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Obama’s First 100 Days: Spotlight on North Korea

US President Barack Obama speaks on North Korea in Prague on April 5, 2009.  (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

US President Barack Obama speaks on North Korea in Prague on April 5, 2009. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

by John Delury

Originally published in the World Policy blog, April 30, 2009

President Barack Obama’s policy team is making inroads on a less hostile, more direct relationship with states like Iran, Syria, Venezuela, and Cuba. The manifestations may look ad hoc—a friendly video message; conference sideline handshakes; partial lifting of travel restrictions; dispatch of envoys to a rarely-visited foreign capital. But the sum total indicates a new spirit animating American foreign policy toward troublesome, alienated, or “rogue” countries. A kind of axis of engagement seems to be taking shape.

There is one noticeable exception: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), a spoke in the wheel of George W. Bush’s “axis of evil.” One hundred days into the Obama Age, it hardly feels like the beginning of a new era in U.S.-North Korea relations. Considering the extremely narrow channels of communication between the two countries, there is ample room for misunderstanding, conflict, and perception gap, even in so short a time. Foreign policy elites in Washington and Pyongyang may be telling themselves very different stories of what’s happened since January.

How would North Korea’s ruling elite evaluate Obama’s first 100 days, and what questions are they asking themselves about this new American leader?

Transition politics and envoy diplomacy in the early days of the Obama administration may have sent Pyongyang the signal that any new departure in U.S.-North Korea relations, for better or worse, will come at North Korea’s initiative. In fact, day one of the Obama era was a disappointment for the DPRK since the president’s inauguration team snubbed an unusual North Korean request to send an envoy to the inauguration ceremony. The rejection barely made headlines and it seemed prudent at the time for a young progressive president to not appear coddling of tyrants.

But in retrospect, the White House may have squandered an easy opportunity to give face to Pyongyang, opening the door for engagement and respect, without giving anything concrete away. Pyongyang showed initiative in wanting to send an emissary to witness the historic moment of Obama’s inauguration; Obama’s team may have mistaken this opportunity for one of many to come, rather than for the litmus test that—in the eyes of Pyongyang—they failed.

From Pyongyang’s perspective, the second negative indicator was the relative delay in appointing a special representative on the North Korean issue.

Two days after inauguration, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden personally announced, with great fanfare, the appointment of a special envoy for Middle East peace and special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan. But a special representative for North Korean policy was not announced for another month, during which time North Korea experts warned of the importance of staying ahead of North Korea diplomatically, and obviating Pyongyang’s need for attention-grabbing brinkmanship.

The appointment of Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, a highly-respected diplomat who had recently traveled to Pyongyang, was itself second-guessed, even in South Korea, for the fact that he was keeping his day job as dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. At the time of his appointment as Af-Pak rep, Richard Holbrooke was serving as chairman of the Asia Society—where I work—and it would have been inconceivable that he carry on in that capacity. The delayed appointment of a half-time envoy to North Korea must have had a deflating effect for anyone high-up in Pyongyang who hoped for “change.”

The third sign to Pyongyang that there was nothing terribly new in Obama’s approach to the peninsula was Clinton’s Asian tour.

The Secretary sent well-crafted, friendly, and respectful bilateral messages in Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing. East Asia lauded her trip as a resounding success. But one casualty of her astute bilateralism was the message received in Pyongyang. Clinton met with the families of abductees in Japan and ruminated on the death of Kim Jong Il with reporters on her flight to Seoul—stepping on two “third rails” of North Korean diplomacy. Emphasizing the importance of Japan and South Korea—both of whose governments are locked in hostility with North Korea—Clinton’s trip did little to assuage North Korean insecurities, or generate optimism about a new relationship with the United States.

Yet, Washington, already suffering Pyongyang fatigue from the back and forth of the Six Party Talks, tells a very different story. The North Koreans just don’t seem ready to be engaged. If this were a schoolyard fight, the State Department spokesman would be forgiven for crying out—“but he started it!”

