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Obama's North Korea Dilemma

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
December 23, 2008

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Foremost among the foreign policy challenges facing the next U.S. administration will be a nuclear North Korea under a Communist regime with a record of proliferation to states unfriendly to Washington. President-elect Barack Obama's two predecessors in the White House have pursued a multilateral engagement policy with Pyongyang. Since August 2003, President Bush has negotiated with North Korea under the Six-Party Talks, which include South Korea, Japan, Russia, and China. The parties offer food and fuel aid in exchange for steps taken by North Korea toward abandonment of its nuclear weapons. But these stop-and-go negotiations have been less than smooth, leading experts to say that Obama will not only face a long, difficult process of working with one of the most intractable regimes in the world, but the challenge of managing deteriorating relations between North and South Korea.

Obama, writing in a 2007 Foreign Affairs article, said he supports "sustained, direct, and aggressive diplomacy." But the problem underlying negotiations with North Korea, experts say, is that Pyongyang has no intention of giving up its weapons anytime soon. "I think we're sort of condemned to that process because we don't really have any alternative," says CFR Vice President Gary Samore, who worked on the Agreed Framework to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue during the Clinton administration. Experts say an alternative approach that would force the issue and potentially provoke a war is not a viable option at this point. The U.S. military is already engaged in two wars, and Pyongyang's neighbors, China and South Korea, are both wary of the potential geopolitical fallout of regime change in North Korea.

Steps taken by the Bush administration this year may complicate the next administration's task. After North Korea handed over a declaration of its nuclear program in June 2008, the Bush administration moved to take Pyongyang off the State Sponsors of Terrorism list and remove restrictions related to the Trading with the Enemy Act. Critics say the report, which only details plutonium-based materials and facilities, falls short on three important counts:

  • It does not include details of suspected uranium enrichment;
  • It does not address Pyongyang's proliferation activities;
  • It fails to give an account of the nuclear weapons already produced.

It will be up to the Obama administration to bring uranium enrichment and proliferation issues back to the table as well as to convince Pyongyang to agree to a verification protocol for its plutonium-based materials. In December 2008, the talks reached an impasse (NYT) as North Korea refused to agree in writing to a protocol presented by all the other countries.

Crisis Guide: The Korean PeninsulaGiven reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il's health might be failing, Obama may also be confronted with the possibility of leadership change in North Korea. As this Backgrounder notes, some experts fear scenarios revolving around a power struggle, including a full-scale government collapse. Obama also faces calls by some domestic constituents to raise human rights as a priority. In September 2008, the U.S. Congress reauthorized the North Korea Human Rights Act, raising the status of the special envoy authorized by that act to ambassador-at-large rank, as well as providing him with some responsibility over refugee policy. But some analysts urge different tactics. Katharine H.S. Moon, a political science professor at Wellesley College, argues working with international institutions such as the United Nations would yield better results and convey to the regime in Pyongyang that it is not being "singled out for demonization" (PDF). However, in a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Jay Lefkowitz, President Bush's special envoy for human rights in North Korea, pens a memo to Barack Obama arguing that "it's time to adopt a new approach to North Korea that firmly establishes a link between human rights and security." Lefkowitz calls for talks modeled after the "Helsinki Process" through which western Europe negotiated with the former eastern bloc in the late 1960s and early 1970s. With this in mind, he says Washington should promote linkage among security, economic, and human-rights issues, and insist on verifiable progress in each area as a condition of financial aid or international recognition.

Yet another challenge for the next president will be managing deteriorating relations between Pyongyang and Seoul. Since President Lee Myung-bak came to power in South Korea in February, tensions between the Koreas have been on the rise. In the latest move, Pyongyang threatened to close its border with South Korea, shut down (ABC) cross-border cargo train traffic, and suspended all tours for South Koreans. Bound by a 1954 Mutual Security Agreement to defend South Korea in the event of outside aggression, Washington can little afford for the long-standing dispute on the Korean peninsula to get out of hand.

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