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Obama's North Korea challenge

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In Brief

This week US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, heads of to Northeast Asia. She has a tricky mission. One of the trickiest parts will be to navigate around the development of an Obama Administration strategy for dealing with the North Korean problem. On this there seems still quite a way to go.

Former Assistant Secretary of State, Christopher Hill, lead negotiator for the United States in the Six Party Talks under the Bush Administration, will accompany her. To some, who urge fundamental change in US strategy towards negotiating denuclearisation of the DPRK and a broader settlement on the Korean peninsula, this is an exquisite irony, symbol of the logjam in thinking about North Korea in the new Administration. This judgment may be unfair, both on Hill, who stood out against powerful antagonists to re-energise negotiations with Pyongyang in the latter days stages of the Bush Administration, as well as Obama’s people, who have to work through all the issues carefully as well as pick up diplomatic pieces with South Korea and Japan, neither of whom have made things easy, in re-positioning American strategy on the North Korean problem.

Of all the foreign policy problems inherited from the Bush Administration, North Korea may yet prove among the most intractable, as Bruce Klinger from the Heritage Foundation recently, and perhaps improbably, claimed.

Hill’s replacement as Special Envoy on North Korea is yet to be confirmed.


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Former Ambassador Steve Bosworth, currently Dean at Tufts, is widely tipped to get the job. Bosworth, just returned from a high-powered private probing mission to Pyongyang for dialogue with North Korean officials, is experienced in Korean affairs and well qualified to take on the task. For the moment, the anxiety is that Clinton does not accidentally comprise this task, in Japan over getting too close on the abductee issue, and in South Korea, where the Lee Government has squandered whatever assets Seoul had in dealings with Pyongyang and is under heavy attack on this and other issues right across the political spectrum.

Most of the signs suggest that Pyongyang is reaching out to the new Administration, although it is more difficult to gauge its ultimate intention on reaching a settlement on denuclearisation, a core US objective and one shared in the international community.

A number of options are being canvassed to get things moving in the right direction. Judging where Pyongyang is coming from will be central to success.

The experts’ mission, of which Ambassador Bosworth was a member, has provided a private report on their observations in Pyongyang:

‘Viewed from Pyongyang, the arcane Beltway debates about the North Korea seem increasingly wide of the mark.  Our interlocutors made repeatedly clear that the nuclear test and the claims of weaponization of the North’s plutonium inventory mark a fundamental divide in Pyongyang’s thinking and actions. 

‘Though the officials with whom we met insisted that ‘the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula’ remains Pyongyang’s long-term strategic objective, this goal seems premised on expectations so fanciful as to vanish into the mists of time.  

‘The essential message is that the North is now a state in possession of nuclear weapons, and that it’s time for the U.S. to accept this reality; the weapons will not go away anytime soon. This claim does not mean that negotiations are irrelevant.   

‘For example, the full disabling of the Yongbyon reactor and associated facilities would be a significant accomplishment, and the North Koreans gave every indication of wanting to proceed to completion, though they do not see a verification protocol as part of the Phase 2 deal.   

‘The essential message: you fulfill your objectives (that is, on the provision of energy), and we’ll fulfill ours. The converse seems equally true, though the challenges of reconstituting the Yongbyon complex are ever more daunting, if not insuperable.  

‘Assuming completion, however, the challenges will then only increase. Expectations of the provision of light water reactors (as a condition for dismantlement) are again in play, and in some statements to this effect seemed virtually non-negotiable. This may well be little more than a marker for future negotiations, but Pyongyang has few incentives to remove items from the diplomatic agenda before determining what various items might be worth.   

‘Pending the removal of the ‘U.S. nuclear threat,’ Pyongyang insists that it must continue to enhance its defence and deterrence capabilities, though reports of an impending missile test were left somewhat ambiguous.  

‘The North Koreans recognized that the Obama Administration is reviewing its approach to future negotiations, and they seem prepared to be patient, at least for now.  

‘Their preferred outcome would give predominant weight to the bilateral relationship with the United States, minimizing or even dispensing with the Six Party process.   

‘The latter outcome would be clearly unacceptable to the United States and the other four participants in the negotiations, a point that was made repeatedly clear by all delegation members.  But (unlike during the 1990s) the North Koreans seemed in no particular hurry to proceed with full diplomatic relations with Washington, though this too may be a pose.   

‘A more disquieting prospect is the utter trashing of relations with the Lee Myong Bak administration (in South Korea). By comparison, the criticisms of Japan seemed far more temperate. This was not characterized as a ‘hardline’ position, but an appropriate response to actions by the South, including the repeated speculations about Kim Jong Il’s health, which were viewed as disrespectful to the ‘Great General’.  

‘As our delegation made clear, an outcome that leaves inter-Korean relations and Japan-North Korea relations in a deep freeze is demonstrably unacceptable to the United States.  It was difficult to tell if the North Koreans internalized this argument, but it was conveyed unambiguously. 

‘In a longer run sense, the DPRK’s declared strategy presumes the end of the U.S. nuclear umbrella, the invalidation of the U.S. alliance, and the development of a U.S.-North Korean ‘strategic relationship’, for which Pyongyang would denuclearize in return.   

‘Is this a serious negotiating stance, or does the North’s seeming bravado and assurance mask deeper anxieties about the fate of their system? 

‘There may be some modest evidence of change in North Korea, especially in the increasing monetization of the economy for those able to secure even modest amounts of hard currency, but the prospects for the DPRK’s citizenry remain deeply disquieting, with no obvious way out. 

‘The fundamental questions for the United States and for North Korea’s neighbours persist:  how can outside powers credibly negotiate with Pyongyang without validating its claims to nuclear weapons status? And are the self referential leaders of the DPRK truly prepared for normal relations with the outside world, beginning most immediately with the ROK?’

By all accounts, this report is quite accurate. One view on the team is that it might not be sensible to hold up the disablement of Yongbyon over the question of verification. The point of disabling is to stop the North Koreans from producing more plutonium. It doesn’t matter whether they are the truth about how much they have, or whether they have an HEU program. Those should be the concerns of the next phase of negotiations where the long haul trying to dismantle their nuclear facilities (which, will cost America and its allies, including Australia, at least a couple of LWRs and much else beside) is the primary objective. ‘The disabling process continues, though North Korea has slowed the pace of removing the remaining fuel rods. They give no sign that they would not live up to their commitment to complete the disabling as long as they get delivery on the commitment of heavy fuel’. 

These are merely some of the immediate issues that have to be confronted by the Obama team. At the heart of permanent resolution of the North Korean problem will be fashioning a settlement that provides Pyongyang with political and economic security and begins to define some steps that will make some kind of confederation on the peninsula possible in the much longer term.  

And there are few yet who are able to focus that far ahead.

One response to “Obama’s North Korea challenge”

  1. Spot on …. Well thought through summary. Especially the last sentence.

    It’s a case of step by step. Those many in the logjam in thinking about NK in Washington DC (and Gaimushyo and ROK’s Lee Myung Bak Govt) can’t see beyond the very short term and Korean Cold War straightjacket mentality, and hence lack the LT vision that a fundamental change in strategy would bring. I wonder if Hillary will meet quietly with Madeline Albright before her departure for NE Asia. I’m sure she will. So much of this trip will have to be conducted well behind closed doors, and one would need to be careful about how one reads the media statements. Let’s hope Hillary manages to dance around the absence of policy with Taro Aso and Lee, and listen to and move forward with China.

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