Weekly Insights and Analysis

Obama and North Korea

November 19, 2008

By Scott Snyder

There’s a lot of speculation about how President-elect Obama will organize his administration to address a truly daunting list of security challenges, including a global economic crisis, Iraq, and Afghanistan. On the list of potential crises that the Obama administration will inherit come January 20th will be the task of achieving the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

There’s already been considerable speculation regarding how an Obama administration will approach the North Korean issue, especially in Seoul, Tokyo, and Beijing.  Much of that has tended toward the dramatic idea that Mr. Obama himself would seek an early breakthrough with North Korea through personal diplomacy at the highest levels. 

However, given the challenges he faces, it’s more likely the first task will be to choose advisors who are likely to affirm the willingness of a new administration to normalize diplomatic relations with a denuclearized North Korea and chart a path that addresses North Korea holistically, as both a regional security and a non-proliferation challenge, and that also seeks to utilize North Korea as an opportunity to remake a stable Korean peninsula and a stable Northeast Asia.

There are arguably three somewhat different approaches represented on the North Korea issue among those who seem most likely to be directly engaged in an Obama administration.  These schools may be overlapping and are not necessarily distinct, but each of these approaches will have to be reconciled and possibly incorporated into an overall policy approach among Obama’s key advisors.

The first school of advisors might seek to pick up where the Bush administration and Chris Hill have left off and attempt to mix bilateral and multilateral engagement along the path that has already been set. This means confirming the implementation of the second phase of the February 13, 2007 implementing agreement and eventually moving to the third phase of denuclearization in exchange for steps toward diplomatic normalization with North Korea.  This approach would continue to rely on and work toward North Korean commitments to denuclearization made in the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement of the six party talks.

A second group might place even more emphasis on robust bilateral engagement”possibly at the expense of the six party talks”and focus on trust-building at an early stage in the process of dealing with North Korea. Adherents to this path might include individuals who had been involved in the stalled Clinton initiative with North Korea at the end of 2000.  Some of these advisors might not necessarily see the six party talks as vital to the process of engaging North Korea. Or, they might seek to reaffirm North Korean commitments to denuclearization in the context of a “fast track” to improved political relations as a way of avoiding the North Koreans’ tendency to drag out and paralyze the six party process.

A third group, primarily composed of non-proliferation specialists, sees the Bush efforts to denuclearize North Korea as timid and inadequate, and would like to have North Korea reach a higher standard as part of the process (but would possibly also be willing to pay more to do it). These specialists see the Bush administration as having neglected the international non-proliferation regime (think U.S.-India).  But Democratic-leaning non-proliferation specialists will want to shore up the non-proliferation regime and will be unwilling to tolerate both North Korean exceptionalism and lower standards that might have ramifications for other cases around the world.  In other words, the divisions between regional and functional (non-proliferation) approaches that have beset the Clinton and Bush administrations will also persist in the Obama administration and will take time to sort themselves out.

There are also lots of rumors concerning how an Obama administration might structure its approach to North Korea.  Will there be a special envoy for North Korea and six party talks with elevated rank? Will it be someone equivalent to or higher than the Assistant Secretary for East Asia?  What type of person might be appointed?  There are two main models for thinking about this.  One borrows directly from the Perry process, where a senior coordinator with gravitas was appointed to mobilize political support among allies and run interference with Capitol Hill to protect the negotiator and other working level efforts.  This approach would have a Perry-like figure running the policy with a lower-level negotiator dealing with the six party talks.  A second approach would build a specialized role into the bureaucracy, but perhaps bestow the negotiator’s role with an Assistant Secretary-rank equivalent and direct Presidential backing.  This approach might essentially divide the North Korea issue from the East Asia Pacific Bureau at the State Department and have it run separately–possibly housing the negotiator position at the NSC, so as to give the negotiator presidential imprimatur.

Substantively, there are two interesting questions to watch that should give some early hints as to how the competition and overlap among the camps might play out.

First, will an Obama administration attempt to raise the bar with North Korea by pushing for early agreement on issues beyond North Korea’s existing plutonium stocks (enriched uranium/proliferation)? Or, alternatively, tacitly accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state (as many in Asia are worried might happen) either through neglect or through acquiescence to the idea that the current regime in North Korea will not give up nuclear weapons?

Second, what is the mix of bilateral and multilateral approaches to North Korea that the administration will employ? To what extent will the administration emphasize direct engagement with North Korea and how will it relate to the six party talks or to other coordination efforts designed to enhance coercive pressure toward the North?

I believe it will take some time for this process to unfold. If it takes too much time, one might imagine that the North Koreans will take actions to focus the new administration’s attention through instigation of new crisis; on the other hand, the new administration might take the initiative to shape the negotiations by presenting an early, aggressive “fast-track” offer toward denuclearization and normalization designed to truly test the North Koreans’ intentions.  In the event that the North itself takes the hard line, non-proliferationists will want to back up the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime by taking forceful actions with North Korea, perhaps by advocating more forceful measures than were ever considered during the Bush administration.  In that case, a critical consideration will be whether North Korea’s neighbors finally reach the conclusion that diplomacy has failed and that additional means are necessary to ensure regional stability in light of North Korea’s potential to incite instability through its nuclear threat.

All of these issues will be unfolding against the backdrop of a host of other, more serious crises, and against the backdrop of efforts in Northeast Asia to simultaneously strengthen U.S. bilateral relations with China, Japan, and South Korea.  However, differing events and agendas inherent in each of the relationships will ultimately be the critical factors that determine how they unfold.

Scott Snyder is a Senior Associate at The Asia Foundation and based in the Foundation’s Washington, D.C. office. He can be reached at

Related locations: Korea
Related programs: International Cooperation
Related topics: Center for U.S.-Korea Policy


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