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Obama and North Korea: First 100 Days

Author: Scott A. Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy
April 27, 2009


The Obama administration was a political target of North Korea's April 5, 2009, North Korean missile test in addition to the targets of internal political consolidation, exploiting China's DPRK dilemma, and the exploitation of possible divisions within the UN Security Council.

North Korea's strategic objective has been to secure its position as a nuclear weapons state. In a statement released immediately prior to President Obama's inauguration, the DPRK Foreign Ministry declared that normalization and the nuclear issue are "two separate matters" and that "the DPRK's status as a nuclear weapons state will remain unchanged." Pyongyang's tactical objective has been to shape the field for bilateral negotiations with the United States on terms favorable to the DPRK by controlling the agenda and terms of interaction. Crisis escalation tactics and brinkmanship are tried and true negotiating tactics that from a North Korean perspective have never failed to deliver. The challenge for the Obama administration is whether it will be possible to break this pattern and to establish a dynamic of interaction with the North on its own terms.

Thus far, three primary developments have provided hints regarding the possible direction of the Obama administration's policy-in-formation toward North Korea. First, Secretary Clinton has emphasized reassurance to allies and active consultations on policy toward North Korea. Second, the selection of Ambassador Stephen Bosworth as a special envoy for Korean peninsula issues suggests a desire within the administration for higher-level bilateral engagement of North Korea. Third, North Korea's missile test stimulated the first direct statements on North Korea from the president himself, framing North Korea as a non-proliferation issue.

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