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The Missing Consensus: U.S. Policy Specialist Views on Korea

by Guest Blogger for Scott A. Snyder
August 1, 2009

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice speaks after the U.N. Security Council issued a statement unanimously condemning North Korea's recent missile launch April 13, 2009 (Chip East/Courtesy Reuters).

Stephen Costello is President of ProGlobal, Inc. He previously directed the Program on Korea at the Atlantic Council of the United States and was Director of the Kim Dae-jung Peace Foundation, U.S.A.

From the earliest days of the modern U.S.-Korea alliance, there have been tensions reflected by debates in the American policy community over how to deal with North Korea. Under the Clinton and Bush administrations, respectively, U.S. policy toward North Korea fluctuated wildly, from intensive engagement and deal-making to confrontation, coercion, and containment. There have been less noticed, but equally important, fluctuations in policy toward South Korea. These policy changes did not always correspond to developments in Korea, but sometimes reflected U.S. ideological and political battles.

The following analysis of recent developments in U.S. policy toward the Korean Peninsula is based on six surveys sent to over 220 American specialists on Korea, Northeast Asia, and nonproliferation across the country in March, April, and February 2007; July and September 2008; and May 2009. The response rate was 10 to 20 percent, or between twenty-five and fifty respondents per survey.

Based on the two most recent surveys conducted in May, the majority view among respondents is that the North’s missile and nuclear tests in April and May 2009 constitute a clear rejection of diplomacy with the United States. Very few believe there is reason to continue to try to revive the deals based on the September 2005 Joint Statement. Following the two tests, the dominant themes of public comment by American analysts have emphasized the need to present a united front among the United States, Japan, and South Korea and the need to bring China and Russia into a more punishing regime of UN sanctions and other actions. So far, this consensus has held to an unusual degree, stemming from the shock of North Korea’s quick actions and extremely provocative statements. Regardless of whether North Korea continues provocative actions or remains in a tense stand-off posture, most specialists are unlikely to support U.S.-initiated diplomatic initiatives or enhanced incentive specificity. The minority view—that the United States has a responsibility to enlarge the strategic goal and press for a new and better deal—remains unreflected in U.S. policy. A wide gap exists between what the North wants from the United States and what most specialists are willing to give.

At the same time, many respondents expect that both South Korea and the United States will exert maximum energy to revive engagement. In response to the question “how should the Obama administration react to the (missile and nuclear) tests,” 44 percent chose “carefully coordinate a tough policy response among U.S. allies, Six Party Talks partners and UN Security Council members.” However, 39 percent of respondents thought the United States should “intensify and raise the level of bilateral U.S.-Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) contacts in order to break the cycle of escalation.” Other options included “insist that the DPRK use the Six Party Talks framework for discussion of its main interests and demands” and “enhance military readiness together with South Korea as a signal and symbol of determination.”

When asked “what is the best course of action for the South Korean government to take in the wake of the missile and nuclear tests,” 61 percent of respondents chose “react calmly, placing more emphasis and effort on the offer of direct dialogue with the North,” while 56 percent chose “pressure North Korea with a coordinated stance among the United States, Japan and South Korea, possibly including sanctions.” An important policy question that emerges from these views is whether both approaches can be pursued at the same time.

Prior to North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests, the Obama administration’s management of the U.S.-ROK alliance as of May 2009 received support similar to the Bush administration (from a September 2008 survey) of aggregate support for “yes” and “mostly effective:” 64 percent for Obama versus 65 percent for Bush. Survey respondents have consistently judged the most important issues in the U.S.-ROK alliance to be the need for progress on the North Korean nuclear issue, closely followed by the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and the need to plan for North Korean contingencies and military cooperation.

Two Opposing Camps

At least as far back as 1994, two views of the North Korea problem have competed, sometimes heatedly, for policy preeminence. Ironically, each camp views the embrace by the Obama administration of the opponent’s policy prescription—bold engagement or enhanced sanctions and containment—as a sign that denuclearization has been abandoned in favor of counterproliferation. Early in the Bush administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell provoked this fear among some observers when he said, on a Sunday news show, that the number of nuclear weapons produced by the DPRK was less important than our commitment to contain them. The Obama administration’s recent support of Bill Clinton’s humanitarian mission to free two U.S. journalists provoked this response from The Heritage Foundation’s Bruce Klingner: “U.S. allies South Korea and Japan remain exceedingly nervous that Obama will eventually abandon the U.S. policy of denuclearizing North Korea and accept a lower standard of merely preventing future nuclear proliferation.” In the January-February edition of Arms Control Today, Joel Wit urges for bolder engagement, noting that although the political and bureaucratic difficulties of the current situation may argue for “adopting a warmed-over Bush approach of seeking very small steps forward” so as to limit exposure and risk, doing so “runs the serious risk of allowing Pyongyang to think that its strategy of playing for time can succeed…It also encourages the dangerous misperception among U.S. allies that Washington will indeed be willing to live with a nuclear North Korea.”

Two views of the history of U.S.-North Korean negotiations continue to divide the U.S. policy community. One view holds that there are good reasons to expect the DPRK will sell off even its nascent nuclear threat if the United States makes a consistent and credible commitment to the North’s development, diplomatic engagement, and long-term security. The other view is that the evidence is now conclusive that the North Korean leadership cares more about its nuclear capability and isolation from foreign influence than about economic development or diplomacy-based security. This continues to be the majority view, as it has been for most of the past fifteen years.

A parallel debate involves the political cost of working for a comprehensive denuclearization deal as opposed to enhanced containment and more punishing sanctions. A divide among nonproliferation specialists has clearly emerged over the past four months, as tension and escalation have again defined the U.S.-DPRK relationship. Some favor a strong and multidimensional approach, while others are convinced North Korea will be a test case for containment in the next phase of nonproliferation strategy. The growing issue of containment versus disarmament will be a major factor influencing the future direction of U.S.policy toward North Korea in coming months as the Obama administration makes critical decisions on how to proceed.

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