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Obama's Nobel Speech and North Korea

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.

Second, Obama mentioned the need to hold governments to account for brutalizing their own people, but did not mention North Korea in specific terms. Although Obama asserted American support for the rights of the oppressed, he implied that one possible means of creating the conditions for internal change is "engagement with repressive regimes. . . No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door."

This point may have a mixed application for the leadership in Pyongyang. The Obama administration is likely to raise North Korean human rights as an issue in the relationship; at the same time President Obama is committed to the use of diplomacy as an essential tool for addressing differences with countries that have been long-time enemies of the United States.

At the same time the Obama administration utilizes sanctions to pressure North Korea back to the negotiating table, the administration's commitment to diplomacy opens the door to renewed dialogue. However, it is clear that the United States has in mind reciprocal quid pro quos as the main framework for dealing with North Korea, while the North appears to prefer a sequenced process in which their obligations are backloaded. It remains to be seen how and whether that gap can be bridged when diplomacy resumes.

Third, Obama emphasized the importance of a comprehensive definition of security that includes the desire to secure both civil and political rights and social and political rights as the only sustainable way to assure stability. This theme is also double-edged for North Korea, which is strongly emphasizing development as part of its plans to achieve a "strong and powerful state" by 2012. There is little evidence of a desire for openness, given Pyongyang's economic and political retrenchment and apparent rejection of market mechanisms in recent months.

In his speech, Obama mentioned specifically his objective of a world without nuclear weapons. North Korea has made itself a direct challenger to that objective through its decision to conduct a nuclear test. Obama's efforts to take the moral high ground by moving forward on nuclear arms reductions have the effect of marginalizing the role and utility of nuclear weapons in international politics while North Korea's emphasis on gaining a nuclear deterrent is a move in the opposite direction. This gap in worldview will be particularly difficult to reconcile.

If the gap proves to be irreconcilable, Obama's speech provides clear guidelines regarding prerequisites for pursuing a just war. Obama would be likely to seek international backing that the cause is just and would seek to pursue military action with the broadest possible multilateral support. It is notable that President Obama mentioned the Korean War as an example of a U.S.-led effort to "underwrite global security," and that he characterized these efforts as driven by "enlightened self-interest," as a means by which to preserve freedom and prosperity.

North Korea need not fear a unilateral U.S. strike under the Obama administration, as Secretary of State Clinton has already made clear. But North Korea's position as a challenger of international norms, especially in its pursuit of nuclear weapons, actually increases the risk that if indeed North Korea shows its unwillingness to pursue denuclearization as part of a return to multilateral dialogue, that the United States under President Obama might in principle lead a confrontation with North Korea over nuclear weapons with the broadest possible backing of the international community. From this perspective, North Korea's reliance on nuclear weapons as the basis for deterring the United States actually increases rather than decreases the likelihood of conflict, with negative implications for North Korea's capacity for regime survival as an outlier in the international community.

The main sticking point for President Obama in his approach to North Korea--as highlighted clearly in his Nobel prize acceptance speech--is the interrelationship of a "just peace" with North Korea with the issue of denuclearization, and whether the issue of a nuclear North Korea might eventually be one that would motivate the international community to war. The North Koreans would do well to interpret their conversations with Ambassador Bosworth in the context of broader themes President Obama emphasized in his Oslo speech since handling of the North Korea issue may provide a primary case study for testing Obama's principles underlying either a just peace or a just war.

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