North Korea & U.S. Elections: What Difference Does It Make?

A Romney win could prove interesting if paired with a progressive president in South Korea.
November 5th, 2012
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“For decades the U.S. has unsuccessfully resorted to moves against the DPRK. Instead, the DPRK has been catapulted to the center stage of the world.” Rodong Sinmun, Sunday November 4, 2012

Center stage of the world? Wow, North Korea, you’ve really taken the NK NEWS re-launch to heart. We’re touched.

Either that, or the U.S. is picking its new poster boy for the next four years and Rodong Shinmun, North Korea’s daily newspaper, has felt the need to weigh in.

But despite the newspaper’s claims this Sunday that both “the candidates are working hard to win popularity by making hard-line remarks against DPRK” the truth is that in the campaign lead up for this closely-contested election, the usually hot topic of ‘What To Do With A Problem Like North Korea?’ has appeared surprisingly low on the agenda. It has been little mentioned on the campaign trail and at the debates, despite the fact that it remains a constant source of tension in the world’s most economically vibrant region.

According to analysts, the reason is a simple one – on the issue of North Korea, the difference between Romney and Obama is “very little”. Those were the words of Joshua Stanton of One Free Korea, who said in an email that the other upcoming presidential election in South Korea “will be vastly more influential, because our State Department always bends our government’s will to whatever South Korea wants.”

In fact, it seems more important for the future of America’s relationship with the North will be the outcome of South Korea’s Presidential election with one combination of U.S. – ROK presidents potentially providing some very unpredictable results.

Obama and Romney – Playing the same game?

An examination of the policies undertaken by President Obama, as well as the policy statements by former Governor Mitt Romney, show that for the first part, Stanton is correct.

Though Obama had mentioned a willingness to increase engagement with Pyongyang, within just a few months North Korea greeted his presidency with a rocket launch and a nuclear test. This caused a sharp turn in administration policy and led to North Korea being put on the back burner for team Obama, otherwise described by the White House as a policy of “strategic patience”.

Basically ignoring North Korea until it showed signs of a change of direction, there was no direct engagement for the majority of Obama’s term. That was until the negotiations that led to the “Leap Day Agreement” of February 29, in which North Korea agreed to halt all nuclear and missile tests. While some were initially optimistic, Pyongyang launched another rocket to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of founding leader Kim Il Sung and quickly undermined U.S. confidence in the deal. Back to “strategic patience”.

Romney, while labelling the “Leap Day Agreement” as “naïve,” has in fact laid out a remarkably similar North Korea policy to the Obama administration. A July 2012 policy brief stated that Romney is “commit[ed] to eliminating North Korea’s nuclear weapons and its nuclear-weapons infrastructure.” To do this, he would “work with allies to institute harsher sanctions on North Korea…step up enforcement of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI)…and work to persuade China to commit to North Korea’s disarmament.”

Elsewhere on his campaign website, he also says that “food aid will be de-linked from the nuclear weapons issue” and pledges to “[crack] down on financial institutions…and [sanction] companies that conduct commercial shipping in and out of North Korea.” However, the Obama administration has already been working extremely closely with South Korea, sought to expand and strengthen some of the mechanisms to intercept commercial shipping from North Korea, and even lean heavier on the Chinese government for greater assistance. So Romney may speak with more bluster, but outside of that it is hard to see a noticeable difference between the two candidates.

South Korea’s Election – An Unpredictable Pairing?

The upcoming South Korean election presents another complicating factor for Obama and Romney’s policies. Shortly after the U.S. elections, things will change in South Korea too, with a new president voted in by December. While there is much to suggest Obama could work well with any of the candidates, a Romney win could lead to potential North Korea strain if paired with either of the two liberal candidates in South Korea.

Obama has to date presided over a remarkably strong alliance with South Korea’s conservative President Lee Myung-bak.  Given their sharply different political backgrounds, the two political figures have shared a surprising personal friendship which has helped foster extremely close South Korea – U.S. relations. This cooperation has enabled both countries to pursue a similar policy on North Korea – even if it doesn’t appear to be working.

But if Romney and one of the more progressive candidates (Ahn Cheol-soo or Moon Jae-in) win, it is harder to see how the Republican / Progressive combination might work well moving forward.  The last time that happened there was very real tension between George W. Bush and South Korea’s two progressive leaders, Kim Dae-jung /Roh Moo-hyun in the early 2000s.

The Romney – progressive problem relates to engaging with North Korea. South Korea’s progressive candidates have both made clear there will be a lot more inter-Korean contact if they win, but it is difficult to see how fond Romney might be of such a policy given his disdain for engaging with Pyongyang.

Limitations,  Whatever The Case

Ultimately, the similarity between the two candidates’ policies shows the great limitations facing the U.S. Whoever wins on Tuesday will be in a difficult spot as they craft a future North Korea policy. Negotiations with the North Koreans on their nuclear program have now ended in failure three times, with the North not adhering to its commitments. In addition China, which is critical for any sanctions program to have effect, has not only been unwilling to enforce them, but has likely helped North Korea circumvent even the ones it voted on at the UN.

Whatever happens, people will be watching with baited breath to see if North Korea repeats 2009 by ratcheting up tension once again just months after the two elections are complete through missile tests and nuclear detonations. North Korea doesn’t like being ignored, and if it senses the winning candidates might not be paying enough attention, then these kind of actions cannot be ruled out.

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