Just as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was arriving in Asia this week, Pyongyang was threatening to test a long-range missile. That’s its way of saying, “Don’t ignore us!” North Korea’s nuclear program is not in the top tier of foreign policy issues facing the Obama administration. The new team in Washington believes it has to deal with other priorities — the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the global economic meltdown, climate change and Middle East peace — before it can address the North Korean conundrum.
But North Korea isn’t waiting patiently for its turn in line. Its economy is in lousy shape. It has difficulty feeding its population. Its leader Kim Jong Il is reportedly recovering from a stroke, and no one knows who will be the next head of state. Firing a long-range missile is one way that North Korea can prove that it’s still alive and wants a deal now.
The previous administration certainly paid attention to North Korea. Reversing its policy from demonization and unqualified containment to qualified engagement, the Bush team eventually made some progress toward denuclearization. North Korea started to dismantle its plutonium facilities and handed over a declaration of its overall nuclear program that ran to 18,000 pages of accompanying documents. But the negotiations stalled at the end of 2008 over the issue of verification: The United States wants more access, North Korea wants less.
From its standpoint, North Korea did not get enough from the recent agreements. While it received some heavy fuel oil and some food aid, and while the United States removed it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, most economic sanctions remain in place. The normalization of diplomatic relations is a carrot dangling in the far distance. And North Korea hasn’t received any substantial development assistance or potential trade deals.
If Obama wants to resolve the nuclear crisis in Northeast Asia, rather than simply maintain the status quo of three steps forward and two steps back, he must go beyond a narrow nonproliferation focus.
The problem inherent in the negotiations is a profound asymmetry — not only in the respective power of Washington and Pyongyang but also in their perspectives. North Korea wants a long-term relationship with the United States. In contrast, the United States is fixated on a single goal: the denuclearization of North Korea. The negotiations will not succeed until the normalization of relations with North Korea and its integration into a regional security structure become essential components of a new U.S. policy toward Asia.
The Obama administration should put all this on the table — a fundamentally new relationship with North Korea — and show how its new diplomacy can solve the problems that vexed previous administrations.
Progressive Media Project, February 18, 2009