The recent emergence of Kim Jong Un as the designated successor to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il once again put the spotlight on the secretive communist nation.
In this photo released by Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (right) and his son Kim Jong Un (left) attend a gala marking the 65th anniversary of the communist nation's ruling Workers' Party in Pyongyang on Sunday.
In this photo released by Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (right) and his son Kim Jong Un (left) attend a gala marking the 65th anniversary of the communist nation's ruling Workers' Party in Pyongyang on Sunday. AP
But while everyone was focused on the succession, little was said about U.S. efforts to re-engage North Korea.
Many observers, especially in South Korea, had seen President Obama's inaugural speech as opening up the possibility of a new beginning with North Korea, but as usual on the peninsula, it turned out to be a lot more complex.
Some South Koreans Express Disappointment
When Obama was elected president in 2008, South Korea had just elected a new hawkish president after 10 years of a gentler "sunshine policy" toward North Korea. Many in South Korea listened to President Obama's inaugural speech about extending the American hand to those who would unclench their fist, and thought that it might herald a new U.S. approach to North Korea, after eight years under President Bush that yielded few results.
Lee Chung-min of Yonsei University in Seoul says it didn't quite work out that way.
"When President Obama became president of the U.S., many South Koreans basically hoped that Obama would be another Jimmy Carter. ... But as soon as Obama became president, [North Korea] launched a long-range missile; they tested a second nuclear bomb. And so as far as Obama is concerned, North Korea really hasn't shown goodwill. So, they've dropped the ball," Lee says.
Lee and other hawks in South Korea say it's hardly surprising that President Obama has not responded with any kind of American sunshine policy toward North Korea, and they hope that he will hang tough. But not everyone in South Korea has the same views on President Obama's policies.
"We Koreans are very much disappointed [in] the way [Obama] has conducted policy in North Korea," says Moon Chung-in, a former official in the previous South Korean government that pursued the sunshine policy. "What did he say? During the presidential election campaign, [he said] he would meet whichever leader wherever. But he didn't do that."
Both sides agree that the goal is to open up North Korea and turn it into a sort of mini-China. They just differ on how to do that. Moon says you just have to hold your nose and engage, as Richard Nixon and then Jimmy Carter did with China.
World Economic Forum
Political science professor Moon Chung-in, shown at last year's World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the New Champions, says Koreans are "very much disappointed" in the way President Obama has handled policy on North Korea.
Political science professor Moon Chung-in, shown at last year's World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the New Champions, says Koreans are "very much disappointed" in the way President Obama has handled policy on North Korea. World Economic Forum
Moon notes that at last week's political congress in Pyongyang, some more moderate North Korean Foreign Ministry officials were elevated to senior positions — sending a message, he believes, that North Korea wants to negotiate with the U.S. The problem is that President Obama's inbox has been full of other more pressing issues: domestic battles over health care and the economy; and foreign policy with Iran and in the Middle East.
John Delury of Yonsei University says that for a U.S. president facing difficult midterm elections, or re-election, there is very little political gain from making concessions to do a deal with North Korea.
"The official U.S. policy is dual-track sanctions and engagement, but what I see is lots of sanctions, not a lot of engagement," Delury says. "Some of the engagement needs to happen regardless of where things are on the nuclear issue. That's the crucial thing. But right now, it seems there's no political will to do that; the nuclear issue is the be all and end all. And you make that the precondition for everything else."
Delury has just returned from a trip to Pyongyang, and he says the North Koreans don't believe they should be making the first move.
"From a North Korea perspective, in as much as we can try and get in their shoes, they consider themselves very much the weaker party here," he says. "So when the stronger party, the Americans, say, 'OK, you make first move, you unclench your fist, then we'll outstretch our hands,' I don't think they see that as much of a peace offering. I think in their perspective, the U.S. has to make the first move."
And so the cycle goes. Delury and others say they could see some kind of crisis flaring up and forcing more focus from Washington on North Korea, but barring that, they say this looks very much like a movie that everyone has seen before.