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(News Focus) Obama's 'strategic patience' on N. Korea at election juncture
(Editor's note: This is the second of a three-part series on the Korea issues as U.S. voters are about to choose between President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney)
By Lee Chi-dong
WASHINGTON, Nov. 4 (Yonhap) -- In his first term, President Barack Obama has waited with "strategic patience" for North Korea to change its course rather than rushing into dialogue without any guarantee of tangible results.

   As he awaits the voters' decision this week on his re-election bid, Obama has neither been strongly assailed at home nor lauded for major accomplishments regarding North Korea.

   North Korea's continued provocative acts have apparently deprived Obama of any appetite for talks with the country.

   His camp is well aware of the political controversy surrounding the George W. Bush government's botched negotiations with North Korea in its final months.

   Obama has also been distracted by other pending foreign affairs, including the increasingly volatile Middle East and how to best handle Afghanistan.

   Outwardly, U.S. officials have touted denuclearization as their unswerving goal in dealing with North Korea but speculation has grown that Washington may have lowered the bar to concentrate its efforts on preventing the reclusive communist nation from exporting its nuclear technology.

   A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, even said Washington is pursuing a "management strategy" on North Korea.

  
President Obama looks through binoculars toward North Korea during his visit to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas in March. (Yonhap)


Many Korea experts share the view that Pyongyang's provocations have narrowed the maneuvering room for Washington.

   "The Obama administration has consistently pursued a principled policy toward North Korea," said David Straub, associate director at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.

   "It has its priorities straight: support for the alliance with the Republic of Korea (South Korea) comes first, including peace and security on the Korean Peninsula, followed by resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue," added Straub, formerly a senior State Department official specializing in Northeast Asian affairs.

   On taking office four years ago, Obama pledged to "extend a hand" to North Korea's then leader Kim Jong-il and other dictators like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Castro brothers if they "unclench their fists."

   However, North Korea fired a long-range rocket only hours before Obama's landmark speech on his vision for a nuclear-free world in Prague in April 2009.

   The North then pressed ahead with a second nuclear test and carried out a couple of deadly attacks on the South.

   The Obama government presented a three-step approach -- inter-Korean dialogue, Washington-Pyongyang talks and the resumption of six-way nuclear negotiations.

   The formula enabled Seoul to take the initiative, at least seemingly.

   Amid a drawn-out freeze in relations between the two Koreas, the U.S. came under pressure to do something to engage North Korea, and not just sit back doing nothing.

   In July 2011, the two Koreas managed to hold bilateral talks on denuclearization on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Bali. The Obama administration was quick to begin high-level talks with North Korea in New York a week later, followed by a second round of talks in Geneva in October.

   Washington and Pyongyang continued direct talks despite the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in December, producing the so-called Leap Day Deal in Beijing on Feb. 29.

   Under the first significant deal with the Obama administration, the North agreed to suspend uranium enrichment at a Yongbyon plant and impose a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests in return for the shipments of 240,000 tons of food.

   The agreement broke apart quickly, however, when Pyongyang launched a long-range rocket in April.

   Obama was left empty-handed again in North Korea diplomacy with skepticism mounting over the fate of the six-party talks.

   North Korea appears to be waiting to see whether Obama will remain in the White House. It may expect Obama, if re-elected, to feel less political burden for making concessions to North Korea.

   "Like his policy toward Iran, President Obama's outreach efforts have been ultimately and uniformly disappointing, most recently with the failed February 29 agreement," said Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "His efforts to send firm messages of deterrence have done the necessary signaling, but it’s too early in the life of (new North Korean leader) Kim Jong-un’s rule to know whether they have been effective."

   Informed sources said the U.S. has shifted its focus to the livelihoods of North Korea's people from what seems to be far more difficult -- coaxing the regime to abandon its nuclear program and address its human rights issues.

   "The U.S. is increasingly taking issue with the livelihoods of North Korea's hungry people. The U.S. is trying to send a message that the China-like introduction of market economy is needed. South Korea is doing so as well," a source privy to the Seoul-Washington alliance said. "It's a sort of game changer."

   Whether Obama is re-elected or his Republican rival Mitt Romney comes to power, the framework of the U.S. strategy on North Korea will remain in place, added the source.

   A key task for a second Obama administration or the Romney government is to closely consult with South Korea's incoming leadership on any new game plan at an early date, the source stressed.

   lcd@yna.co.kr
leechidong@gmail.com
(END)
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