[Viewpoint]Obama, ‘change’ and Pyongyang

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[Viewpoint]Obama, ‘change’ and Pyongyang

The election of Barack Obama as the president of the United States last Tuesday will certainly bring change to the nuclear negotiations between the United States and North Korea. The whole world is watching for indications of the incoming Obama administration’s new policy and North Korea is no exception.

Li Gun, the director-general of the American Affairs Bureau of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, came to New York on Thursday at the invitation of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and the Korea Society. He met with Christopher Hill, chief U.S. negotiator to the six-party talks, on Thursday. It is also known that Frank Jannuzi, an East Asia specialist who advised President-elect Obama on North Korea policy during the campaign, was there, too.

Robert Wood, State Department spokesman, said “The talks were substantive, serious, and they focused on how to move the six-party process forward.” It must have been a valuable meeting for Li to get a fix on the direction of Obama’s North Korea policy.

Despite the effort to win a diplomatic trophy by resolving the North Korean nuclear issue before George W. Bush leaves office, it seems difficult for his administration to evade criticism that his North Korea policy was a failure.

Some progressives placed blame on the Bush administration’s reluctance to hold bilateral negotiations with the North during 2002 to 2005. They assert that due to the administration’s uncompromising approach, North Korea resumed operation of its nuclear facilities in Yongbyon in defiance of the 1994 Framework Agreement and extracted enough plutonium for at least four more nuclear weapons in addition to two or three in its arsenal and tested a nuclear weapon.

During the campaign, Obama also criticized Bush for taking so long to engage with North Korea and even expressed his willingness to hold direct talks with Kim Jong-il.

When Pyongyang threatened to resume plutonium production in August in protest against the Bush administration’s demand for a verification process that included intrusive inspections of North Korean nuclear facilities, the progressives criticized the administration for “foolishly failing to keep its end of the deal” and urged Bush to put off verification to the following phase of the six-party process and remove North Korea from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. And Bush did so.

Obama supported the decision to de-list North Korea. Earlier during the campaign, he also said that the Bush administration’s eventual re-engagement with the North led to “some progress.” The above remarks made during the campaign indicate that Obama is likely to continue the engagement policy Bush took during his second term.

But there are also remarks that indicate a possible change in North Korea policy. Obama is known to be advocating an international coalition to handle nuclear North Korea, and he calls the six-party talks “ad hoc.” It should be noted that in May 2005, Obama called for the strengthening of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty so that countries like North Korea that break the rules will automatically face strong international sanctions.

He pointed out problems in the current nuclear non-proliferation regime and showed the way that his predecessors should have pursued. Nuclear non-proliferation is an issue that should be addressed by the international community, not a matter that can be decided by a superpower unilaterally.

And besides North Korea, there are other countries, such as Iran, that pose similar problems. “Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon is unacceptable,” Obama said last week when reporters asked him about the Iranian president’s congratulatory message to him, “and we have to mount an international effort to prevent that from happening.”

There should be internationally accepted rules that apply equally to all members of the international community. As Obama pointed out rightly, the NPT should be strengthened with viable enforcement rules.

The progressives, who emphasize direct talks and compromise with the North, overlook the fact that North Korea violated the 1994 Geneva Agreement, the very cause of the current crisis, and try to gloss over the issue with a negotiated settlement, even by giving concessions whenever the North resorts to brinkmanship tactics.

Such attitudes by the progressives have led to a misconception among the people that giving concessions to the North when it resorts to brinkmanship is an engagement policy, as having a dialogue, whereas refusing to accept the North’s demands is a confrontational hard-line policy, refusing dialogue.

What is even worse is that North Koreans use such misconceptions to their advantage. It certainly makes them feel comfortable to know that they will win whenever they resort to brinkmanship.

It was, of course, a serious mistake that the Bush administration did not hold talks with the North for three years. But it was an even more serious mistake that it did not take proper punitive action against Pyongyang after it was revealed that the country secretly pursued a uranium enrichment program and extracted plutonium in breach of the 1994 Geneva Agreement.

On North Korea, Obama will inherit Bush’s engagement policy, but there will be some fundamental differences. Unlike his predecessors, he will pursue broader international participation in the nuclear issue, strengthen the NPT and use, if necessary, aggressive diplomacy of punishing rule breakers.


*The writer, a former editorial page editor of the JoongAng Daily, is a visiting professor of media studies at Myongji University.

by Park Sung-soo

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