How do you solve a problem like Korea?

Anne Penketh

Untitled 183 How do you solve a problem like Korea?There are three things worth bearing in mind about North Korea:

1. Never believe media reports about the “crazy” and “irrational” North Korean leader. Kim Jong Il  might be bad and dangerous but he is not mad.

2. North Korea is not about to get rid of its nuclear weapons, because they are perceived by Pyongyang as guaranteeing regime survival.

3. Any story about North Korea will invariably have the same headline (see above).

The mystery to me is why the Obama administration has reached out now to Pyongyang by inviting the vice foreign minister to New York for “exploratory” talks today and tomorrow. If you add this long-standing foreign policy headache to Iran, Afghanistan/Pakistan, Israel/Palestine, Libya and the Arab Spring, it’s hard to see why Obama would actively choose to focus on this in the middle of the debt crisis with the economy likely to overshadow the rest of his reelection campaign.  Administration officials must feel that there is a chance of success, or they would not have bothered.

It’s hardly been a prime focus of Obama’s first term. The watchword of the administration has been “strategic patience”, a diplomatic way of kicking the North Korean problem into the long grass. It has been hard to perceive much difference between Obama’s policy and that of his predecessor George Bush who let the six party process – involving the US, Russia, China, Japan and the two Koreas – be the forum for talks. There is one key difference:  under Obama, the US has said explicitly that it is not seeking regime change, rather a change in regime behaviour in order to fundamentally improve the relationship.

But now two things have happened. State department officials say that Hillary Clinton wants to follow up on a “constructive” meeting between negotiators from North and South in Indonesia. And the North Korean Vice Foreign Minister, Kim Kye Gwan, arriving in New York, said he was “optimistic of the prospects for the six-way talks and the North-US relationship.”

North Korea places a premium on direct talks with Washington. But the US continues to insist that progress is needed on North Korea’s 2005 commitments to verifiable denuclearization, enshrined in a six party statement. Congress remains sceptical, given North Korea’s record of nuclear blackmail.

Obama is surely right to resume a dialogue with North Korea, at least in the interests of avoiding a terrible strategic miscalculation by the secretive nuclear-armed state as it transitions to a new leader in the family dynasty. But as in the Middle East, there is a risk that failure will carry even heavier consequences.

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  • liveJ

    Just think what South Korea should do for solving the relationship with North?

  • greggf

    “…this long-standing foreign policy headache…” 

    North Korea has one overriding ambition, to reunite with the South on its terms.
    Everything it does in foreign policy terms has this objective in mind.
    Its terms for unification include getting the US to quit the Korean peninsula. So establishing formalities with the US is a step to, for example, eventually negotiating such a treaty with the US including or excluding the South.

    No, they are not about to get rid of their nuclear weapons, on the contrary they are looking to improve them – making smaller warheads, better detonation, optimum fissile mix, use in missiles etc. The expect to get access to such technology through the direct talks on denuclearization, probably on a basis of “scientific research questions”.

    A clue why the talks have restarted may be because the North is in need of one or more of the “rewards” promised by all members of the six-party talks for “meeting its obligations” – food, energy assistance and diplomatic goodwill.

    Koreans are adept at negotiating bits at a time, thus enjoining talks might warrant food aid as a first step….

    The answer is to leave them to the South Koreans, Seoul has lots of scores to settle which need addressing by both the North and China.

  • Aidan Foster-Carter

    Anne, you seem to be ignoring the 800-pound Chinese gorilla in the room. “Strategic patience” means watching North Korea move ever closer to Beijing. It has taken a long time for the penny to drop in Seoul and DC that this may not be a good idea; better late than never. Even Japan is secretly talking to NK again.

  • greggf

    Your comment is curious because if anything the recent trend is for North Korea to move away from China.

    Pekin has tried to entice Kim Il Sung and others into adopting Chinese style market economics with little success. Indeed the recent shenanigans with devaluing the currency by a factor of 100, and the peremptory closure of the Kaesŏng Industrial Park demonstrate that the North has only a feeble understanding of markets.

    Maybe there is a tactical move towards Pekin but it’s, er only tactical!

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