North Korea on the Verge of a New Era?

For the last two decades, U.S. administrations have come in like a lion and out like a lamb with their policies on North Korea. Determined to demonstrate Washington’s resolve, U.S. presidents have played hardball with Pyongyang in an effort to precipitate regime change or at least bully the intransigent country into knuckling under.

When this strategy failed to achieve its intended results, successive administrations ended up, however reluctantly, negotiating with the hard-nosed team in North Korea.

The Barack Obama administration has been no exception to the lion-lamb rule. It did little to follow up on the initial bargains that George W. Bush negotiated in the latter part of his second term. Instead, after North Korea’s second nuclear test, Obama adopted a tactic of “strategic patience” that amounted, essentially, to ignoring the country in favor of other foreign policy priorities.

In the last few months, however, the administration began finally to sit down with negotiators from Pyongyang and hammer out a deal. According to reports by the Associated Press, the United States was on the verge of announcing a food aid package for North Korea that would have been followed by Pyongyang’s announcement of a freeze of its uranium enrichment programme.

These dual announcements, however, have been preempted by the death over the weekend of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. His son and successor, Kim Jong Eun, has yet to indicate his position on the incipient deal with Washington – or his position on any other issue for that matter.

Currently, North Korea is in a 13-day mourning period for his father, who was only the second leader that the country has ever known. Rumors of a shift to collective leadership, with Kim Jong Eun sharing power with the military, have leaked out of Pyongyang.

The elder Kim has bequeathed to his son a decidedly mixed legacy. On one hand, he leaves behind a country poorer than when he took over, a population more malnourished, and a political system no less autocratic and antiquated.

On the other hand, Kim managed to keep his regime relatively intact even as outside powers helped oust his peers in Iraq, Libya, and Serbia. He preserved the country, at times ruthlessly, during famine and economic collapse. Across three administrations and 17 years, he weathered the often dramatic shifts in U.S. policy, only for the international media to call him, and not U.S. leaders, “mercurial” and “unpredictable”.

The North Korean leader negotiated when that path was available, freezing his nuclear programme during the Bill Clinton years and even starting down the path of dismantlement during the subsequent Bush years. But he also hedged his bets by developing a secret uranium enrichment programme as a second path to the bomb. And by testing two nuclear weapons in 2006 and 2009, Kim Jong Il officially ushered his country into the nuclear club.

Outside observers are scrambling to make predictions about the contours of the post-Kim Jong Il era. Washington analysts have long despaired over the lack of solid intelligence about North Korea, a fact underscored by the failure to discover that Kim Jong Il had died until 48 hours after the fact. This lack of information extends to Kim Jong Eun, about whom little is known beyond his rough age (late twenties), schooling (a stint in Switzerland), and leisure-time interests (basketball).

Even less is known about how the younger Kim fits into the political order in Pyongyang. Like his father, he has a close but largely contrived relationship with North Korea’s most effective institution, the military, having become a four-star general despite no known record of military service and certainly no battlefield experience.

He may well listen to the advice of his putative regents, Kim Jong Il’s sister and brother-in-law, even to the point of becoming little more than a figurehead. The North Korean system, presided over by a gerontocracy, is not set up to accommodate a young man with bold ideas of reform even if it turns out that Kim Jong Eun is inclined in that direction.

At the same time, a technocratic elite schooled in the West has been waiting in the wings for some years for the chance to chart a new path for the country. A new middle class has also emerged that conducts business deals with China, operates the newly available cell phones, drives the increasing number of private cars, and crowds the new restaurants in Pyongyang.

So far, Kim Jong Eun has not demonstrated whether he sides with this technocratic elite or this new middle class. He has kept his mouth shut, which either reflects his age, his personality, or a measure of wisdom beyond his years.

The Obama administration, having finally jettisoned strategic patience to negotiate in good faith with North Korea, is now back in wait-and- see mode. The State Department has indicated that the food aid discussions are still ongoing but that further progress is unlikely before the New Year.

Washington shouldn’t let this opportunity slip to test the new leadership in Pyongyang. With 2012 an election year, Obama is not likely to risk charges of “appeasement” from his Republican rivals because of an overture to Pyongyang. Moreover, the administration has already expended some political capital and undertaken some risk by sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Burma. But North Korea’s strategic location and its mysterious nuclear programme require Washington to pay attention.

When Kim Il Sung died in 1994, the Clinton administration followed through on the negotiations for the Agreed Framework that negotiated the freeze in North Korea’s nuclear programme. Because of congressional resistance, however, the administration didn’t pursue the diplomatic and economic engagement it promised. An opportunity to end the Cold War with North Korea was effectively lost.

The Obama administration has a similar chance to use the death of Kim Jong Il to open a new chapter in its relationship with North Korea. Patience is certainly a virtue. And it’s important to wait for Pyongyang to put its political house in order. But Washington shouldn’t waste this second opportunity to end hostilities with its longest-running adversary.

John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.