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DONG Yong-Sueng

North Korean Wishful Thinking

DONG Yong-Sueng

Dec. 2, 2008

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Count North Korea among the many cheering Barack Obama's victory in the US presidential election. After eight years of butting heads with the hard-line Bush administration, Pyongyang seems to have high expectations of Obama, who is willing to personally engage troublesome countries, including North Korea, without preconditions. The North's optimism is also bolstered by the control of Congress by the Democratic Party, which may be perceived as less hawkish than Bush's Republican Party. The new political environment may raise North Korean hopes of replaying the 1990s, during the last Democratic administration, when it tried to isolate South Korea by engaging the US directly. However, that strategy, this time, will backfire.

In 1994, when the Geneva Agreed Framework was being negotiated, Pyongyang's attempt to isolate the South made sense. At the time, South Korea believed that if it suppressed the North a little more, it could break down the North and create an opportunity to seize reunification. However, the US believed that collapse of the Kim Jong-il regime would lead to chaos, lost control of North Korea's arsenal and inevitable trade or sale of nuclear arms to another country. Thus, as part of its efforts to curb the nuclear proliferation, the US pushed the Geneva accord in which North Korea promised to stop and eventually dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for commercial nuclear power reactors and oil to keep its limping industries active.

Today, the situation is quite different; Obama and the Lee Myung-bak administration are in agreement on the necessity and method of denuclearization in North Korea. The foreign policy recently articulated by Obama and Vice President-elect Joseph Biden has the 44th US president exercising pointed, straightforward diplomacy with North Korea to disrupt plans to develop nuclear weapons. Denuclearization in the North is a cornerstone of Lee's foreign policy agenda, and he is not a believer in a soft approach toward Pyongyang.

Furthermore, the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear ambitions are firmly entrenched as the main vehicle for resolving the issue. The US and South Korea obviously must stand together to maintain a united front in confronting Pyongyang. Although direct US talks with North Korea may produce possible solutions, the weight of the six-party format is absolute.

The current global economic crisis also comes into play. One reason for Obama's victory was the perception that he would better handle the crisis. To be sure, the economy will consume much of his time from the outset. Part of the solution will obviously require global cooperation, and one idea is a new Bretton Woods system on international monetary management.

During the process, Asian nations, including South Korea, have a critical role to play. Countries that circulate the biggest amount of dollars are concentrated in Asia. South Korea is the world's 12th trader, being one of the most accessible financial markets in Asia, and would be a valuable partner for the US to find a way out of the financial turmoil. South Korea will also use this as an opportunity to enhance its international status. This is the reason why Lee spends so much time attending international events such as G20 and APEC summit.

The North should remember that relations between the North and the US are limited to nuclear issue, but relations between the South and the US deal with worldwide issues. Therefore, the North may think that the US will not seek improved relations with the North. If Pyongyang wants to reach out to the US, it should realize that maintaining good relations with the South is necessary.

The Obama administration will try to open the way for the North to change. It will demand dismantlement of nuclear programs in a direct and forceful way while paying corresponding reward. In the same vein, the Lee administration is offering to help boost per capita income in North Korea and other incentives for dismantlement.

If the North rethinks in line with changing global trend, it will be able to benefit greatly. First, it has to stop jockeying for position and alter its mindset against change itself. Once that is accepted, it will be on a path to greater stability.

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