[Viewpoint] Obama’s reality check

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[Viewpoint] Obama’s reality check

It is fitting that President Barack Obama, on his last trip to Korea of his first term as president, visited the DMZ. In many ways, this was a dose of reality for him. It was his first trip to the most heavily militarized adversarial border in the world, and the reality of the North Korean military threat, so close to Seoul, must have been a bit of a wake-up call for him.

This is because, in the bubble of the White House back in Washington, it is easy to presume that diplomatic progress should not be hard to make with North Koreans. After all, here is a poor, isolated country in need of outside help. If the United States only showed some diplomatic initiative - and not be as nasty as the Bush administration was - then for a little bit of food and energy, it should not be hard to win this country over.

But standing on the DMZ, only days after the North Koreans blasted any hope of diplomacy out of the water by blatantly announcing a rocket launch next month in celebration of the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung, Obama must have thought long and hard about his odyssey with North Korea. Despite being the most forward-leaning president in recent years to encourage diplomacy with the North, he may end up being the first American president to witness two long-range ballistic missiles tests and possibly two nuclear tests before the end of his term.

The unclenched hand. That was what President Obama was willing to extend to North Korea in 2009. Even as a candidate, the young politician said that with isolated regimes like North Korea, he would be willing to extend an unclenched hand and engage in diplomacy toward common goals if dictators were willing to do the same.

As evidence of this, Obama dedicated four of his 17 special envoys for foreign policy “hotspots” at the beginning of his presidency to the peninsula: Stephen Bosworth, senior representative for North Korea policy; Sung Kim, the special envoy for the six-party talks who is now U.S. ambassador to Seoul; Phil Goldberg, special envoy for implementation of sanctions; and Robert King, special envoy for North Korean human rights issues.

On Bosworth’s first trip to North Korea, he carried a personal letter from Obama - the contents of which have yet to be released - (every previous president’s letter to North Korea’s leaders have been released or the contents have been leaked), which presumably expressed the commitment to find a way forward.

Yet, Pyongyang basically slapped Obama in the face with the April 2009 satellite launch. For North Koreans, of course, they did not see this as a slap in the face. In their minds, it is perfectly within their sovereign rights to launch a satellite as long as they follow all international procedures regarding notification. When we met with the North Koreans in track two dialogue in New York, they were less upset about the UN Security Council sanctions following the May 2009 nuclear test. What truly enraged them was how the U.S. led countries to the UN Security Council after their missile test. This brazen action by the UN, they say, prompted them to declare the end of six-party talks and to detonate a second nuclear device.

After the May 2009 nuclear test, Obama adopted nondialogue for three years, something called “strategic patience.” This essentially said that the U.S. would not re-engage until North Korea showed some constructive behavior. When I asked a senior Obama official what constituted constructive behavior, he said no missile or nuclear tests, and no further provocations against South Korea.

Beginning from the summer of 2011, the Obama administration got impatient with its own strategic patience policy and started to re-engage. This re-engagement was not because of any signs of better behavior, but for two reasons. First, the U.S. did not want a major North Korean provocation in 2012, an election year. Second, the U.S. wanted to gain some control of the runaway uranium nuclear program.

The February deal appeared to have achieved those objectives by obtaining the return of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to monitor a nuclear freeze at Yongbyon and a moratorium on missile and nuclear tests. Then came Pyongyang’s bombshell announcement only days later of its intention to do a satellite launch. Did North Korea trick our negotiators? There is no question in my mind that U.S. negotiators made 100 percent clear that the testing ban included satellites.

No, this was not trickery, it is simply a sober slice of reality. Whether you are a “hardline” president like Lee Myung-bak or “dovish” like Obama on North Korea, the reality is the same: North Korea seeks to become a state that could reach the United States with a nuclear missile. Nothing will stand in its way. News reports now state that the North is moving the long-range missile to the launch pad. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said North Korea would develop within five years a missile capable of reaching the United States. It may come sooner than that.

*The author is a professor at Georgetown University and Korea chair at CSIS. His new book, “The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future,” will be published next month.

by Victor Cha
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