Stay the Course in North Korea

This undated picture, released from Korean Central News Agency on June 11, 2008, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (L) inspecting Korean People's Army unit 958 at an undisclosed location. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

by Mike Kulma

On Tuesday, November 4th, the citizens of the United States took to the polls and elected a new President. A historic election on many fronts, but all eyes are now on President-elect Obama, who needs to drive forward and use every day between now and his inauguration to hone his policies, both domestic and foreign.

Much of the early focus of an Obama administration must needs remain on the economy and the war in Iraq. However, it is absolutely critical that the new administration pay serious attention to other foreign policy issues right out of the gate. What to do regarding US relations with North Korea and the ongoing six-party peace talks certainly belongs at the top of the list. In this realm, an imperfect one at best, the United States needs to not only stay the course, but build on the efforts of the last few years.

The risks of changing policy as the new administration enters can not be overstated. Not long after President Bush first came into office, his administration took a hard-line stance against the North Korean regime, calling for a review of the Clinton administration policy, and eventually tagging North Korea as a member of the axis of evil. While North Korea had done much over the preceding years to warrant a more critical eye, in retrospect these policies set back the prospects for peace and stability in the region in a number of critical ways.

First and foremost, it is believed that North Korea during this time increased its stockpile of nuclear weapons. North Korea’s reaction to the Bush administration policies was to drop out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (or NPT), restart its nuclear program, and further develop its weapons program. Second, while there is plenty of blame to go around on all sides, this change of policy stalled the potential for progress in relations between the six parties for years.

It is only more recently, under the watch of Assistant Secretary Christopher Hill, that Bush administration policy toward North Korea has taken on a more pragmatic approach. While this process has moved forward in fits and starts over the last few years, it has moved forward. Most recently, after North Korea threatened to restart its nuclear facility at Yongbyon, the Bush administration removed the North from its terrorism blacklist in early October, in return for North Korean commitments to allow access to its facilities for inspections, while also dropping its opposition to Japanese and South Korean participation in inspections.

At this point, the road forward is fraught with peril and unknowns. Barack Obama, the candidate, spoke of the need for "sustained, direct, and aggressive diplomacy" to deal with North Korea. This seems to suggest an understanding of the often lengthy process of dealing with North Korea, but is vague in how far it might be willing to go in securing America’s interests. At the same time, the issue of direct diplomacy was one of concern during the campaign, with some questioning whether or not this meant President-elect Obama would meet a leader such as Kim Jong-il without preconditions. While it is difficult to predict how far he might move in this direction, it would be politically difficult for him to meet the North Korean leader in such a manner, something that he’s likely to learn very early on in his presidency.

The on-again, off-again process can fluster even the most experienced of negotiators. That being the case, President-elect Obama needs to build a strong team of experienced Korea hands to push forward on the agenda. While trying to build on the limited progress of recent years, they will have to further deal with a number of additional obstacles in building a cohesive and sustainable peace on the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-il, is reportedly ill. What this means for continuing negotiations remains to be seen. Relations between North and South Korea have taken a turn for the worse this year, following the election of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who took a more hard-line approach toward Pyongyang. And then there is Japan, a member of the Six-Party talks and steadfast ally of the United States, which was angered by the recent delisting of North Korea, because the North has yet to fully satisfy Japanese inquiries into the abduction of its citizens by North Korean agents some decades ago.

These are just a few of the issues that will serve to further complicate US relations with North Korea and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. However, this is a course we must stay. As Barack Obama’s new administration takes over we are faced with the choice of making some progress, as we have in recent years, or no progress and a nuclear North Korea. The choice is ours, and the future of peace and stability in Northeast Asia hangs in the balance.


Mike Kulma is the Director of Policy Programs of the Asia Society.


Copyright: Project Syndicate/Asia Society