Not long into the new president’s term, satellite imagery detected suspicious activity at the rocket launch site on North Korea’s northwest coast. Pyongyang announced plans on February 24 to launch a satellite rocket, which three of the six parties immediately pre-condemned as a violation of the United Nations Security Council resolution banning the DPRK from activities related to its ballistic missile program.

Three weeks later, Pyongyang announced it had taken legal steps to make its satellite launch fully compliant with international laws and norms governing the use of space (I argued that Obama cut his losses, defuse the tension, and not let the launch derail peninsula diplomacy).

Washington tried to stay cool, even as its main allies in the region, Tokyo and Seoul, threatened to punish North Korea for a launch. In the immediate lead-up to the launch, Obama’s deputies offered carrots and sticks—National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair called for “international opprobrium,” while Bosworth held out the bait of “direct talks” if Pyongyang would call off their launch at the last minute.

Of course, the North Korean government went ahead with its launch, timed to tear at the coattails of Obama’s Prague speech on nuclear arms control. The president cited North Korea’s actions as evidence of the need for an enhanced non-proliferation regime:

“Just this morning, we were reminded again of why we need a new and more rigorous approach to address this threat. North Korea broke the rules once again by testing a rocket that could be used for long range missiles. This provocation underscores the need for action—not just this afternoon at the U.N. Security Council, but in our determination to prevent the spread of these weapons. Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something. The world must stand together to prevent the spread of these weapons. Now is the time for a strong international response—(applause)—now is the time for a strong international response, and North Korea must know that the path to security and respect will never come through threats and illegal weapons. All nations must come together to build a stronger, global regime. And that’s why we must stand shoulder to shoulder to pressure the North Koreans to change course.”

The president’s language indicates that he gets what the North Koreans are after—security and respect. But it’s too bad Obama’s attention was drawn to North Korea in the context of missile and nukes, reinforcing the narrow definition of the problem, which virtually ensures there will be no solution (standing “shoulder to shoulder to pressure the North Koreans” is a sure way to ensure anything but their changing course).

Obama has a rather unique intuition about conflict resolution, a subtle grasp of the ways history and ideology can imprison individuals and communities in mutual contempt, whereas recognizing the validity of conflicting values can lead to reconciliation and progress. Those instincts would serve him well if applied to the deep sources of conflict on the Korean peninsula. But with the domestic economy teetering and the Taliban on the outskirts of Islamabad, Obama probably just wishes Pyongyang could hang tight for a bit.

He might also be calculating that it would be prudent to focus his engagement capital on those “pariah” states that are somewhat less provocative. Does trying to bring North Korea into the unofficial “Axis of Engagement” jeopardize efforts elsewhere, leaving Obama open to attack for being too soft? Where is the domestic constituency in the United States that would support forward-looking American initiative? Why antagonize Tokyo and Seoul with proactive engagement toward the DPRK, when Pyongyang seems to be flouting UN authority? And is there anyone in Pyongyang capable of requiting American engagement, or is a sickly Kim Jong Il increasingly captive to a hard-line military oligarchy with no interest in economic and political opening?

These are among the questions Obama is likely asking himself, in so far as he has time and inclination to mull over the Korean peninsula at all.

The central argument of my World Policy Journal “Letter to the President” was that Obama should focus on finding a proactive and creative way to solve the underlying problem with North Korea: its isolation—political, economic, and cultural—from so much of the world community, and its abnormal and antagonistic relations with the United States. He and Clinton certainly have the requisite talent and knowledge on their foreign policy team to devise a comprehensive strategy of engagement but the mission needs to be defined as such.

American foreign policy has the great capacity to initiate a change of course and transform its relationship with an adversary. To wait for Pyongyang to initiate the change is futile, dangerous and tragic. It’s up to Obama to turn things around.

For his first 100 days, he deserves a grade of…

On North Korea: C

John Delury is director of the China Boom Project and associate director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society.