January 21, 2009
By Bruce Klingner
Of all the foreign policy challenges that Barack Obama inherits
from President George Bush, North Korea may prove to be the most
intractable. Perceptions that Obama will take a dramatically
different approach toward Pyongyang, including an embrace of summit
diplomacy, have raised unrealistic expectations for a near-term
breakthrough in the six-party talks.
Similarly, many in South Korea interpreted North Korea's
abstention from criticizing the United States in its authoritative
New Year's Day editorial as a sure signal that Pyongyang was
reaching out to Washington.
In the dawn of a new year and a new U.S. administration, we can
again be hopeful of a diplomatic solution to the North Korean
Neither the confrontational approach of the first six years of
the Bush administration nor the unconditional engagement strategy
of the final two years of Bush and the Roh Moo-hyun administration
But a U.S. policy that integrates a comprehensive diplomatic
approach with accompanying pressure derived from enforcing
international law and U.N. resolutions may prove successful,
particularly if closely coordinated with our allies South Korea and
Still, prudence demands that we remember the broken promises and
shattered dreams that litter the Korean landscape. Nuclear
negotiations are stalemated because North Korea rejects a
verification protocol that the Bush administration claimed
Pyongyang had previously accepted. And Pyongyang's response --
the vitriolic attacks and near severing of relations -- when
South Korea and Japan demanded conditionality and reciprocity bodes
ill for those hoping North Korea will accept future requirements
arising from the six-party talks.
Of course, Obama's North Korea policy will remain dependent on a
modicum of cooperation by Kim Jong-il. Although Pyongyang welcomed
Obama's election, it will await the details of his policies prior
to revealing its strategy toward the new U.S. administration.
North Korea has shown itself to be patient during leadership
transitions, parsing the selection of administration officials and
their statements for indications of potential policy changes.
North Korea first seeks to attain its goals through formal and
informal diplomatic means, manipulating multiple parallel channels
of engagement, playing one opponent off against the other to gain
But, if North Korea feels it is too long ignored or faces a less
benign negotiating environment, it will initiate a carefully
calibrated ratcheting up of tensions.
Pyongyang typically signals intent to engage in provocative
behavior by increasing the bellicosity and authoritativeness of its
official propaganda. Potential options include prohibited actions
in the Joint Security Area; extensive out-of-cycle military
training exercises near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) or naval
incursions in the West Sea; a long-range missile test; or
preparations for a second nuclear test.
North Korea believes it can and should engage in provocative
behavior because it has felt no lasting punitive repercussions
dating back to 1968, when it seized a U.S. naval ship and tried to
assassinate the South Korean President. Even Pyongyang's nuclear
test in 2006 produced only a brief interruption in the six-party
talks. Negotiations quickly resumed, not only dissipating the
international resolve to punish North Korea, but ultimately
bestowing economic and diplomatic benefits on Pyongyang.
As President Obama assembles his foreign policy-making team and
translates vague campaign pronouncements to specific policy
recommendations, he should look to history for guidance. And
history clearly advises that he avoids several of the current
recommendations. Specifically, he should not:
As President Obama contemplates the Sisyphean task of making
real progress in North Korean denuclearization, he should first
insist that North Korea comply with its existing six-party talks
These include: issuing a data declaration addressing its uranium
weapons program and proliferation activities; disabling all nuclear
facilities; and accepting a verification protocol that meets
Next, he should require more detailed follow-on, joint
statements to prevent North Korea from exploiting loopholes to
avoid full compliance. He should also consider establishing
deadlines so Pyongyang is not allowed to drag out the six-party
talks indefinitely so that it achieves de facto international
acceptance as a nuclear weapons state.
Klingner, is senior research fellow for Northeast Asia
in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Korea Times
Of all the foreign policy challenges that Barack Obama inherits from President George Bush, North Korea may prove to be the most intractable. Perceptions that Obama will take a dramatically different approach toward Pyongyang, including an embrace of summit diplomacy, have raised unrealistic expectations for a near-term breakthrough in the six-party talks.
Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia
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