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2008/11/13 11:05 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 29 (November 13, 2008)


Prospects for the U.S. Obama Administration's North Korea Policy

By Haksoon Paik, Senior Fellow, the Sejong Institute, Seongnam, South Korea

Democratic candidate Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States on November 4, 2008 by a large margin. Voters looked to Obama's message of change and his promise of a new vision after the "eight lost years" of the Bush administration. Given his mandate, the Obama administration is likely to alter current U.S. policy regarding diplomacy and national security. What effect will this have on Washington's North Korea policy? The following review of the underlying tone of Obama's North Korea policy and other issues at stake will help to answer this question.

An Overview of President-elect Obama's North Korea Policy

President-elect Obama and his policy advisers have made it clear that the Obama administration will pursue an engagement policy towards North Korea in an effort to secure America's key interests through active dialogue and negotiation with Pyongyang. This approach is based on evaluations of the failed policies of the Bush administration, which for six years until the mid-term election in November 2006 snubbed dialogue and negotiation in favor of sanctions and other means to pressure the North Korean regime. Bush's approach is now widely seen as having contributed to the stepped-up development of the North's nuclear weapons program and its testing of a nuclear device in 2006.

   Obama's team, in contrast, takes the view that progress on the North's denuclearization can only be made in conjunction with active diplomacy, with the potential for eventually normalizing relations between the two nations. The process would also involve the establishment of a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, promoting multilateral security cooperation in Northeast Asia and providing the North with energy and other economic assistance.

   According to Obama and his advisers, the ultimate goal of U.S. North Korea policy is the removal of all of the North's nuclear programs in a "complete, verifiable" way. Central to that end is the verification of the North's declared nuclear facilities, materials, and related activities without which no progress can be made in six-party talks. Transparency or clarity is critical to that process. Obama and his advisers appear optimistic, if prudent, that they can achieve the dismantlement of the facilities at Yongbyon, as promised by the North under the current agreement on verification. The process is expected to begin as soon as the other members in the six-party talks -- South Korea, Japan, Russia and China -- give their approval to the U.S.-North Korea agreement on the verification protocol. Obama's team have made no secret that they hope this can happen prior to Obama's inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009.

   While the outgoing Bush administration has asked for China's increased involvement in resolving the current nuclear standoff, President-elect Obama and his advisers maintain that Beijing cannot act in Washington's place. From this position, the U.S. must establish and demonstrate its leadership in solving the North Korean nuclear problem and in attaining its primary security goal of "non-proliferation." Under this context, the U.S. would need to pursue direct, high-level diplomacy with the North, including a possible summit between leaders of the two countries.

   President-elect Obama has stated during his campaign that he is willing to hold talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il without preconditions, though he has insisted that the U.S. would not enter into such talks unprepared. His advisers made it clear that any high-level talks, should they take place, would involve the use of the full array of Washington's diplomatic resources, including its economic influence and the support of allies and friends. Washington's efforts to spread democracy and freedom would also play a role in negotiations with Pyongyang, they say. Such leverage could be applied separately or in any number of combinations.

   Reliance on American military might and economic influence alone will not achieve the desired results with regards to North Korea, according to the Obama team. The president-elect does warn, however, that North Korea would face "immediate consequences" should it fail to cooperate with the U.S. or break its word in negotiations. Such consequences would include the suspension of dialogue and a review of the situation with other six-party members if the North fails to abide by its agreement on denuclearization. Furthermore, energy assistance to the North could be cut off, while the country could be placed back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism and have the Trading with the Enemy Act reapplied against it.

   Of concern to the incoming administration is the question of North Korea's assistance in developing Syria's nuclear weapons program. For this reason, transparency remains the vital element in the North's denuclearization process according to Obama's advisers. Aside from the dismantling of the Yongbyon facility, Washington will seek to verify the North's other suspected sites, including its undeclared uranium-enrichment program and its involvement with Syria.

   Other concerns involve human rights in North Korea, which Obama has made repeated reference to, stressing that his administration would exert bilateral and multilateral pressure on the North to improve its human rights record. Those surrounding the president-elect attach a great deal of importance to questions of freedom, democracy and human rights. With the Democratic Party now holding a majority in the U.S. Congress and with a Democrat in the White House, Washington is more likely than ever to adopt a tougher stance on the human rights situation in the North. Such a shift has already been hinted at with the unanimous agreement by Democratic Congress members to enact the North Korean Human Rights Act and adopt measures for its extension. Ironically, any progress made in negotiations over the North's nuclear weapons program will serve to dampen voices calling for an improvement of the human rights situation in the North.

Cooperation between South Korea and the U.S. under Obama

What should Seoul's position be on the policy of the incoming Obama administration as outlined above? Recent remarks by Frank Jannuzi, a key policy adviser to Obama on Korean affairs, points to the challenge Seoul faces in addressing this question. Jannuzi, an East Asia specialist with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted the increasingly divergent approach of Seoul and Washington to North Korea in recent years, a development that has strained the U.S.-South Korea alliance. For this reason, once President Obama takes office, he is likely to urge President Lee Myung-bak to support his engagement policy toward the North. President Bush, in contrast, pressured President Roh Moo-hyun to turn away from its engagement policy with Pyongyang.

   If Seoul remains unwilling to depart from its conservative and hardline stance towards the North in favor of a more practical approach, the possibilities are high that South Korea would suffer from a further eroding of inter-Korean ties, which have been in the doldrums since Lee's inauguration in February 2008. Such a posture would also undermine Seoul's position in the eyes of the international community with respect to resolving issues pertaining to North Korea.

   For Pyongyang, it is imperative that they take advantage of the present opportunity. It is highly likely that the Obama administration will be seriously tested in its first months in office, in areas ranging from the economy to diplomacy and national security. Amid these strained conditions, it is critical that North Korea refrain from complicating the ongoing nuclear dialogue and negotiation. Otherwise, Pyongyang will lose a valuable and rare opportunity for a resolution of the nuclear issue as Obama would be forced into a defensive posture to protect the interests of the U.S. and its allies.

This is an essay released by Sejong Commentary, No. 121 (November 6, 2008), which was published by the Sejong Institute in South Korea.