Well, at least President Obama was able to convince North Korea into closing down their plutonium processing plant a while back!

Although President Obama came into office vowing to work to renew even the most trying diplomatic relationships, his administration has proven less willing to engage North Korea than President Bush was during the Republican’s second term. And due to a combination of factors, it appears highly unlikely that Washington will sit down with Pyongyang for either bilateral or multilateral negotiations any time soon, even as the risk of tensions boiling over into a larger crisis on the Korean Peninsula has increased.

In October of 2008, the Bush administration removed North Korea from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism in exchange for an agreement from the isolated dictatorship to close down its plutonium processing plant and allow international inspectors to verify compliance. The move marked the culmination of a dramatic shift in policy from Bush’s first term when he famously included North Korea in the so-called “axis of evil.”

Obama appeared to have every intention of continuing Bush’s second-term policy of engagement as he prepared to take office in January of 2009. But on the eve of his inauguration, North Korea was already showing signs of taking newly provocative steps that were perhaps designed to test the young president, including declarations that the six-party talks on nuclear disbarment were null and void and the testing of a Taepodong-2 missile a couple of months later.

It did not take long for Obama administration officials to decide privately that an abrupt change in attitude was in order.

“They altered their policy 180 degrees and are now more hard-line, more conditional, more neoconservative than Bush was during the last four years of his term,” said the Heritage Foundation’s Bruce Klinger, who was a chief North Korea analyst for the CIA during the 1990s. “So now we have the administration pursing a policy and making statements that sound very similar to the first term of the Bush administration. Clearly the priority right now is on pressure tactics.”

Indeed, Obama has dismissed the idea of returning to the negotiating table without a concrete shift in North Korea’s posturing.

But instead of taking any conciliatory measures, Pyongyang has engaged in a string of increasingly provocative actions, including its apparent torpedoing of a South Korean warship in March that killed 46 sailors, its revelation of a new uranium enrichment facility, and its shelling of a South Korean island last week, which killed two South Korean civilians.

“Six-party talks cannot substitute for action by North Korea to comply with its obligations and to cease its destabilizing actions on the Korean Peninsula,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said on Monday, reaffirming the administration’s reluctance to take the first step toward reigniting the countries’ dormant diplomatic relationship.

White House officials appear to have decided early on in Obama’s term that North Korea was not simply using its nuclear program as a bargaining chip, as had long been assumed by many key players in the previous two administrations — a period in which Presidents Clinton and Bush tried to offer shifting combinations of incentives to Pyongyang with minimal results.

In 2006, North Korea conducted its first nuclear tests, increasing the inherent difficulty of convincing the regime to shift course.

“I don’t think we can simply throw up our hands in defeat and say we accept North Korea’s nuclear weapons state,” Klinger said. “But it’s very hard to find anyone in the administration who’s optimistic that diplomacy will work.”

Scott Snyder, an adjunct senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, agreed that there was a wide reluctance on the part of the White House and the State Department to get involved in yet another negotiating cycle with North Korea, as the perception has solidified that previous talks, especially bilateral negotiations, had led to the United States being duped time and again.

“After two decades, there might be some creative ideas out there, but what I would say at this point is beware of creative ideas,” Snyder said. “Most of the conventional ideas have been tried and found wanting, that’s the reason why this is so difficult.”

The Obama administration’s decision to put the onus on North Korea before reentering negotiations may have encouraged Pyongyang to be even more aggressive, in the hopes of increasing its bargaining chips during a period of particular uncertainty within the regime as North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il continues to groom his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, to succeed him.

“These are the kinds of provocations that were routine back in the 60s and 70s, so that’s disturbing,” Snyder said. “Also, the South Korean response was less than what was expected by the South Korean public, so it means that in responding to the next provocation, the likelihood is that the South Korean government is going to have no choice but to overcompensate or to initiate a response that is disproportionate.”

So far, U.S. and South Korean officials have been resistant to the idea of responding militarily to the provocations of a proven nuclear power that has the fourth largest standing army in the world.

And most experts agree that Obama has been left with no good options in dealing with a flashpoint that figures to continue to flare up intermittently and could potentially spin out of control.

“Even if you do a tactical level retaliatory response, you have to be prepared to go all in, in that you cannot guarantee that it won’t lead to an all-out war on the peninsula,” Klingner said. “And because of that slippery slope, there is the constraint against really doing anything militarily.”

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