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Three Misunderstandings about Obama’s Policy on North Korea

Ha Tae Kyung, Excutive Director of Open Radio for North Korea  |  2008-11-25 18:01
What kind of policy the new U.S. administration will adopt towards North Korea has become a matter of primary concern in South Korea since the election of Obama as the next President.

The U.S. policy on North Korea is of particular significance because it has a weighty influence on the future of the Korean peninsula. It is difficult to predict this early on how the Obama administration will handle the North Korea issue. This is because Obama has no prior experience in dealing with North Korea. Yet even this early on many groundless misunderstandings about his policy are being presumed.

First, some misunderstand that the Obama administration’s North Korean policy will be similar with the Sunshine Policy of the Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun administrations.

There were two features of the Sunshine Policy. The first was extensive economic aid to North Korea without condition based on a false confidence that this would propel North Korea to open and reform. The second was the complete absence of any criticism or discussion of North Korean human rights violations.

Starting with the failures of the off-year election in November, 2006, the Bush administration adopted a similar kind of appeasement policy on North Korea.

However, the possibility that the President-elect Obama may make repeated concessions to North Korea is not so high. The political position of Obama is not the same as the lame duck President Bush.

If Obama can first resolve the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and sees the financial crisis through to recovery, he may turn his attention towards North Korea and intensify pressure for a complete verification of the nuclear program.

The possibility that the Obama administration keeps silent on the human rights issue is almost nil. The Democratic Party traditionally has emphasized international standards, advocating democracy and human rights. The North Korean human rights issue is a nonpartisan agenda for the U.S. society.

Second, some misunderstand that the North’s policy of isolating South Korea while communicating with the U.S. could work.

Some speculate that a speedy normalization of the U.S.-North Korea relations would follow if Obama’s mentioned willingness to meet Kim Jong Il were to become a reality. But the chances of the two leaders actually meeting is considered extremely low. And even if North Korea completely abandons its nuclear weapons and relations move forward towards normalization, isolating the South while communicating with the U.S. is not at all a viable plan.

The North Korean and U.S. systems have a relationship like oil and water. As one of the great pioneers of democracy, the U.S. system is in every way antithetical to the North’s system of top-down control and dictatorial leadership not to mention the abysmal human rights record. Only if North Korea tries to reform via the opening of its economic system as China has done, could the situation possibly change.

Third, there is a misunderstanding that Lee Myung Bak and Obama will experience the same kind of friction as did the Kim Young Sam and Clinton administrations.

The main point of friction between the Kim Young Sam and Clinton administrations was that the U.S. sidestepped South Korea in agreeing to bilateral talks with North Korea. However, Obama has emphasized a multi-lateral approach to negotiations unlike President Bush. Therefore, Obama may strengthen the negotiation framework on policies towards North Korea with South Korea and Japan.
 
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