Reinvigorated Obama to approach NK afresh

Shin Hyon-hee in Seoul/The Korea Herald
Asia News Network

Seoul (The Korea Herald/ANN) - Newly re-elected U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to more flexibly implement his two-track approach on North Korea, pressing it to give up nuclear arms while promising rewards for a shift toward openness and reform.

The Democrat president's re-election will likely facilitate cooperation with South Korea and other regional partners in curbing the communist state's nuclear ambitions.

A potential game changer is the South's December presidential election to replace Lee Myung-bak, the hardline incumbent. With all candidates seeking to engage with the North, bilateral policy coordination will likely smoothen no matter who wins, officials and experts say.

"I think our central message is we can expect close, constructive and deep cooperation between our two sides no matter who wins. We are determined to maintain the closest possible coordination and dialogue going forward," said Kurt Campbell, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, during his trip to Seoul on Oct. 26.

"It's fair to say that it will open a window of opportunity," said Choi Kang, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul.

But the two allies' efforts may face a setback, with the ball remaining in the North's court. Critics say the Obama administration's "strategic patience" policy has let the regime dictate the situation and furtively continue its atomic projects.

In addition, the South Korean presidential hopefuls' ambition to revamp the government's fundamental approach will first require them to work out controversial issues like the North's attack on the Cheonan corvette and Yeonpyeong Island, Choi said.

"Things will not be that easy if North Korea doesn't respond. But still there is hope. They will leave open the possibility of figuring out each other's sincerity through dialogue," he told The Korea Herald.

Ralph Cossa, president of Pacific Forum CSIS, the Honolulu-based Asia-Pacific unit of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that regional partners would welcome Seoul's purportedly flexible stance.

"But the real key is how flexible the North is prepared to be toward the new government in the South and how hard Beijing is willing to push them to deal with Seoul as a legitimate entity," he said in an email interview.

"This is a long-standing problem and I doubt Pyongyang will be overly receptive to whoever wins, especially when it comes to recognizing the legitimacy of the (South Korean) government.

Washington has approached the thorny issue based on a long-term strategy and consistency regardless of presidents' political inclination. Obama and Mitt Romney, the Republican challenger, also showed little disparity in their positions toward Pyongyang.

But Obama's sweeping to victory on Wednesday effectively shook off concerns that Romney may get tough on the unruly regime if he takes over the top job, posing a challenge to a six-nation forum aimed at denuclearizing the North.

During his first presidential campaign, Obama called for direct engagement with the North. But its April 2009 rocket launch soon prompted his condemnation and U.N. sanctions.

In his 2010 State of the Union address, the president said his administration's efforts put before North Korea "increasing isolation and stronger sanctions." In the 2011 speech, he vowed to stay in tune with the South and "insist that North Korea keeps its commitment to abandoning nuclear weapons."

In a sign of acceleration on the multilateral efforts, Kim Soo-kwon, director-general of the Foreign Ministry's Korean Peninsula Peace Regime Bureau, left for Washington on Monday.

Kim will have a series of meetings upon the end of the election with officials from the presidential office and the State Department on the U.S.'s future North Korean policy and related cooperation between the two countries, ministry officials said.

Kim's trip, coupled with Campbell's, could help put soon back on track the long-stalled six-party talks, which also includes China, Japan and Russia.

Pyongyang's another rocket liftoff in April dealt a blow to the forum, last held in late 2008. Efforts to resume the meeting have been put on the back burner with the stakeholders preoccupied with leadership transitions.

China kicks off its once-in-a-decade power shift on Thursday, appointing Xi Jinping as de facto leader of the world's second-largest economy and emerging military powerhouse. Japan is slated to hold general elections later this year, which may replace Yoshihiko Noda with a more hawkish prime minister.

Optimism is growing toward moderate reform in the reclusive North. The young, Swiss-educated leader Kim Jong-un has signaled his willingness to resuscitate the moribund economy and shore up the people's livelihoods.

Concerns linger, however, that a fierce power struggle between Washington and Beijing may put a strain on the multilateral teamwork. Beijing has ostensibly wanted Seoul to dilute ties with Washington and work more closely with Seoul to tackle North Korean issues and expand economic exchanges.

"The speed and robustness with which China has established itself as an emergent global power has compelled the Obama administration to walk a fine line between collaboration and competition," James Kim, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said in a report.

"China's unwillingness to engage in a coordinated diplomatic effort to discourage North Korea from developing its nuclear weapons program and prevent crises on the peninsula has pushed the U.S. to question Beijing's motives."

Tension remains high amid the regime's recurrent attempt to meddle in the South's presidential vote. Lee on Wednesday urged his aides to "thoroughly prepare for any possibility for the North's provocation and blatant intervention in the election."

In New York, the United Nations' First Committee adopted a fresh resolution on Monday calling for a complete abolishment of all nuclear weapons. A total of 159 countries voted for it, while 11 countries including China, India, Pakistan and Israel abstained. Only North Korea opposed.

North Korea's deputy U.N. ambassador Ri Tong-il warned of war, saying the peninsula is "on the brink of explosion."

"If you look at the current situation and developments on the Korean Peninsula, the United States did not hesitate to escalate, aggravate, increase its threats and blackmails with increased hostilities toward (the North)," he told the General Assembly, rejecting an IAEA report that billed the country's nuclear program as "deeply troubling."