No Shift on North Korea

Prospects for the resumption of talks on Pyongyang's nuclear weapons drive remain clouded.
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Chinese TV footage showing demolition of a North Korean nuclear cooling tower, June 27, 2008.
Chinese TV footage showing demolition of a North Korean nuclear cooling tower, June 27, 2008.

The United States is unlikely to soften its policy toward nuclear-armed North Korea, analysts say, as President Barack Obama holds talks in Seoul with the leader of South Korea and other counterparts of the G20 nations.

Obama arrived in the South Korean capital on Nov. 10, mainly to discuss issues related to trade at the Group of 20 summit, though administration officials predicted that security issues on the Korean peninsula would also be discussed.

“President Obama will be talking to [South Korean] President Lee Myung Bak about the future of both dialogue with the North and six-party talks,” said Jeffrey Bader, Senior Director for Asian Affairs of the National Security Council, in remarks to the press on Nov. 9.

“But there’s nothing new at this stage to announce, no,” Bader said.

Six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons drive among the United States, Russia, China, the two Koreas and Japan have been frozen since December 2008.

North Korea quit the forum in April 2009 and held its second nuclear test a month later.

Prospects for renewed negotiations have been clouded by South Korean and U.S. accusations that the North torpedoed one of Seoul's warships in March, a charge it denies.

The United States says Pyongyang must mend ties with the South and show sincerity about nuclear disarmament before the talks can resume.

Progress stalled

Speaking in interviews, North Korea experts agreed that progress in choosing a new policy direction toward the North appears stalled.

“My discussions with Obama officials, as well as South Korean officials when I was there at the end of September, indicate there is no likelihood of a change in either country’s policy toward North Korea,” said Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.

“There’s very little optimism within the administration that North Korea will now ever give up its nuclear weapons, and therefore there is little push for using the limited political capital the president has on what would be seen as sort of a lost cause,” Klingner said.

Klingner pointed to what he said would be two preconditions for talks on North Korea’s weapons program to resume. The first, he said, would be for North Korea to fulfill commitments it has already made.

“[This] would be something like inviting the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] inspectors back into North Korea, or Pyongyang resuming the dismantlement procedures.”

The second, Klingner said, would be the “satisfaction” of South Korea’s concerns over the North’s sinking of the South Korean warship the Cheonan earlier this year.

“Because North Korea is unlikely to make progress on either of those two preconditions, and because both Washington and Seoul express no intention of lowering the bar on those preconditions, we’re unlikely to see a return to the six-party talks,” Klingner said.

‘Actions, not words’

Scott Snyder, director of the Asia Foundation’s Center for U.S.-Korea policy, agreed, adding, “The U.S. position, as affirmed in a pre-presidential trip briefing, is that it needs to see actions—not words—by North Korea.”

“But North Korea is always there,” he said, “and there are likely to be discussions and consultations with all of the Asian leaders on that subject.”

With the shift to Republican Party control of the U.S. House of Representatives, the “rhetorical atmosphere” in Congress concerning North Korea will likely now be “tougher,” Snyder said.

“My understanding is that the incoming chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee has expressed an interest in this issue and is likely to take a more active role in finding ways to criticize the DPRK [North Korea] for its failures.”

But the Obama administration itself has already moved away from an earlier policy of “aggressive outreach” to engage the North because of a series of provocative acts in 2009 by North Korean leaders, Klingner said.

“And that was followed by a large shift by a group of outside experts who had euphoric expectations that the change in U.S. leadership from Bush to Obama would lead to a breakthrough with North Korea—with North Korea no longer feeling ‘threatened’ by Bush—and that it would therefore abandon provocations.”

“That obviously didn’t prove to be the case,” he said, “and so those outside analysts are now shifting over to the more skeptical, pessimistic view.”

Reported in Washington by Richard Finney.





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