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Obama and North Korea: First 100 Days

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.


Secretary Clinton's Visit to Asia: Providing Reassurance to Alliance Partners


Secretary Clinton's visit to Asia provided the first outlines of the new administration's thinking on important aspects of the U.S. approach to North Korea, primarily through her ability to reassure partners regarding prospects for continuity in U.S. policy toward North Korea. During Secretary Clinton's visits in Tokyo and Seoul, she reassured Japanese and South Korean leaders regarding her commitment to the six party talks and did not shy away from acknowledging the possibility of succession in North Korea. Secretary Clinton has thus far remained consistent in this stance, stating in Baghdad on April 26th that she was pleased with UN sanctions against three North Korean firms and stating that "we continue along with our partners in the six-party talks to press North Korea to return to the obligations which it assumed."


The theme of reassurance and reaffirmation of alliances as a cornerstone for addressing threats to regional and global instability represents a view that is shared by many incoming senior policy makers in the Obama administration. For these individuals, a prerequisite for engagement with North Korea will be assurance that allies such as South Korea and Japan are satisfied that engagement with North Korea will be fully coordinated and will serve mutual interests. This group will not tolerate North Korean efforts to divide the alliances, preferring to pursue engagement with the North on the basis of a unified prior understanding among alliance partners.


Appointment of Ambassador Bosworth: Higher-Level Engagement With North Korea


Secretary of State Clinton announced the selection of Ambassador Bosworth as the Obama administration's special representative for Korea policy during her stay in South Korea. A former ambassador to South Korea and former executive director of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, Ambassador Bosworth had visited Pyongyang in early February, prior to his appointment as the administration's special representative. Ambassador Bosworth made a visit shortly after his appointment to Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo, and reportedly had been open to visiting Pyongyang again as special representative for discussions with North Korean officials. However, the DPRK did not take actions to welcome Ambassador Bosworth, instead preferring to continue preparations for the missile test.


Ambassador Bosworth's appointment as a special representative by its nature makes him the symbol for engagement with North Korea, both through high-level consultations with other members of the six party process and through his role as a potential high-level interlocutor with North Korea. Ambassador Bosworth's comments in an April 3, 2009 briefing, just two days prior to the launch, have further cast him as a leading proponent of engagement within the administration, as he described the administration's likely effort to respond to North Korea's "provocative act" while also making clear in advance of the launch that "pressure is not the most productive line of approach" with North Korea and that the administration hopes to return to the goal of the "verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula" through negotiations. The Washington Post criticized Ambassador Bosworth's statements prior to the launch as undermining any push to punish Pyongyang by offering assurance to North Korea that diplomacy--possibly even bilateral negotiations--would soon resume shortly.


North Korea's Missile Test: Obama On The Record for Non-Proliferation First


North Korea's plans and determination to carry out a missile test are the first North Korea-related items to go into President Obama's in-box, requiring the president to go on the record with a public response to North Korea for the first time in the new administration. The absence of direct presidential involvement prior to early April must have been especially notable to the leadership in Pyongyang, especially given direct presidential involvement in efforts to lay the foundations for engagement with Iran.


The official statement and President Obama's public remarks in Prague on the day of the North Korean launch have ramifications as an initial event that could influence the shape of the Obama administration's policy. The White House Statement characterized North Korea's "development and proliferation of ballistic missile technology pose a threat to the northeast Asian region and to international peace and security." In his speech on nuclear disarmament, President Obama declared that "North Korea broke the rules once again by testing a rocket that could be used for long range missiles . . . Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something."


Setting the Terms for U.S.-DPRK Interaction


Given North Korea's insistence that it will "never" return to the six party talks and the Obama administration's insistence on upholding the six party talks (the only venue where North Korea is on the record as having made a commitment to denuclearization in the September 19, 2005, Six Party Joint Statement), both sides are vying to control the terms of interaction. The immediate test is whether, when, and in what form dialogue will occur. The Obama administration faces the stiff challenge of using international pressure to draw North Korea back into talks, while Pyongyang appears to have pulled the rug out from under the Obama administration's desire to use the instrument of diplomacy to engage former members of the "axis of evil," at least in the case of North Korea. Given the apparent contradictions among these three trends that have developed thus far, it will take far longer than one hundred more days for the Obama administration to develop an effective approach to North Korea.

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