North Korea jostles to get Obama to notice

SEOUL (Reuters) - Taciturn North Korea will dangle its nuclear threat to ensure a place on Barack Obama’s agenda and the best the U.S. president-elect can hope is to contain Pyongyang’s atomic ambitions, not end them, analysts said.

A North Korean soldier looks south as he stands guard at the truce village of Panmunjom, about 55 km (34 miles) north of Seoul, November 13, 2008. REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak

The one thing Obama appears willing to consider, and which analysts say North Korean leader Kim Jong-il prizes most of all, is the first direct talks with a U.S. president.

The impoverished state has spent the best part of two decades goading U.S. presidents into handing over billions of dollars to curtail, but never actually end, its nuclear programme.

This week it objected to having nuclear samples removed from its country for testing, which the United States says is part of an agreement the North reached with five regional powers that is meant to lead to eventual dismantlement.

This latest snag has the potential to drag on until Obama takes office in January and force the new president to decide whether, for the sake of keeping diplomacy moving, to give in to Pyongyang’s strong-arm tactics, analysts said.

They said the military threat is the only real bargaining chip Kim has, without risking his grip on power, to wring concessions from the outside world and he is unlikely to dare give up nuclear weapons no matter what Obama does.

“It negotiates to keep the relationship (with the United States) from tipping to all out war,” said Brian Myers, a professor at the South’s Dongseo University who is an expert in North Korea’s state propaganda.

Secretive North Korea’s tactics could be even harder to read because of uncertainty about the health of Kim, thought to have suffered a stroke in August.

Fears about his health raised questions about who is making decisions concerning the North’s nuclear arms programme.


Myers said the North’s leaders need the United States as an enemy to justify their “military first” policy that has bankrupted the state but keeps them in power, saying it would be political suicide to disarm in exchange for massive aid.

“But at the same time it continues making provocations to prevent the relationship from tipping to all-out peace. This is just as dangerous for the regime,” he said.

Obama should expect the North Korea to use its time-tested strategy of driving wedges between allies and raising tensions to such a level that it becomes a pressing security concern.

“North Korea doesn’t want to be the top policy concern of the U.S. administration because that is too dangerous. But it always wants to stay somewhere in the top five,” said a diplomatic source in Seoul familiar with the North.

The outgoing Bush administration, which in eight years has shifted from trying to destabilize leader Kim Jong-il to seeking compromise, will hand Obama a workable plan to keep Pyongyang’s atomic ambitions in check.

Obama has offered his support for deals reached by the Bush administration that gave isolated North Korea aid and better diplomatic standing in exchange for taking apart its plant that makes arms-grade plutonium and agreeing to allow inspectors to check claims it made about its atomic inventory.

But he has broken from Bush by saying he is open to direct talks with leaders of countries hostile to the United States, such as the North’s Kim.

Analysts said at best Obama could sway the North to abandon its aging Yongbyon nuclear plant, but he would be hard pressed to have Pyongyang give up its fissile material or halt plans to develop another path to nuclear weapons by enriching uranium, which it can do away from the prying eyes of spy satellites.


“Obama is different in that he does not regard the bilateral talks as a reward to the North for progress in its nuclear disablement, and thus is expected to opt for more direct and active diplomatic engagement,” said Su Choo-suk, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.

North Korea has also signaled that it is ready to negotiate with Obama, after demonizing members of the Bush team as “blood-thirsty beasts” and “political pygmies.”

But it may force Obama’s hand before that.

“Pyongyang doesn’t like to be ignored and tends to do something provocative when it feels it is being ignored,” said Bruce Klingner, an Asia analyst with the Heritage Foundation in Washington ahead of Pyongyang’s statements on nuclear samples.

On Wednesday, irritated with the Seoul government’s tough line over its nuclear programme, the North announced it would close its land border with the South.

It could further ratchet up tension through missile tests or backing away from the nuclear deal.


The Bush point man for North Korea, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, was a key player in the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton and could stay on even when Republicans leave the White House in January, lending the new Obama team an expert hand, analysts said.

Obama’s top foreign policy adviser, Anthony Lake, served under Clinton and helped negotiate a now defunct 1994 deal that froze North Korea’s plutonium-producing reactor in exchange for energy aid and the promise of relatively proliferation-resistant light-water reactors.

Lake has argued that the United States should be prepared to sit at the table with North Korea, using sanctions and rewards to sway Pyongyang to stop its nuclear weapons programme.

Obama appears to have espoused these views and said last month: “If North Korea abandons its nuclear weapons programmes, there will be meaningful incentives. If it refuses, it faces a future of political and economic isolation.”

Additional reporting by Kim Junghyun and Paul Eckert In Washington; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Paul Tait