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U.S. Policy Toward North Korea

Author: Scott A. Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy
January 2013
SERI Quarterly


At the start of the Obama administration's first term in 2009, there were many expectations that the United States might pursue direct talks with North Korea in order to break a two decade-long standoff over its nuclear program. President Obama promised in his inaugural address that he would offer an outstretched hand to those who will unclench their fists, making a public offer to dictatorial states of willingness to abandon adversarial relations.1 However, North Korea responded to this offer with a multi-stage rocket launch and a nuclear test in April and May of 2009. These actions meant that President Obama's first North Korea-related policy decisions would be defined by the need to uphold the international non-proliferation regime against North Korea's challenge and would involve winning international support for sanctions against North Korea at the United Nations Security Council. The resulting UNSC Resolution 1874 condemned North Korea's nuclear and multi-stage rocket tests and subjected suspected North Korean nuclear-related shipments to international inspections.

By the time the Obama administration had the political space to pursue direct dialogue with North Korea, it had decided on an approach that Secretary of State Clinton described as "strategic patience in close consultations with our six party allies."2 This emphasis on alliance coordination has been the first principle of any Obama administration discussion of policy toward North Korea, and it was greatly aided by the fact that the Obama and Lee Myung-bak administrations largely saw eye-to-eye on the priority and importance of North Korea's denuclearization. The Obama administration's strategy also rested on assumptions that North Korea's provocations would lead to damaging self-isolation from its immediate neighbors, that enhanced efforts by the administration to engage with North Korea would not result in requisite political benefits and could expose the administration to great political risk (i.e., Secretary Gates's statement that the administration "would not buy this horse for a third time" in reference to possible US-DPRK nuclear negotiations), and that North Korea's near-term capacity to further strengthen its nuclear capabilities was largely under control—since the decommissioning of North Korea's 5-megawatt graphite moderated reactor had taken the North's ability to produce new plutonium for bombs out of its hands.3

The policy of "strategic patience," a policy that suggested that the United States could afford to wait for North Korea to make its decision to denuclearize, aligned well with political reality in light of North Korea's alleged sinking of a Korean warship and shelling of South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island in March and November 2010. But following revelations to Stanford University scientist Siegfried Hecker that North Korean efforts to enrich uranium and construct a light water reactor were making steady progress, the Obama administration held three rounds of direct talks with North Korean counterparts from July 2011 to February 2012. As the Obama administration pursued bilateral negotiations with North Korea, it assiduously sought to ensure that US-DPRK bilateral negotiations did not open up any misunderstanding from allies in Seoul or Tokyo. The third round of US-DPRK bilateral meetings were the first bilateral contacts held following the death of Kim Jong-Il and resulted in parallel statements issued by the United States and DPRK that came to be known as the ill-fated "Leap Day Agreement."4 The United States intended these statements to bind North Korea from provocative actions such as nuclear and missile tests and to secure Pyongyang's commitment to return to the path of denuclearization; but they were upended less than three weeks after they were announced by North Korea's March 16, 2012, announcement of its failed April 12, 2012 satellite launch. Thus, the Obama administration's first term policy toward North Korea involved a mix of elements, including a strong commitment to coordination among South Korean and Japanese allies, continued adherence to the objective of North Korea's denuclearization, efforts to strengthen counter-proliferation, bolstering of tailored deterrence against North Korean conventional provocations, and openness to dialogue if and when North Korea shows its willingness to return to the path of denuclearization.

The Obama administration during its first term has also undertaken initiatives in its Asia policy that provide a broader context and sense of continuity regarding how President Obama sees the world, and about how he is likely to respond to crises in his second term. In line with American public preferences expressed in a 2012 study by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the Obama administration has shown hesitancy to pursue unilateral military interventions and has preferred multilateralist approaches to managing conflicts while emphasizing a "smart power" approach that attempts to integrate diplomatic and international development tools for promoting regional stability with military tools.5 The Obama administration also unveiled a "rebalancing" policy toward Asia, popularly known as the "pivot" to Asia. This policy strengthens US political, economic, and military participation in and commitment to Asia, both through a host of bilateral dialogues with China that cover a wide range of economic and strategic issues and through a variety of hedging measures designed to shape China's rise, limit the effects of assertive Chinese policies, and assure that China's rise will not result in regional instability. Despite American official assertions to the contrary, the US rebalancing policy has stimulated extensive debate among Chinese analysts regarding whether the policy is an attempt to contain China.6 This debate provides a backdrop to consider prospects for Sino-US cooperation on policy toward North Korea, and highlights Chinese wariness and strategic mistrust of US policy intentions.

The complex evolution of the Obama administration's policy toward North Korea during its first term and the characteristics of President Obama's world view together provide a framework for considering what the administration is likely to do in a second term (keeping in mind that two additional primary influences on the formation and direction of US policy toward North Korea are events and personnel). North Korea has given an ample illustration of the power of events to challenge US policy responses, most recently in the successful December 12, 2012 DPRK launch of a three-stage rocket from its Sohae launch facility. North Korea's launch directly violated UN Security Council Resolutions 1695, 1718, and 1874 prohibiting North Korea from conducting tests of any sort using ballistic missile technology. The fact that North Korea successfully launched an object into earth orbit, however, strengthened North Korea's claim to a right to peaceful uses of space and challenged the international community by revealing that the UN resolutions did not have "teeth." A week later, the election of Park Geun-hye as South Korea's next president completed the cast of new leaders in Northeast Asia responsible for maintaining regional stability during 2013 and beyond, but it is still too early to know with assurance the major players in the Park and Obama administrations or to evaluate either their preferences or their chemistry in the policy making process.


