North Korea and Malign Neglect

This article originally appeared in Asia Chronicle. It is part of a strategic dialogue on North Korea that includes this article by Brent Choi and Joowoon Jung. The authors respond to each other here.


The Obama administration has started off on the wrong foot with North Korea. In the wake of Pyongyang’s April rocket launch, the new administration decided to push a statement of condemnation through the UN Security Council. It has subsequently decided to largely ignore North Korea. According to one U.S. diplomat, the administration believes that it has a nine-month window before North Korea has its nuclear program up and running in any serious fashion. Until then, the administration will focus on its other global priorities: Af-Pak, Iraq, the global economy, climate change, and so on. In the meantime, North Korea has kicked out nuclear inspectors, declared the Six Party Talks a waste of time, and signaled that a second nuclear test may be in the offing.

We’ve been here before. When first Bill Clinton and then George W. Bush entered the White House, they each presided over a downturn in U.S.-North Korean relations. In the early 1990s, the Clinton administration went ahead with a resumption of Team Spirit military exercises planned by its predecessor, which contributed to a serious worsening of bilateral relations with North Korea that culminated in the nuclear crisis and near-military conflict of 1994. The Bush administration, meanwhile, reversed the progress made at the end of the Clinton period, singled North Korea out for demonization, and practiced a policy of malign neglect for its first six years in office.

Malign neglect hasn’t worked. North Korea doesn’t respond well to being ignored. Its desperate economic situation — and the possibility that economic hardship will translate into political instability — has pushed the leadership in Pyongyang to do whatever it takes to secure an agreement, first with the United States and then multilaterally. As for the “malign” part of the equation, North Korea is certainly equal to the task of matching harsh statements from Washington or anywhere else tit-for-tat.

Unlike the Bush administration, the Obama team isn’t theologically opposed to North Korea. It hasn’t declared North Korea part of an evil axis. Indeed, as a candidate, Obama stressed the importance of talking with countries that have taken adversarial stances against the United States.

The current policy of “malign neglect” is, instead, a default stance that has resulted from several factors. First of all, the administration is still putting together its North Korea lineup (envoy Stephen Bosworth is in place, albeit in a part-time capacity, but Kurt Campbell has yet to be confirmed for the position of assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs). Second, the administration has focused on domestic issues, rather than foreign policy, and North Korea is rather low on the priority list for foreign policy.

And, finally, the Obama administration didn’t come into office with a new strategy for resolving the outstanding issues that brought the Six Party Talks to a standstill at the end of 2008. The April rocket launch came before the new administration could review North Korea policy and come up with a sensible approach. Obama is a cautious and patient politician; Kim Jong Il is not.

In its nine-month window of opportunity, preferably sooner rather than later, the Obama administration needs to abandon its default position of malign neglect in favor of the same engagement approach that its predecessors eventually adopted. In terms of tactics, the administration must explore, first quietly and then more publicly, the potential to restart bilateral discussions. A high-level envoy, perhaps sent to Pyongyang on the explicit mission of dealing with the two U.S. journalists currently being held on charges of espionage, could address the nuclear issue in side discussions.

But the Obama administration must also have a plan. Obama himself has written of the “audacity of hope.” The United States needs an audacious and hopeful plan of action for North Korea. Such a plan must go beyond a focus on denuclearization. North Korea has abandoned the Six Party Talks in part because it hasn’t gotten what it expected. It received only a portion of the heavy fuel oil promised. The partial lifting of U.S. sanctions hasn’t resulted in any major economic change. The country remains surrounded by countries that are still strengthening their military containment postures.

An audacious plan for North Korea would make good on the roadmap for economic and political integration that has already been outlined in the Six Party Talks. North Korea won’t give up its only major bargaining chip unless it gets something of comparable value.

In nine months, North Korea’s nuclear program will be reborn. The Obama administration can prevent this from happening. Malign neglect will not abort North Korea’s plans. Only engagement will do the trick.

John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.