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Obama's Nobel Speech and North Korea

Author: Scott A. Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy
January 14, 2010


At the same time that Ambassador Bosworth was in Pyongyang last month for the first direct talks between the United States and North Korea under the Obama administration, President Obama flew to Oslo to deliver his Nobel price acceptance speech.

Although Obama's Nobel speech was not about North Korea, it did contain clear statements on a number of subjects of relevance to the future of the U.S. relationship with North Korea. The North Koreans would do well to interpret the talks with Ambassador Bosworth in the context of broader themes President Obama has emphasized in his Nobel speech, which reveals principles likely to inform the President's own views regarding North Korea-related issues. In his Nobel speech, President Obama suggested three ways to build a just peace, each of which are directly relevant to U.S. policy toward North Korea.

First, Obama outlines the need to "develop alternatives to violence that are tough enough to actually change behavior" in dealing with international rule-breakers as a means by which to avoid war. He specifically mentioned North Korea along with Iran, stating clearly that "it is also incumbent upon all of us to insist that nations like Iran and North Korea do not game the system."

Obama's description of North Korea as an international rule-breaker provides a clear frame of reference for understanding the administration's view of the North Korea problem to date. The Obama administration perceives the fundamental problem as between North Korea and the international system, not necessarily between North Korea and the United States or with South Korea.

Obama administration efforts to discipline North Korea as an international law-breaker will clearly chafe against North Korean sensitivities, given that the North feels unjustly treated in its initial efforts to seek international justification for its missile launch. The Obama administration has made clear its commitment to dialogue but is also insisting on North Korean conformity with international standards, an objective that flies in the face of North Korea's own ideology and conception of itself as an exceptional state not bound by rules governing international behavior.

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