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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 25 (October 16, 2008)

All Headlines 10:43 October 16, 2008


Parsing the U.S. Candidates' Views on the U.S. Policy toward North Korea

By Bruce Klingner
(Senior research fellow for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org) in Washington, D.C.)

Although Northeast Asia hasn't been a major issue in the U.S. presidential campaign, it's still possible to assess where John McCain and Barack Obama stand on the U.S. policy toward North Korea.

With regards to North Korea, McCain and Obama favor engaging rather than isolating North Korea, and both agree that the Six Party Talks offer the best potential for achieving North Korean denuclearization. Each candidate believes that a strict verification protocol is an absolute prerequisite for removing North Korea from the state sponsors of terrorism list, as well as for making further progress in the nuclear negotiations. A Bush administration capitulation on this point would face strong criticism from both camps.

While both candidates agree on a policy of engagement over isolation, there are clear differences in how each would implement such a policy. These differences were evident in their first formal policy debate on September 26th.

McCain has expressed greater skepticism that diplomatic engagement will actually achieve North Korean denuclearization. McCain opposes President Bush's current negotiating approach which he sees as only providing incentives in an overeagerness to reach an agreement at all costs. More so than Obama, McCain would rely on pressure, including applying UN Resolution 1718, to augment, not replace, diplomacy with North Korea. He commented during the September 26th debate that meeting leaders such as Kim Jong-il without preconditions "is dangerous. It isn't just naive; its dangerous…the North Koreans have broken every agreement that they've entered into."

McCain has been a vociferous critic of North Korea's abysmal human rights record, characterizing it during the debate as the "most repressive and brutal regime probably on Earth…a huge gulag." But those that would depict him as an unrepentant hardliner should remember his critical role in normalizing relations with former adversary Vietnam.

Obama has emphasized "sustained, direct, and aggressive" engagement with North Korea. His declaration that he would meet unconditionally with despotic world leaders generated considerable controversy. The Obama campaign has since modified this position, highlighting that such meetings would be conditioned on sufficient preparatory work and simply showing a willingness to use all the diplomatic tools of statecraft to resolve difficult issues.

During the September 26 debate, Obama asserted that the Bush policy of not talking with North Korea had not worked and actually "accelerated their efforts to get nuclear weapons… quadrupling their nuclear capacity." Obama assessed that after the Bush administration policy reversal "we have at least made some progress."

Either candidate's North Korean policy would be heavily influenced by the status of the Six Party Talks upon assuming office in January 2009. If the negotiations appear to be reasonably on track, President McCain or Obama would continue the process, with the unique characteristics of his policy becoming more evident over time. Conversely, a belligerent Pyongyang that refuses to accept international standards of verification would draw a firmer U.S. response.

More troubling for the next U.S. president, however, is a growing sense that Pyongyang's obstructionist antics are not merely negotiating ploys but are instead designed to achieve international recognition of or acquiescence to North Korea as a nuclear power. If that is true, then no combination of inducements will compel Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons. President Bush's successor would be faced with even more difficult challenges down the road with Pyongyang likely to test the new president early in his administration.

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