The initial predisposition of the Obama administration will be to hold to its stated preference for pursuing strong alliance relations with South Korea, including close coordination of policy toward North Korea. At first glance, this task appears to be complicated by the US push for stronger sanctions against North Korea following North Korea's December 12, 2012 satellite test, while Park has pledged to reach out to North Korea with economic assistance and the resumption of inter-Korean dialogue.7 The push for strong condemnation of North Korea for its violation of previously existing UN Security Council resolutions prohibiting it from conducting rocket launches using ballistic missile technology appears to run at cross purposes with Park's outreach to North Korea. But it may be possible for the Lee Myung-Bak administration to take the point on pursuit of a strong UN statement, so as to allow Park a clean start in trying to frame inter-Korean relations. A more serious North Korean challenge that would constitute a major setback and test the region would be a North Korean nuclear test scheduled for the first weeks and months of a newly-established Park administration (and in the midst of a personnel transition in Washington).

Aside from North Korean testing of Park as a new leader of the ROK, another challenge Park faces in reaching out to the North is that the success or failure of her initiative lies almost completely in the hands of the North Koreans, and the initial impulse of the DPRK in managing relations with a new South Korean leader has been to test the parameters and boundaries of the relationship through provocations, demands, or other evaluations of the firmness (or desperation) of the South Korean counterpart. Park will need to weather North Korean tests of her will without compromise while firmly emphasizing her own terms for managing the relationship.

As long as Park does not frontload too many unconditional economic rewards to North Korea, it is likely that the Obama administration will offer its support to Park in her effort to establish dialogue channels necessary to stabilize the inter-Korean relationship. After all, President Obama himself offered an "outstretched hand" to North Korea during a November 2012 speech at the University of Yangon in Myanmar, if North Korea pursues the path of denuclearization and reform.8

Moreover, the Obama administration faces serious political constraints in its own outreach to the North in the aftermath of North Korea's satellite launch, and is under Congressional pressure to adopt policies that have the potential for escalating confrontation. For this reason, a South Korean initiative to further test North Korea's willingness to return to dialogue and the path of denuclearization would be welcome, especially given that a stable inter-Korean relationship is a prerequisite for any serious diplomatic effort to integrate North Korea into the region or otherwise ease regional tensions. A South Korean initiative could receive the Obama administration's support while entailing no direct political risk. Moreover, South Korea's divided political environment establishes an important rationale for supporting South Korean efforts at détente with the North, since any harder line policy would likely face serious domestic opposition without a renewed good faith South Korean effort to establish inter-Korean dialogue and peaceful coexistence.

Another feature of Park's approach to the North that is likely to appeal to Washington is the idea of a trilateral US-ROK-China dialogue on common issues and challenges posed by North Korea.9 If China were to accept such a proposal, this dialogue in principle would serve as a means by which to minimize the possibility of strategic misunderstanding between the United States and China that could potentially stand in the way of eventual Korean reunification.


Given the remaining uncertainties surrounding personnel and events that may influence prospects for effective US-ROK policy coordination toward North Korea, I will conclude by offering three possible scenarios for how things might develop under the Park and Obama administrations, depending on how North Korea responds to the two leaders.

The stagnation scenario: North Korea continues to insist that it will not denuclearize and rebuffs South Korean efforts to establish peaceful coexistence in inter-Korean relations. However, North Korea also does not take advantage of the situation by pursuing brinkmanship or some other form of provocation designed to test and discipline South Korea and the international community. Meanwhile, China continues to independently provide economic support to North Korea necessary to ensure its political stability.

The harmonization scenario: After a period of North Korean testing of Park Geun-hye, the North makes a decision to stabilize inter-Korean relations. South Korea takes the lead in 'trustpolitik' with North Korea, with support from the United States. This development leads to renewed diplomatic engagement of North Korea, including dialogue between the United States and North Korea and cooperation with China. As North Korea abandons its nuclear program and moves toward engagement and dialogue; economic resources flow to North Korea.

The provocation scenario: North Korea's dissatisfaction with its circumstances leads it to pursue ever more dramatic and game-changing provocations. North Korea's expanded threat to US interests causes the United States to take the lead in strategy toward North Korea and attempts to put greater pressure on China to pressure North Korea. Under these circumstances, North Korea reaches out to South Korea and accepts Park's dialogue offers as a safety valve against international pressure and as a means by which to try to divide the United States and South Korea, or alternatively drives inter-Korean relations into a high state of tensions in an effort to drive all parties back to accommodation or negotiations.

The range of possible scenarios underscores some clear lessons that are evident from decades of efforts to curb North Korea's nuclear development and bring the regime into coexistence with its neighbors. The North Korean regime thrives on crisis and gains internal support from crisis situations; for this reason, the regime mobilizes its people in a state of seemingly perpetual crisis. Second, North Korea has a decisive role in setting the terms and tone of diplomacy and confrontation in Northeast Asia. This circumstance has all too often frustrated both US and South Korean diplomatic efforts. Third, both the United States and South Korea increasingly find that it is difficult to disaggregate North Korea-focused diplomacy from attempts to engage China cooperatively in an effort to achieve stable outcomes on the Korean peninsula. There is a risk that North Korea's neighbors are playing different games with differing purposes, and there has thus far been relatively little common effort among the United States, South Korea, and China to engage cooperatively with North Korea to achieve even limited goals, many of which might be in the common interest of all parties concerned.

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