Obama Stumbles on North Korea

During the presidential election in 2008, Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama said he would "pursue a tough, smart and principled national security strategy,"while "securing all nuclear weapons and materials from terrorists and rogue states."

After his electoral triumph, Obama broke with the George W Bush years by deleting North Korea from the axis of evil. He also pledged that the US would sit down with adversaries, giving rise to the expectation that his policy shift would mark the starting point for establishing a good relationship between Washington and Pyongyang. The Obama administration interpreted the long-stalemated issue as the product of antipathy to George W. Bush's unilateral neo-conservatism.

As expected, Obama's approach has backfired. A clear majority of skeptics had already begun to suspect that the new administration's clueless campaign rhetoric-like approach was the equivalent of attempting to catch a hare with a stick.

On cue, South Korea added to another layer of outrage from North Korea instead of building mutual trust. South Korean president Lee Myung-bak claimed in a prepared text for a radio address in early 2009 that "Rather than trying to be nice to North Korea at the start and ending up with poor results, I believe it's better to end up with good results."

The right-wing South Korean president calls himself a card-carrying pragmatist on the grounds that principled and transparent assistance works better than non-conditional aid does to limit North Korea's nuclear program. As a result, Seoul has seemingly been caught in self-hypnotized and groundless optimism that Washington would keep up the pressure of tough diplomacy on Pyongyang.

The regime in Pyongyang, no fools, instantly judged that Seoul and Washington have already been out of synch over the diplomatic negotiations. Conveniently and ostensibly outraged, North Korea started escalating the degree of threat and blackmail again. That has culminated this week in an exchange of artillery fire initiated by North Korea near the Demilitarized Zone between the two countries on Jan. 26.

Although President Obama pressed the brutal regime in the North to abandon its nuclear programs or the US would consider fresh, robust economic sanctions, very few believe that the sanctions will be pursued in the near term. North Korea perceives that the US will not pursue serious negotiations to concentrate its power on the North's denuclearization. In the face of Washington's hesitance, Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions have mushroomed.

The question is why Mr. Obama and his foreign policy team find it so hard to achieve North Korea's denuclearization.

First, they judged incorrectly that the North would abandon its aspiration to become a nuclear state, wooed by offers of economic assistance, diplomatic normalization and guarantees of the regime's legitimacy. The North merely wanted to date with America rather than elope while struggling to keep a thin lifeline connected to China.

It was extreme naïveté to think there would be a way to checkmate the poverty-stricken communist regime. Figuratively speaking, the dowry given by America eventually failed to satisfy Pyongyang. Now that Mr. Obama's popularity is falling, it would be suicide to continue to suck American taxpayers' blood through economic and other assistance to energize its commitment to resolving the never-ending nuclear deal.

Second, the Obama administration failed to comprehend the immensity of Chinese influence over North Korea, including over denuclearization. China not only has the ability to bridge the gap between the US and North Korea, but to widen the gap as well. In the event of a collapse of the country, China, just across the Yalu River, would be there first. Having risen sharply up the scale of global power, China as the only real rival state against the US is now able to insulate the Kim regime from any external threats---economically and militarily.

China seems to require the US to view the Chinese equally as a hyperpower, stating that "This is not the right time or right moment for sanctions because diplomatic efforts are still going on"with regard to the speed and direction of the denuclearization. The administration wasted more than a year trying to negotiate with North Korea and to embrace the eventual goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. With Chinese selective engagement activated, the nuclear negotiations have taken a back seat.

Third, China's strategic recalcitrance on the nuclear deal is inevitable, given that resolving the North Korean nuclear issue and its concomitant warming of relations between the countries would maximize the extent of the American national interest on the peninsula.

The seemingly unstoppable growth of China's economy is reshaping a security environment in Northeast Asia. China is showing the US that the region can be no longer a playground for America only. That said, Asia mostly does not look forward to being led by an undemocratic China, not by America. Unlike Russia, the loser of the Cold War, China is awaiting the return of its so-called Golden Age.

Many of the conflicts between Washington and Beijing will persist, but the legacy of US-China suggests they can be mitigated if the US treats China with increased respect and trust. For this, the Obama administration needs to move closer to Asia, where its traditional allies find themselves insecure and cautious with China's emergence as a power state. Now that any attempt to decouple these allies from the US is more likely to threaten the regional security and stability than ever, Asia is looking for clear American leadership at a time when the Obama administration appears to be stumbling.

Lee Byong-Chul is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul, South Korea