last month, the North threatened to cut all ties with South Korea if its conservative government continues to pursue "a confrontational racket" while talking "duplicitously" about peace and reconciliatory dialogue with Pyongyang.

   Cho said inter-Korean dialogue will be able to resume when Seoul changes its policy toward the North in coordination with the new U.S. government's East Asia policy, expected to come out around next spring. Cho advised Seoul not to hastily alter its North Korea policy to cope with the changed environment. "North Korea will demand more if the South Korean government tries to make any change in its policy at the present time," he said.

   Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, predicted the current stall in inter-Korean relations will likely continue unless Lee changes his approach toward the communist nation.

   "Chances are North Korea will rather increasingly try to sideline South Korea should its relations with the U.S. improve and cooperation with China strengthen after Obama takes office," the expert said. "Pyongyang, of course, feels the need to improve ties with Seoul but would not return to dialogue unless Seoul changes its stance first."

   South Korea is a stable donor of food, fertilizer and other forms of aid to North Korea. It is questionable if Pyongyang would try to exchange food for its self-esteem, he said. North Korea did not request annual shipment of humanitarian aid from the South for this year amid chilly ties.

   Some others, however, forecast no drastic change in the U.S. policy on North Korea after Obama's win. "North Korea also may not have too many expectations for change as it has learnt from eight years of negotiations with the Clinton administration," Ryu Gil-jae, professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said in a piece contributed to a local newspaper.