[Viewpoint] The big squeezeShortly after North Korea launched a long-range missile on April 5, a closed-door seminar was held in Washington and a high-ranking official in the Barack Obama administration delivered a speech before dinner.
He said that when Special Representative for North Korea Policy Stephen Bosworth visited China he delivered a message that if North Korea did not launch a missile, he intended to visit Pyongyang, and Washington would have direct dialogue with the North Korean government in the future.
The official lamented that North Korea went ahead with the missile launch in spite of Bosworth’s message, using a metaphor that Washington held out its hand to shake, but instead, North Korea slapped it on the face.
After the official’s speech, another person at the seminar asked him whether he intended to negotiate for the release of the two women journalists detained in North Korea. The official said he didn’t feel comfortable talking about the journalists.
About a month later, on May 25, North Korea conducted its second nuclear test. The United Nations Security Council convened and passed Resolution 1874, one of the sternest the UN has adopted since the Korean War (1950-1953).
In addition, the United States has been monitoring the North Korean cargo ship Kang Nam, which is suspected of carrying objects banned under Resolution 1874. It also ended an additional supply of food aid, saying that transparency in the distribution of food was not guaranteed.
North Korea refused to take U.S. food aid in March.
It is also known that the United States has frozen or closed bank accounts in many places, including Malaysia, that appear to belong to North Korea.
The Obama administration can take such strict measures because it did not have the same bitter experience as its predecessor.
The George W. Bush administration underwent a painful experience in November 2006 when the ruling party was defeated in the midterm election, shortly after North Korea’s nuclear test in October of that year. The Bush administration regarded the defeat as voters’ stern judgment of its Iraq and North Korea policy.
After that, the Bush administration thought there was still a chance that some kind of deal with the North Koreans could be made. It tried to patch up the nuclear issue based on the vague concept of “disabling” the North’s nuclear facilities in an attempt to make some headway in foreign affairs.
The Obama administration, which has more than three years left in its term, believes its predecessor’s approach sent the wrong message to North Korea: that sanctions would never lead to real action and the United States would surely come to the negotiation table in the end.
President Obama has maintained the necessity for direct diplomacy to resolve the North Korea issue since he was a presidential candidate. He thought it was better to meet face-to-face with leaders of so-called rogue states and resolve complicated pending issues rather than regard seeing them as taboo.
But as North Korea has continued its provocations, the Obama administration seems to think it needs to push North Korea to the limit to bring it back to dialogue.
What we need to remember, though, is in North Korea, the security of the regime is more important than national security. So, according to Washington’s reasoning, North Korea will come to the negotiation table only when Kim Jong-il himself feels that the security of his regime could be at risk.
To do so, the United States must carry out its independent measures aimed at squeezing North Korea, such as financial sanctions and blocking North Korea’s weapons exports.
At the same time, China has to be encouraged to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1874.
The United States reconfirmed its promise to offer the nuclear umbrella to South Korea and Japan, lifting China’s worries over the possible nuclear armament of its two neighbors.
The United States thinks now it is China’s turn to respond. China will probably do so at the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue scheduled for late July.
Whether or not the Obama administration’s stern response to North Korea will continue depends on what type of presents China will bring to the party.
*The writer is a professor of international relations at Korea University Graduate School of International Studies. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Sung-han