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.”