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Defense / National Security

How Secretary of State John Kerry Will Change Relations With North Korea

A mass rally on Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, to celebrate the success of North Korea's rocket launch that sent a satellite into space. 

photo of Rachel Oswald
January 4, 2013

This article was originally published in Global Security Newswire, produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. NTI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group working to reduce global threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.

As U.S. secretary of State, Senator John Kerry will probably initially favor a policy of more engagement toward routinely hostile North Korea than that pursued by Hillary Clinton’s State Department, issue experts said on Thursday.

President Obama nominated Kerry as his top diplomat in December, and the longtime Democratic lawmaker from Massachusetts is expected to pass easily through the Senate confirmation process.

During his substantial tenure on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry has at times called for more U.S. involvement with the isolated North that focuses on intermediate objectives such as resumption of humanitarian assistance and bilateral negotiations aimed at pausing Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons development.

 

In a June 2011 commentary for the Los Angeles Times, Kerry faulted Washington’s engagement approach toward Pyongyang. “Our current approach of strong sanctions and intense coordination with South Korea and Japan does not provide sufficient leverage to stabilize the situation, much less bring about a change in North Korean behavior,” he wrote.

It has been the Obama administration’s policy on North Korea for some time that a return to formal aid-for-denuclearization negations be preconditioned on concrete demonstrations by Pyongyang of its sincerity to shutter its nuclear weapons program and to improve relations with Seoul.

Kerry “will be much more forward-leaning and more interested in a less conditional approach to North Korea than Secretary Clinton has had or would be the mood of the overall Obama administration,” said Bruce Klingner, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation specializing in Northeast Asia.

Early in his first term, Obama said Washington was willing to hold direct talks with Pyongyang that were hoped to lead to a resumption of a regional process aimed at rewarding North Korea’s gradual denuclearization with timed infusions of economic assistance and international security pledges. Obama appointed special envoys to North Korea -- Stephen Bosworth followed by Glyn Davies -- something that the George W. Bush administration did not do.

A number of official bilateral meetings in the last four years have failed to restart the paralyzed six-party nuclear talks involving China, Japan, both Koreas, Russia, and the United States or to prod the pariah nation into reforming its behavior. The U.S. stance has hardened since 2009 as the North conducted its second nuclear test, unveiled a uranium enrichment plant, and launched several long-range rockets, among other provocations.

The near-total isolation of North Korea by Washington and others has failed to halt the aspiring nuclear power’s push for a credible strategic deterrent. In December, the country conducted itsfirst ever successful launch of a space rocket, an event widely seen as a test of ICBM technology. The North is also believed to be preparing for a third underground nuclear test.

Whatever inclination Kerry might have for more diplomatic outreach to Pyongyang, “he will be butting up on the skepticism and cynicism that the Obama administration has built up over its four years of trying to alter North Korea’s behavior,” Klingner said in an interview.

“I think we’ve engaged with the North Koreans a whole bunch and I’m hoping that John Kerry recognizes that the engagement doesn’t work,” said Richard Grenell, who served as spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations during the Bush administration. “I also think that he is a realist in that he is going to see that the engagement strategy of the last decade hasn’t worked.”

Kerry’s Senate office said it could not comment on the North Korea issue while the nomination process is under way. A date for his confirmation hearing has yet to be set, but the State Department on Thursday said its staff has begun preparing the senator for the session before the Foreign Relations Committee he now chairs.

Kerry -- with support from the White House -- is likely to look for ways to freeze the growth of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program in the interim to achieving total irreversible denuclearization, Center for a New American Security Asia-Pacific regional expert Patrick Cronin said. The goal would be “how do we limit the risk of large-scale nuclear breakout,” he said.

One nuclear containment option would be to pursue a new deal to halt the North’s testing of missiles and nuclear devices as well as its production of new fissile material. The so-called 2012 Leap Day accord with the United States would have provided the Stalinist state with food aid had it taken such steps. However, the deal fell apart before it could be implemented after North Korea launched a long-range rocket in April.

“I just personally don’t think the concept of a [nuclear weapons work] freeze is going to be enough to be a starting point for a conversation unless there is some indication from the North Koreans that they are willing to consider subsequent steps that would lead to dismantling the program,” Stephen Haggard, a North Korea expert at University of California, San Diego, said in a Wednesday interview.

Pyongyang’s breach of the 2012 moratorium accord left a bad taste in the mouth of the Obama administration, according to Klingner, and created a “brick wall that Kerry will be banging his head against” should he try to argue with the White House for more engagement with the North.

At the same time, the election of Park Geun-hye to the South Korean presidency sets the stage for a year of greater engagement between the neighboring states. Park during the campaign signaled a willingness to hold a summit with North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un and to resume some monitored humanitarian assistance to the North.

“I think the Obama administration because it doesn’t have a great deal of hope of a breakthrough with North Korea … will likely allow or be eager for South Korea to lead on outreach,” Klingner said. The United States would want to ensure continued close coordination with Seoul, but there is a “very high comfort level in Washington” toward working with the incoming Park government, according to the Heritage expert.

Experts interviewed by Global Security Newswire agreed that dealing with North Korea is not likely to be a first priority for Kerry. Instead, responding to security developments in Iran, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East will take up more of his time.

“I think the North Korea issue hasn’t received as much media attention and because of that he will probably want to put it on a status quo path” Grenell said, adding “I would argue it hasn’t received the political attention it has [deserved] and so John Kerry should elevate it to the top tier.”

In speculating on the potential for Pyongyang to carry out fresh hostilities such as a third underground nuclear blast to test the resolve of the new South Korean and U.S. governments, Cronin noted. “North Korea doesn’t like to be ignored. It feels it gains leverage when it is being provocative.” 

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