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2009/08/13 10:53 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 67 (August 13, 2009)

  
*** OPINION FROM EXPERTS

Denuclearization Ball Now in N. Korea's Court: William H. Overholt

By Lee Chi-dong

JEJU ISLAND, South Korea (Yonhap) -- The United States has done enough to deliver a message of goodwill to North Koreans and save face by sending Bill Clinton there, and now it's Pyongyang's turn to act, a prominent American scholar said on August 12.

   William H. Overholt, senior research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, stressed the Obama administration is expected to show some flexibility in accordance with "different signals" from the defiant socialist nation.

   "I think the U.S. has gone very far in doing what North Korea wanted -- sending a high-level envoy, having extensive conversations -- and so I don't think North Korea is going to get anything else without giving something," Overholt said in an interview. He is on South Korea's southern resort island to attend the fifth Jeju Peace Forum.

   Overholt was referring to former President Clinton's landmark visit to Pyongyang last week, in which he rescued two American journalists imprisoned by North Koreans for illegally entering the secretive nation and engaging in "hostile acts."

   Clinton's visit to Pyongyang surprised the international community, which has gotten fed up with the North's months of provocations highlighted by a long-range rocket launch in April and a second nuclear test the following month.

   Clinton had "exhaustive" and "wide-ranging" discussions with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il for three-and-a-half hours, according to the North's propaganda news outlets. The U.S. government has toned down the significance of the meeting, saying Clinton's mission was private. Details of their closed-door conversation remain undisclosed.

   "It (the U.S.) has done enough. It is appropriate to wait for some kind of positive North Korean response before the U.S. offers anything more," Overholt said. The scholar, who formerly held the Asia Policy Research Chair at the RAND's Center for Asia Pacific Policy, is known for his expertise on Asian affairs, especially China, the Korean Peninsula, international relations, and finance.

   He was ambivalent about the prospects for the North's denuclearization.

   He said Clinton's activity may help "break the ice for serious discussions on some of the nuclear and foreign policy issues."

   Overholt added "the mentality of the Obama administration (on North Korea) is very flexible" as it started in a better position than the Bush administration, which was basically unwilling to talk with Pyongyang, recognize its concerns or take China's advice seriously.

   "As we get different signals from North Korea -- the signals are always changing -- I think we will see some flexibility," he said. "I don't think that flexibility will mean weakness in any way."

   He said the Obama administration is still faced with more urgent tasks, such as the financial crisis, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the U.S. relationship with China.

   "We probably have not seen the ultimate Obama administration strategy yet. I think there will be probably further evolution. Fundamental principles won't change, but a lot of details may," he said.

   He pointed out, however, that the future is not all rosy, saying instability and fear in Pyongyang make it difficult to implement any deal. However, he also noted that there is a lot of pressure on the regime to make a deal for the resources necessary for stabilization.

   The North's ailing leader Kim Jong-il is reportedly planning to hand over his power to one of his three known sons -- probably the youngest one, Jong-un. The U.S. has been working on contingency plans in case of a power struggle in North Korea and regime collapse, Western media reported.

   "So the situation is going to remain just terribly difficult. But I don't think we should regard it as impossible," Overholt said.

   He did not rule out the possibility that the U.S. would seek a new approach toward the North Korean nuclear issue to offset the six-way talks that have been abandoned by the North, but are still cherished by other participants -- the U.S., South Korea, China, Russia and Japan.

   "It is clear that existing policies aren't working, and so some new emphasis is needed," he said, adding that in any case, the U.S. will try to deal with the matter in cooperation with other regional powers.

   "No U.S. policy toward North Korea can work unless China, South Korea, and Japan are part of the deal," he said.

   He suggested that the U.S. raise the level of its point man on North Korea in a bid to revive the six-way talks, saying an assistant secretary of state or a retired ambassador does not appear to match the North's negotiators.

   Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary for East Asia and Pacific affairs, and Stephen Bosworth, special representative for North Korea policy, can serve as main players who recommend policy in Washington to deal with North Korea, but closing a deal and implementing a deal have to be done by a very high-level official, such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he said.

  (END)