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Obama Administration's Approach to North Korean Nuclear Issue and Implications

Obama Administration's Approach to North Korean Nuclear Issue and Implications

BAHNG Tae-Seop

Jan. 29, 2010

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Originally released on December 17, 2009


The North Korean nuclear issue is one of the most difficult to negotiate. Numerous proposals have come and gone and a joint US-North Korea statement on nuclear dismantlement was issued through supposedly final negotiations. Nevertheless, North Korea conducted a second nuclear test and attempted to negotiate with the Obama administration from the start. Amid a tough stance by North Korea, a bumpy road lies ahead for direct talks and multilateral cooperation - the basic framework for the Obama administration's approach to the North Korean nuclear issue. It remains highly dubious if North Korean sanctions can be implemented in earnest. Even the Bush administration, which took a strong stance on North Korea, shifted its course during the second term when it accepted the North Korean demand for the alleviation of sanctions and clung to advancing negotiations on denuclearization.

This paper aims to identify the limits and problems in the way the Obama administration approaches the North Korean nuclear issue as well as present an appropriate role for ROK-US cooperation in this regard. First, despite North Korea gaining more attention with its second nuclear test, the biggest headache from the Obama administration's standpoint is Afghanistan. For the US, Afghanistan is a top priority, an ongoing issue that requires the US to weed out real threats by using military forces. Accordingly, Americans are paying more attention to the Afghanistan issue, which, in turn, will be a factor in Obama's re-election prospects. The North Korean nuclear issue could slip down the list of US priorities. Given such considerations, there is a potential that the Obama administration will take a more long-term approach to the North Korean nuclear issue. In other words, based on judgment that it is hard to expect denuclearization of North Korea in the near term, the Obama administration could tilt heavily toward nuclear nonproliferation. The Center for a New American Security presented the importance of strategic management. That is to weaken the nuclear proliferation threats of North Korea as part of the mid- and short-term interest of the US. In practice, the Obama administration is taking a two-track (denuclearization and nuclear nonproliferation) approach towards the North Korean nuclear issue. Stephen Bosworth, Special Representative for North Korea policy, and Sung Kim, US Special Envoy to the Six-party Talks, are engaged in the denuclearization track, while Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, and Kurt Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, are in the nuclear non-proliferation track. Against this backdrop, it's also problematic that international sanctions are the only current means to pressure North Korea. Based on judgment that it could gain leverage in negotiations if it gets international sanctions rolled back, North Korea could continue to insist on an end to the sanctions, shunning the core issue of denuclearization.

Under such difficult circumstances, South Korea and the US have grasped an opportunity to cooperate with respect to North Korean policies. The Lee Myung-Bak administration and the Obama administration both have firm will to stick to the negotiation principle of "North Korea should give up its nuclear ambition in advance." In other words, a consensus was made that the more difficult the negotiation, the more important it is to stick to basic principles.

When it comes to the role of the ROK-US cooperation, it is important to abide by the principle of pursuing dialogues in tandem with sanctions, while making North Korea feel the difference between present and past ROK-US cooperation. Also needed is a"grand bargain" between Seoul and Washington that is not affected by presidential changes in South Korea and the US. It would be aimed at making it predictable for North Korea to gauge what benefits it could gain in return for nuclear abandonment.

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