Despite Pyongyang’s hopes for dialogue with Washington, the U.S. is unlikely to change its policy course and engage with North Korea as it confronts a host of foreign policy challenges elsewhere, notably in the Middle East, experts said Wednesday.
The U.S. might need to rein in North Korean provocations and bring three jailed Americans back home ahead of its crucial midterm elections in November. But Washington is unlikely to budge unless Pyongyang takes any meaningful denuclearization steps, the experts said.
“With just several months away the midterm elections, it is risky for Washington to change its policy toward the North. The U.S. is probably not thinking of making any concessions with regard to the North’s nuclear issue and holding dialogue with it,” said Hong Hyun-ik, senior researcher at the think tank Sejong Institute.
“The U.S. may want the North to refrain from provocations (before the elections). And if the U.S. continues to refuse any dialogue with it ― even if it remains silent until after the elections, the North could conduct another nuclear test or launch a long-range missile (to call attention to itself).”
Given that the U.S., for the time being, has little motivation to actively engage with the North, observers pointed out that Seoul needs to map out a more creative policy to engage the North to denuclearize and discourage reckless acts such as another nuclear test.
Pyongyang, for its part, is resorting to its tried-and-true tactics of exploiting its captives to obtain leverage in initiating high-level talks with the U.S. On Monday, cable news channel CNN broadcast interviews with the three Americans held in the North ― Mathew Miller, Jeffrey Fowle and Kenneth Bae. They, in unison, called on Washington to make aggressive efforts for their release.
Pyongyang has also decided to send its foreign minister Ri Su-yong to the U.N. General Assembly in New York later this month, raising speculation that Ri could contact high-level officials in Washington. Ri would become the first North Korean foreign minister to visit the U.S. in 15 years.
Amid growing expectations of some improvement in the strained bilateral relations, the White House reiterated Sunday that its policy toward the North would remain unchanged should the country not take steps to demonstrate a commitment to denuclearization.
Painting a negative outlook for dialogue between the U.S. and the North, Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corp., noted that Pyongyang has made it almost “politically impossible” for a U.S. administration to negotiate with it.
“The history of negotiations with the North is a sequence of the U.S. giving the North things it wants in exchange for minor North Korean actions that the North typically reverses, such that it looks like the U.S. got little or nothing for what it gave the North,” he said.
“This pattern gives U.S. opposition politicians the ability to argue that the administration is being weak and ineffective ― a track record that no politician in a democratic society wants to have. So the Obama Administration adopted the policy of strategic patience.”
Bennett underscored that the North’s Kim family has consistently wanted to get a “free lunch” from the U.S. without taking any lasting action on its part, which makes U.S. dialogue with the North politically difficult.
“The Kim family’s greed is stopping U.S.-North Korea negotiations. But the North Korean regime would appear weak to its internal audiences if it gave the U.S. much in negotiations,” he said. “The cultures of the situation make positive progress very difficult, and deny Kim Jong-un the attention he so badly wants.”
Despite the North signaling its desire for talks, a recent series of domestic and international challenges facing the U.S. are expected to put the North Korean issues on the back burner. Those challenges include Islamic State militants expanding their control in Iraq and Syria, the continuing Ukraine crisis, and the congressionally mandated spending cuts, or sequestration.
“As the U.S. pivoted toward the Asia-Pacific, the U.S. sought to deepen its engagement to address issues surrounding China and North Korea. But unexpected conflicts in the Middle East erupted and the U.S. may have little room (to think about North Korea),” said Park Won-gon, a security expert at Handong Global University.
“North Korea is apparently low on the U.S. policy agenda as things are becoming more and more complicated in the Middle East. Not only Obama, but also former U.S. presidents tended to pay more attention to Middle East issues than to North Korea.”
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org)