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Contradictions in the Obama Administration's Policy-in-Formation Toward North Korea

There are at least four potential contradictions that the Obama administration may face as it attempts to carry out the three themes of reassurance of allies, openness to diplomatic engagement, and the strict punishment of proliferation-related actions that have developed as early characteristics of the Obama administration's policy-in-formation toward North Korea during his first hundred days:

1) Given North Korea's April 14th and April 28th announcements that it will leave the six party talks and conduct more missile and nuclear tests in response to the UN Security Council Presidential statement and imposition of sanctions on three North Korean firms, how can the Obama administration respond without feeding additional escalatory actions by North Korea? 2) Will the part-time nature of Ambassador Bosworth's role hamper his effectiveness as a policy coordinator within the Obama administration? 3) How will the administration respond in coordination with South Korean and Japanese allies in the event that North Korea appeals for a bilateral U.S.-DPRK negotiation? 4) What is the significance for North Korea of the Obama administration's early efforts to engage Iran?

Balancing Toughness on Proliferation with the Need for Engagement

The Obama administration has bolstered diplomacy with international outliers such as Iran, Syria, and Cuba, but North Korea has pulled the rug out from under any plans for early diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang. To the extent that North Korea is able to pursue nuclear and missile proliferation with impunity, those actions are a threat to the credibility of the international regime. The initial position of the Obama administration has proven to be firm in response to North Korea's provocation, but Pyongyang continues to move up the threat escalation ladder. The difficulty of striking the right balance between toughness and openness to dialogue has been deepened by North Korea's announcement that it would withdraw from six party talks and DPRK foreign ministry statements underscoring North Korea's status as a nuclear weapons state and insisting that normalization with the United States is not linked to North Korea's denuclearization. The contradiction was apparent in Secretary of State Clinton's April 30th defense at a Senate hearing of a budget request for $100 million in economic assistance to North Korea which assumes renewed negotiations; on the other hand, she warned that the North Koreans are "digging themselves into a deeper and deeper hole with the international community" and stated that North Korea's "recent behavior is absolutely unacceptable."

Is Managing North Korea Policy a Part-Time or a Full-Time Job?

Despite Ambassador Bosworth's qualifications, the part-time nature of his commitment as a special representative for North Korea has allies and friends of the United States fretting over whether it will be possible for him to carry out the task while maintaining his other job as dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University (or part-time may be just right given North Korea's provocative behaviors.) Foreign diplomats wonder what the part-time nature of the assignment signifies regarding U.S. policy toward North Korea. These officials ask questions about Ambassador Bosworth's availability for diplomatic consultations, his ability to participate effectively in inter-agency meetings, whether Ambassador Bosworth will be given sufficient staff support to make a difference within the Washington bureaucracy, and whether he will be able to establish leadership on the key issues within the administration from afar. Given that the entire structure associated with special envoys remains an experiment, it is premature to say how and whether the system will work. Considering that each envoy appears to have varying degrees of staff support, clout, and leeway, it is fair to ask which envoys are set up for success and which are likely to fail.

Reassurance of Allies Vs. Engagement With North Korea

If the North Koreans do signal that they are interested in re-engaging in bilateral diplomatic negotiations (or that they require a special envoy to visit Pyongyang to secure the release of two American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee arrested for illegally entering North Korea on March 17th), one challenge would be to pursue diplomacy in a manner that is fully coordinated with South Korea and Japan, especially given the U.S. strategic imperative of reasserting strategic presence through revitalized alliance coordination. Neither the Lee Myung-bak administration nor the government of Japan is likely to be fully satisfied by a U.S.-DPRK dialogue that is not accompanied by resumption of six party talks. Given the North's apparent policy of focusing on the United States while marginalizing South Korea and the relatively hostile statements of the DPRK government regarding Japan, it is easy to imagine that there may be differing expectations and threshold conditions North Korea would have to meet in order to get negotiations back on track from the respective perspectives of Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo. At this stage, a necessary precondition for bilateral negotiation between the Obama administration and the North Koreans would be a public endorsement of such efforts by the leaders of South Korea and Japan, accompanied by the caveat that the purpose of such talks would be to restore the six party process.

Obama Policy Toward Iran; Implications for North Korea?

President Obama himself has made a great investment in sending signals of openness to diplomatic dialogue with Iran through his New Year's message to Iran and his administration's participation in multilateral negotiations. Iran has taken the priority over North Korea despite Kim Jong Il's usual perverse efforts to attract attention. Perhaps North Korea's missile test occurred because the Dear Leader was peeved that he did not receive a lunar new year's greeting from President Obama! There is even speculation that the administration may find it necessary to be tough on North Korea in order to be able to reach out to Iran. On the other hand, the outcome of any negotiation with Iran will probably have implications for how the administration might deal with specific aspects of policy toward North Korea. There is also the possibility that horizontal proliferation between Iran and North Korea could link those two issues in new ways.

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