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An Arab Spring in North Korea?

By Mark P. Barry

President Barack Obama was in Seoul for the third time in his presidency earlier this week for the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit, making the South Korean city his most-visited foreign capital. While North Korea was not officially on the summit agenda, its announcement to launch a purported satellite into orbit in mid-April—timed with the 100th anniversary of the birth of its late president Kim Il-sung—caused Obama and other world leaders to pay more attention to the DPRK than they would have liked.

The President’s remarks were mostly predictable throwbacks to Cold War thinking. Yet in the first 100 days of the Kim Jong-un era, Obama has also made several groundbreaking, forward-looking statements, likely inspired by the Arab Spring, that indicate an unprecedented U.S. interest in catalyzing Korean reunification.

Upon arrival in South Korea on Sunday, Obama followed in the footsteps of his presidential predecessors since Reagan—he thanked American troops near the DMZ for guarding “Freedom’s Frontier” and peered through binoculars into North Korea at Observation Post Ouellette. He said he would not reward North Korea for bad behavior, and strongly implied that if it launches a missile next month, it would abrogate the February 29 “Leap Day Deal” in which the U.S. agreed to provide “nutritional assistance”—grains and biscuits unlikely to be diverted to the military—to the North in exchange for halting its uranium enrichment program and missile tests.

Also on Sunday, in that same news conference with South Korean president Lee Myung-bak, Obama was asked his thoughts about Kim Jong-un:. “I think it’s hard to have an impression of Kim Jong-un in part because the situation in North Korea still appears unsettled. It’s not exactly clear who’s calling the shots and what their long-term objectives are,” he said. These off-the-cuff remarks were surprising, because, whatever the internal assessment of the U.S. intelligence community, the president chose to state for the first time that it’s not clear Kim Jong-un is the main leader now running the country. It was highly unusual and likely offensive to the North, to publicly question who is running the country weeks after Kim Jong-il passed away.

On the other hand, speaking on Monday to Korean university students, some of Obama’s prepared remarks broke more new ground. Obama announced he wanted “to speak directly to the leaders in Pyongyang.” Reprising what George W. Bush had stated in 2002, Obama stressed the “United States has no hostile intent toward your country. We are committed to peace. And we are prepared to take steps to improve relations.” Obama added that North Korea’s provocations and pursuit of nuclear weapons “have not achieved the security you seek; they have undermined it. … Instead of earning the respect of the world, you've been met with strong sanctions and condemnation.” He said if the North continued down that road, it would lead to more of the same: “more broken dreams, more isolation, ever more distance between the people of North Korea and the dignity and the opportunity that they deserve.”

After warning there will be no rewards for provocations, the president got to his main point:

To the leaders of Pyongyang I say, this is the choice before you. This is the decision that you must make. Today we say, Pyongyang, have the courage to pursue peace and give a better life to the people of North Korea. … No two places follow the same path, but this much is true: The currents of history cannot be held back forever. The deep longing for freedom and dignity will not go away. So, too, on this divided peninsula. The day all Koreans yearn for will not come easily or without great sacrifice. But make no mistake, it will come. And when it does, change will unfold that once seemed impossible. And checkpoints will open and watchtowers will stand empty, and families long separated will finally be reunited. And the Korean people, at long last, will be whole and free.

No U.S. president has spoken in this manner about North Korea and its future prospects. While acknowledging that a unified Korea “may not be reached quickly,” he gave the clear message that the United States supports an eventually reunified Korean state because the aspirations of one people, seeking to end decades of division and stand with dignity, cannot forever be deprived. This is the Arab Spring meeting Obama’s Asian pivot. Obama seems to nurture the hope of even small signs of an Arab Spring in North Korea, of an opening-up.

Sadly, Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Lavoy told Congress on Wednesday that the U.S. would suspend the agreed-upon food aid because the missile launch reflects the DPRK’s lack of desire to follow through on its international commitments. Yet the five American NGOs who would deliver that assistance had already called upon the Administration to delink politics from humanitarian aid because it is badly needed. A number have argued the U.S. should look the other way and let the North have its missile launch, which is aimed at a domestic audience upon a highly significant occasion, not at the U.S. and its allies. It is part of consolidating a new regime. Judicious and appropriate application of American power and diplomacy should be able to make concrete progress with the DPRK without getting pulled into another cycle of demands and capitulation.

After the North’s April celebrations, including satellite/missile launch, the U.S. might resume delivery of the food aid by late Spring. Nonetheless, President Obama’s message to the North from Seoul is an invitation for it to create an internal and controlled “Arab Spring,” not different than the Chinese or Vietnamese models of reform. Otherwise, in time, the North could experience an uncontrolled “Arab Spring” that could have tragic consequences for the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia. 

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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 writes and speaks on U.S. policy toward North Korea and met the late North Korean president Kim Il-sung in 1994.

[Photo courtesy of An Honorable German]

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