Waiting For Godot?: US’s North Korean Dilemma – Analysis


By Ruhee Neog

Former US special envoy to North Korea Stephen Bosworth met with a North Korean team led by Kim Kye Gwan, First Vice Foreign Minister, in Geneva in October 2011. Bosworth tersely called them ‘very positive and generally constructive’. This followed another meeting between US and North Korean officials this July. However, the US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, expressed skepticism, terming North Korea both ‘reckless’ and a ‘serious threat’, and went on to reassure regional allies that the US security commitment was solid in spite of looming budget cuts. This occurs during a recorded shift in US’s ‘pivot’ – in line with Hillary Clinton’s ’Pacific Century’ allusion. What does this say about US strategy towards North Korea? And how will this influence the dynamics of North Korea’s nuclearization?

US’s ‘Pacific Century’

North Korea
North Korea

Bosworth’s controlled optimism and Panetta’s skepticism have led to suggestions of a split, with the administration on one side, and the CIA and Pentagon on the other. . The latter entities are seen as having come closer since Panetta, an ex-CIA director, was appointed Secretary of Defense. However, it may equally be a deliberate ‘good cop-bad cop’ strategy towards North Korea. Obama’s attendance at the East Asia Summit, the first by a US president, added substance to Clinton and Panetta’s growing Asia-centrism. Significantly, the US is pushing for non-proliferation as an important element of the cooperation, presumably putting much emphasis on North Korea. In a speech to the Australian parliament, Obama said that North Korea would be held ‘fully accountable’ for any nuclear proliferation activities and the US would ‘act firmly’ in response to it. The North Korean threat further legitimizes heavy US involvement in the region, necessitating security pledges to its Asian allies, notably South Korea and Japan. The Asian focus is also hoped to detract attention from the Af-Pak and Iraq situations. It remains to be seen if the American public will support such intense involvement in the Pacific even if they are explained as extensions of existing policies and commitments, aimed at also at countering China.

Risk mitigation vs risk elimination

The active military stance conveys a no-nonsense signal to North Korea, but the North Korean nuclear programme is going to develop in spite of it, as it has in the past many decades. Diplomacy can only keep channels of communication open and earn a few vague concessions. The message is that North Korean provocations would not be tolerated, but talks for the sake of talks would be dangled as carrots to remove the justification for such actions. To suppose that it will result in ‘verifiable denuclearization’ as enunciated in the 2005 Joint Statement is an exercise in wishful thinking, and the US is cognizant of it.

‘Strategic patience’ vs ‘strategic prudence’

The US is still maintaining ‘strategic patience’, but prudently so, as proposed by Jonathan Pollack in No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons and National Security. The heir apparent, Kim Jong-un, has been chosen with deliberation with the expectation that he will ensure the survival and exclusivity of a system put in place by his grandfather. Unless the successor is inclined to depart from the norm, the North Korean regime will continue to maintain and expand the one guarantor of its longevity, its nuclear weapons programme. In addition are US security guarantees to South Korea and Japan in response to which North Korea justifies its pursuit of nuclear weapons. In any event, the US will not backtrack on its assurances to South Korea and Japan, especially at a time when it wishes to increase its prominence in the region. On paper therefore, stalemate is already effectively reached.

The strategy of prudence is demonstrated by the appointment of Glyn Davies as the successor to Bosworth. As the principal deputy assistant secretary for East Asia, Davies wrote to a colleague in 2008 asking her to soften the language used in a report on North Korea, with suggestions like the removal of ‘repressive’, and addition of ‘from the isolated country’ to qualify a sentence on reports of humanitarian malpractices. The language was cautious, and suggested a distancing from a vocal reprobation of the regime. It is significant that he holds the dual role of US permanent representative to the IAEA and special envoy to North Korea because it insinuates that nuclear speak might be on the agenda for talks. Given that he will have to divide his time between two jobs, however, it also suggests that one of the two jobs is not expected to take up much of his time, and this would naturally be assumed to be negotiations with an unforthcoming North Korea. In addition, as many analysts have said, the appointment of a low-profile expert in lieu of a high-profile diplomat such as Bosworth could part of a larger strategy to project the administration’s serious commitment to policy continuity ahead of the 2012 presidential elections – despite indications that the Obama policy of engaging ‘rogue’ states has failed to yield visible results. Replacing a high profile diplomat like Bosworth with a low profile expert like Davies signals such continuity.

The US therefore it seems has in all but words reconciled to the current state of stalemate in its dealings with North Korea. All actions now are to signal policy continuity while transitioning the rhetoric from ‘risk elimination’ to ‘risk mitigation – aimed at making the latter more palatable.

Ruhee Neog
Research Officer, IPCS
email: [email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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