During Obama’s administration first term electoral campaign in 2007, his declared willingness to meet leaders of so-called “rogue states” created some expectations in North Korea that the U.S. might pursue direct talks with the Kim regime and open a “new course” in their bilateral relations. Pyongyang had made efforts toward compromise when dealing with progressive American policies, indeed, while increasing tensions in response to conservative ones.
The President’s inaugural address in January 2009 let those hopes down. Obama promised that he would offer an outstretched hand to dictatorial states who will unclench their fists.
But the “unclench your fist” line sounded like a betrayal in Pyongyang, where the regime realized that U.S. was demanding – again – that it act first in order to get Washington to abandon the path of adversarial relations.
After two terms of the Obama administrations, it has become clear that this approach has not worked with North Korea. Kim Jong Il welcomed the new Democratic President with a nuclear test in May 2009, while his son Kim Jong Un has gone further saying goodbye to Obama with two nuclear tests in just nine months and a series launches of ballistic missiles.
At the time when the priority of U.S.-Asian foreign policy was China, Obama decided on an approach that the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described as “strategic patience in close consultations with our six-party allies.” According to this policy, the U.S. could afford to wait patiently for North Korea to make its decision to denuclearize while pressuring it through economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation.
In the power struggle for the hegemony in the region, American and Chinese interests regarding the Korean peninsula cannot converge
No incentives have been offered to Pyongyang to induce it to return to nuclear disarmament talks, nor the recognition as a nuclear weapons state. Moreover, in the framework of the so-called U.S. “pivot” to Asia, aimed at containing China, North Korea’s bellicose rhetoric and provocations served as justifications for an increased American presence in the region.
This has negatively affected cooperation between Beijing and Washington on policy towards North Korea so far, adding to the fact that in the power struggle for the hegemony in the region, American and Chinese interests regarding the Korean peninsula cannot converge.
On the contrary, the U.S. prioritized its Asian rebalance and the alliance with South Korea and implemented “strategic patience” – in close coordination with the hardline North Korean policies of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye. The worsening of the nuclear issue over the past three years is also the fault of the unwillingness of South Korean government to implement a strategy based on dialogue. If this had been the case, U.S. attitudes would likely have been different.
The outcomes of the choices of the Obama administrations have been disastrous, causing a spiral of actions and counteractions wherein the more the U.S. ignores North Korea, the more the latter erupts with nuclear and missiles tests, to which Washington responds with tougher sanction and deeper isolation. This, in turn, induces Pyongyang to further signal its status as nuclear power and show the inefficacy of the UNSC resolutions.
Contrary to the American expectations, the North Korean regime has neither surrendered its nuclear program development nor collapsed under the pressures caused by sanctions. Furthermore, military tensions in Northeast Asia have never been so high, with U.S. affirming it “won’t take any options off the table in dealing with North Korea,” while South Korea announces a “Massive Punishment and Retaliation” plan against the other half of the peninsula.
The outcomes of the choices of the Obama administrations have been disastrous
Nevertheless, Obama has continued to be firmly committed to this policy line during his two presidencies, waiting for the North Korean leadership to change its strategic calculus and threat perceptions and predicting that “over time [we] will see a regime like this collapse,” as he affirmed in an interview last January.
No actions or decisions by Kim Jong Un can be interpreted as sign of instability. The fact that Obama seems not recognize the failure of his approach toward North Korea and continues to advance the collapse theory may be symptomatic of an inadequate knowledge of the “North Korea system.”
On the other hand, the assumption that Kim family’s North Korea will soon disappear has been used by Pyongyang to further legitimize its “nuclear survival status,” as noted by Jong Kun Choi.
By refusing to talk with the leadership in Pyongyang because it would have been seen as a reward, Obama has missed the chance to gain insight into the country during a critical phase of the power transition and into the young leader’s strategic mindset and intentions.
In just five years, Kim Jong Un has consolidated his power, based his internal legitimacy on the implementation of the byungjin policy, restructured the political system, and declared North Korea a fully nuclear state. Even the economy of the country has improved, with estimates putting North Korea’s per capita GNP above $1,000 for the first time since the 1980s.
This contradicts policy assumptions in the White House – and it is for this reason that “strategic patience” has prevented any meaningful engagement with North Korea. The image of the country as fragile and static, the belief in an unpredictable and irrational leader, and the expectation of an imminent collapse have been the constitutive elements of Obama mindset.
No actions or decisions by Kim Jong Un can be interpreted as sign of instability
Moreover, American officials believe that China has the leverage to push Pyongyang toward denuclearization, while from China’s point of view it is the U.S. that is the decisive actor in overcoming the actual stalemate on the Korean peninsula by returning to negotiate with North Korea.
Until these erroneous assumptions about North Korea constitute the basis of the U.S. policy toward Pyongyang, no constructive outcome will be brought about on the Korean peninsula. The unprecedented pace of nuclear and missile tests this year has prompted new concerns in Washington and an urgent need to act is perceived among policymakers.
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However, the only option conceived by the Americans is to further increase sanctions by closing all the loopholes of the last UNSC Resolution 2270. In other words, the U.S. is going to apply the old policy to a completely different situation and it is reasonable to think that it will fail in convince Kim Jong Un to give up on nuclear weapons, which offer the ultimate security guarantee for his regime and are the basis of his power.
The U.S. should realize that the options to solve North Korean problem lie elsewhere. Pyongyang is not interested in discussing its nuclear and missile programs at a time when its nuclear power status is a pillar of the constitution of the country. Nor it is willing to bargain it for economic incentives from the U.S. As was recently noted by Georgy Toloraya, “the North Koreans are exercising a “strategic patience” of their own.”
Despite both presidential candidates looking at military plans as a viable alternative, the next U.S. administration should concentrate on security-building and crisis management activities in order to reduce tensions in the region and create an environment more conducive to dialogue.
Diplomacy will be crucial in order to try to find a balance between the interests of the parties involved and agree on a set of guiding principles that would constitute the basis for a future engagement toward the North Korean regime. In turn, this could allow for an effective roadmap to denuclearization in the long term.