[Viewpoint] Shifting gears on North Korea

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[Viewpoint] Shifting gears on North Korea

A source who is well versed in the collaboration between Seoul and Washington about their North Korea policy said the U.S. government has let the Korean government know about 80 percent of the results of former President Bill Clinton’s visit to North Korea. The other 20 percent is the subjective impression that he got while meeting and dining with Kim Jong-il, and the former U.S. president has shared this only with current President Barack Obama.

According to speculation within the Korean government, based on what it heard from the U.S., during his visit to Pyongyang, Clinton was under strict guidelines that he must not act as a negotiator on issues other than the release of American journalists.

Therefore, as for resolution of other North Korea issues, including its nuclear development programs, he explained only what he understood as the stance of the Obama administration, and nothing more.

Kim was a little disappointed, and gave a lengthy explanation about North Korea’s stance and delivered messages that he wished to be forwarded to Obama. Kim underscored that ending the U.S. hostile policy against North Korea was a precondition for improving the relationship between the two countries.

The starting point for calculating the effect of Clinton’s Pyongyang visit is finding out what Kim has gained from it. Kim scored many points domestically.

He was able to proclaim that the former U.S. president and husband of the secretary of state paid a courtesy call to the “Dear Leader,” provided an apology for the trespass of the American journalists into North Korean territory, and begged Kim to handle the affair with understanding.

To the outside world, Kim can present himself as a generous figure who pardoned the American journalists who had been sentenced to 12 years of forced labor.

Some experts on North Korea think that since Clinton gave a good explanation on Washington’s positions to Kim, the ball has now been tossed into North Korea’s court.

The U.S. maintains that the former U.S. president explained a realistic position that North Korea must not expect an improved relationship without denuclearization. North Korea is certainly more out of breath because of the United Nations-led sanctions and other additional measures that the U.S. is enforcing.

Nonetheless, since North Korea is a peculiar place accustomed to hanging on while being squeezed tightly, the United States cannot continue strangling it forever. Sanctions are a means to an end, not the goal themselves.

The U.S. pressure on North Korea is a forceful means aimed at making North Korea return to six-party talks with irreversible denuclearization measures that can be declared and monitored afterwards.

There will be a distinctive difference in temperature before and after Clinton’s visit to Pyongyang.

David E. Sanger, a journalist specializing in diplomacy and foreign affairs at The New York Times reported on Aug. 8 that the Obama administration was moving the focus of its policy slowly towards blocking North Korea’s export of its nuclear technology. The report reflects the change that is being sensed in Washington after Clinton’s visit to the communist country.

Sanger wrote that few of Obama’s aides believe that North Korea will give up nuclear weapons entirely. A short-term and realistic goal is to prevent Kim Jong-il from exporting technology for assembling nuclear weapons, earning money and gaining power, he added.

This is a meaningful message that means, regardless of the Obama administration’s official stance, a U.S. North Korea policy will be pursued with a new perception that North Korea will not give up its nuclear ambition.

That is the change in Washington that President Lee Myung-bak saw and heard at the Korea-U.S. summit meeting in June.

The international community’s sanctions on North Korea are stronger and more effective than any others of the past. On top of these, the United States has been by itself blocking North Korea’s channels for financial transaction with the outer world. If this continues for another half year, North Korea is likely to lose all its channels for financial transactions with the outer world except its accounts with a small amount of money at numerous banks in China.

The harsh situation is not unrelated to North Korea’s invitations to Clinton and Hyundai Chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun.

The United States, encouraged by effects of sanctions, intends to push North Korea more. What’s important is to control the strength of sanctions. It is time to make accurate calculations as to what degree of pressure on North Korea must be made to maximize the effect, and make North Korea promise to implement promises and return to the six-party talks.

But the limit of sanctions must also be known. In other words, when will the North become desperate and cross a line to by conducting another nuclear test or missile launch?.

Since U.S.-North Korea relations have entered a new phase, a breakthrough for inter-Korean relations must be found at Kaesong and Mount Kumgang. After the release of the Hyundai Asan worker, it is important to make a proper response, taking into consideration the change in U.S.-North Korea relations.

The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Young-hie
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