[Viewpoint] Evolving U.S. thinking on the North

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[Viewpoint] Evolving U.S. thinking on the North

Lately, Washington D.C. has been busy with seminars on North Korea. Three seminars were held last week alone, at the peak of the summer vacation season. This week’s schedule was similar. A research institute analyzed the power succession structure of North Korea, and an institute specializing in the economy discussed the mid- and short-term strategies of five of the countries in the six-party talks. Christopher Nelson, the publisher of the newsletter Nelson Report, spoke on the theme, “North Korea Policy: The Contradictions Set In.”

In the aftermath of the North Korean nuclear threats, Washington D.C. is having a “North Korea fair.”

An interesting point about these seminars is that the questions and the answers are all so similar. While each seminar features different themes and speakers, presentations are always followed by a series of questions on how and when regime change will take place in North Korea. Answers seldom change.

North Korean experts who take the microphones to answer the questions typically begin by saying, “No one knows for sure, so we can only say hypothetically.” Then they cite the precedence of the collapse of the Soviet Union or the fall of former Indonesian President Sukarno.

Surely, reports on North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s health amplify the attention on the changes in the North Korean regime. It is quite different from the induction of regime change mentioned by the press after U.S. President George W. Bush named North Korea as a charter member of the Axis of Evil in his 2002 State of the Union Address. Lurking in the background of Washington’s latest preoccupation is a premise that North Korea will not abandon its nuclear program unless Kim Jong-il is gone.

Muthiah Alagappa, senior fellow of the East-West Center, claimed in a seminar that a regime change in North Korea is one of the ways to resolve the nuclear crisis.

Ever since the secret nuclear facilities in Yongbyon were revealed to the world when photographs were released in 1989, Korea and the United States have been negotiating with Pyongyang. Administrations have changed five times in Korea and four times in the United States. The framework of the talks has evolved from inter-Korean dialogue between Seoul and Pyongyang to dialogue between North Korea and the United States, to the four-party talks and, finally, to the six-party talks of today. There have been a number of agreements that seemed to contain the ultimate resolution of North Korea’s nuclear program.

However, North Korea’s nuclear armaments seem to have been trapped in an endless loop. After all, skepticism and frustration have been widespread about past negotiations that could not restrain the North Korean nuclear program.

Without a doubt, the attitude of the U.S. government has changed. North Korea’s first nuclear test in October 2006 was accepted as a result of the failed North Korea policies of the Bush Administration. In the end, President Bush had to negotiate with North Korea throughout the later part of his administration.

However, criticism now focuses on North Korea regarding its recent nuclear test. According to a recent opinion poll taken by Fox News, 69 percent of Americans think that stronger North Korean sanctions are needed. On July 15, the officials responsible for the policy on the Korean Peninsula of the Obama Administration gathered in the State Department briefing room and repeatedly emphasized that sanctions will continue until the North changes its attitude.

Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Foundation, said that North Korea’s past negotiation strategy - making a promise, breaking it and not paying a price - will no longer work. Officials and experts are discussing the regime change in North Korea once again, but the contents and solutions are drastically different than what we heard seven years ago.

The focus has shifted from negotiation to pressure. It is about time Korea fine-tunes its strategy for the North Korean threat to be more precise and multidimensional.

*The writer is the Washington, D.C. correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Choi Sang-yeon
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