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Since moving into the White House, President Obama has done little to engage North Korea. That's due in part to North Korea's combative tone. But many observers, especially in South Korea, heard in President Obama's inaugural address, the possibility of a new beginning with North Korea.

NPR's Rob Gifford reports.

ROB GIFFORD: When Barack Obama became president in 2008, South Korea had also just elected a new president, a more hawkish one after 10 years of a gentler so-called Sunshine Policy towards 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 says it didn't quite work out that way.

Professor LEE CHUNG-MIN (Dean, Graduate School of International Studies, Yonsei University): When President Obama became president of the U.S., many South Koreans basically hoped that Obama would be another Jimmy Carter, i.e., opening up to North Korea dialogue as Jimmy Carter did, as president vis-a-vis, for example, the PRC.

But as soon as Obama became president, they 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 have dropped the ball.

GIFFORD: Lee and other hawks in South Korea say it's hardly surprising President Obama has not responded with any kind of American Sunshine Policy towards North Korea, and they hope he will hang tough.

But not everyone in South Korea has the same views on President Obama's policies. Moon Chung-in is a former official in the previous South Korean government that pursued the Sunshine Policy.

Professor MOON CHUNG-IN (Political Science, Yonsei University): We Koreans are very much disappointed the way he conduct policy in North Korea. What did he say during the presidency election campaign? He would meet whatever leader, wherever. But he didn't do that.

GIFFORD: 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 it. Moon Chung-in says you just have to hold your nose and engage, as Richard Nixon and then Jimmy Carter did with China.

Prof. CHUNG-IN: Under what condition China and Vietnam sought reform and opening? 1979, United States normalized diplomatic ties with China. Why can't we do similar thing to North Korea?

GIFFORD: Moon notes that at last week's political meeting 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 United States. The problem is that President Obama's in-tray has been full of other more pressing issues: domestic battles over health care and the economy; on foreign policy with Iran and in the Middle East.

John Delury of Yonsei University in Seoul says that for a U.S. president facing difficult midterm elections or re-election, there's really very little gain from making concessions to do a deal with North Korea.

Professor JOHN DELURY (International Relations, Yonsei University): The official U.S. policy is dual-track sanctions and engagement. But what I see is lots of sanctions, not a lot of engagement. 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.

GIFFORD: 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.

Prof. DELURY: From a North Korean perspective, in as much as we can try and get in their shoes, they consider themselves very much the weaker party here. So when the stronger party, the Americans, say, okay, you make the first move, you unclench your fist, and then we'll outstretch our hands, I don't think they see that as a very - as much of a peace offering. I think in their perspective, the U.S. has to make the first move.

GIFFORD: 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.

Rob Gifford, NPR News.

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