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A Window of Opportunity with North Korea

By Mark P. Barry

North Korea has a new leader, appears stable after a smooth succession, and shows signs that it’s willing to engage with the United States. The Obama administration, however, has remained silent in the face of these recent positive developments, jeopardizing this historic chance to end the tensions on the Korean peninsula and promote a peaceful détente. 

Despite the major international attention drawn to the new leadership situation following Kim Jong Il’s death, Obama did not mention North Korea in his State of the Union message last week. Interestingly, it had been cited in nearly every annual speech since 1995. Also, upon Kim Jong Il’s death last month, Secretary Hillary Clinton extended sympathies to the North Korean people, but not to Kim Jong Un, even though President Bill Clinton sent condolences to Kim Jong Il when Kim Il Sung died in 1994.

The silence may indicate a cautious, even wary, U.S. approach towards the new regime led by the young Kim Jong Un—son of the late Kim Jong Il and grandson of Kim Il Sung—who took power just five weeks ago. On Tuesday, Kurt Campbell, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, shut the door on North Korean overtures to engage with the U.S. until the North improves its relations with its southern neighbor. This guarded strategy may stem from uncertainty about the true leadership situation in the North: Is the 28-year-old Kim Jong Un really in charge, or is a team of “regents,” led by his uncle and aunt, Jang Song-thaek and Kim Kyong-hui, with top military leaders, really running the country? Despite these uncertainties, had Obama included a conciliatory sentence toward the North in his message, it would have clearly sent a positive signal to a new regime trying to gauge the intent of the U.S. Instead, the Obama administration pushed the new government away.

For now, Kim Jong Un appears to be the head of the government with the support of the North Korean elite. According to Johns Hopkins’ expert Alexandre Mansourov, the succession was consummated smoothly and Kim Jong Un is in full control. His quick consolidation of power following a short mourning period evidences Kim’s self-confidence and strength, not weakness. The new regime is stable, dynamic, and here to stay. This is also the prevailing view that is shared by South Korea and Japan, as well as by China and Russia. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted last week, there are no signs of instability.

It appears as though these recent domestic political changes have opened a window of opportunity particularly because Kim Jong Un must adhere to his father’s legacy and fulfill his final wishes. Kim Jong Il set the example when he concluded the 1994 Agreed Framework, freezing the DPRK’s (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) nuclear program for light water reactors, which his father set in motion before his death. In North Korea’s leadership context, it is a virtuous act of filial piety for a son to fulfill his father’s last wishes. Accomplishing them in a public manner further secures his leadership, as the regime elite, particularly the military, would be compelled to embrace and follow his new policy direction without objection.

Moreover, despite increasing economic dependence on China in recent years, Kim Jong Il regarded the development of a solid relationship with the United States to be the counter-balance to Chinese pressure. North Korea not only wants to survive but retain its independence. While its reliance on China is therefore one of necessity due to the lack of present viable alternatives, the development of relations with the U.S. does provide North Korea with a counter-balance that helps to ensure its sovereignty and independence. This is of major relevance particularly to Kim Jong Un since history, including bitter experiences with its Korean War ally, taught the North not to entrust its future to China. China is the one Korean neighbor who wants to maintain the division of the peninsula. Also, the North may even look favorably upon America’s recently declared Asian “pivot” that entails renewed attention to the region and is a strategy largely directed toward China. 

In addition, Kim Jong Il reportedly confided to select visitors in recent years that North Korea’s security can be guaranteed either with nuclear weapons or by establishing trust and friendship at a senior level between the U.S. and DPRK. However, if present U.S. policy persists, we could see new provocations against the South or a third nuclear test this year because North Korea senses encirclement rather than new engagement. The U.S. therefore has the opportunity to create a new relationship with the North, proposing even a buy-out of its nuclear weapons program, contingent upon verifiable dismantlement, and present a road map for the normalization of diplomatic relations. China has had diplomatic ties with both Koreas since 1992; so should the U.S.

Just before Kim Jong Il’s passing on December 17, in discussions with North Korean representatives in Beijing, the U.S. and DPRK were reportedly close to an agreement to provide long-sought U.S. food aid in exchange for freezing the North’s admitted uranium enrichment program. This month, the DPRK indicated it is open to resuming those discussions, but the U.S. has ignored their calls.

Moreover, encouraging first steps by the Kim Jong Un regime may signal a desire for new engagement by the U.S. Pyongyang’s announced amnesty for some prisoners on January 5, the opening of an Associated Press bureau in Pyongyang on January 16, the delivery of South Korean NGO flour aid to Kaesong on January 27, and reaffirmation to Russia that it will permit a gas pipeline to the South, are altogether unusually positive signs for the first weeks of a new DPRK regime.

Also, the 1953 Armistice still prevails and Korean peace will emerge only when a permanent peace agreement is signed by the Korean War combatants: the two Koreas, China and the U.S. The Six Party Talks (involving the U.S., China, Russia, Japan, and the two Koreas), dormant under the Obama administration, should be revived not only to settle the nuclear issue but also to begin a second track that would negotiate a peace agreement to supplant the Armistice. 

The U.S. should therefore lead the way to offer a realistic vision for final peace on the Korean peninsula. It should not leave such critical policy to chance or cede the initiative to others, and it shouldn’t wait for the North to reach out to the South first. China has its proper role to play in Korean peace, but is best if done in conjunction with its neighbors. President Obama should take full advantage of this window of opportunity and convey to the North that the U.S. is willing to work with it to help push for peace and stability in the region.

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Mark P. Barry is an independent Asian affairs analyst who has followed U.S.-DPRK relations for the past 22 years. He often writes and speaks on U.S. policy toward North Korea and met the late North Korean president Kim Il Sung in 1994. He received his Ph.D. in foreign affairs from the University of Virginia.

[Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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