Rumors Hint at Policy Shifts in U.S. and South Korea

From Engagement to Reunification?

So says the Chosun Ilbo, in describing what would be a major policy shift for South Korea. From 2008 until now, the policy would best be described as reluctant engagement, which brought out North Korea’s violent and extortionate streak. Now, according to unnamed sources in the Unification Ministry, the administration seems to be looking for ways to prepare for and even accelerate reunification:

The government is shifting the emphasis of North Korea policy from exchanges and cooperation to fully fledged preparations for reunification beginning in 2011. “Next year, we intend to concentrate our efforts on strengthening our reunification capabilities rather than on dialogue with the North,” a Unification Ministry official said. It is apparently looking to influence ordinary North Koreans to bring about changes in the Stalinist country. “We must free ourselves from the perception that reunification by absorption is unfeasible,” he added.

More on that here. The problem with stories like this, of course, is that they name only anonymous officials, and therefore, we really don’t know whether we’re hearing the views of a junior official with rogue views, someone who represents a faction within the Ministry, or someone who is intentionally disinforming the Chosun Ilbo to scare the North Koreans. I maintain that the Lee Administration isn’t serious about holding North Korea accountable for anything, catalyzing change, or even about cutting off the money used to terrorize its own population until it shuts down Kaesong. When Kaesong closes, it will be time for a serious discussion of a policy shift. Everything else, especially this, is empty talk.

The Force Has Great Power Over the Weak-Minded

One of our perpetual questions about North Korea has to be whether they’re just too smart for us to comprehend, or whether it’s just the rest of us that are too stupid and weak-minded to deal with them properly. I still vote for the latter:

Senior Grand National Party lawmakers who gathered yesterday to deliberate the government’s policy toward North Korea after its attack on Yeonpyeong Island quarrelled intensely and broke into two camps.

One group argued the government should ease its tough stance against the communist regime to abate the highly strained relations between the two Koreas. This met fierce opposition from another group that maintained it was too early to “appease” North Korea.

I’d wonder where the constituency is for appeasing North Korea now, except that public opinion in South Korea is almost impossibly unpredictable. One person who obviously thinks there’s a constituency for appeasement is our old friend Comrade Chung. Although I can certainly see why the administration denied him permission to visit Kaesong, there’s a part of me that thinks he’d have been an ideal hostage — just think of what a win-win that would be for all of those involved.

Kim Jong Bill for Secretary of State?

Meanwhile, there are also rumors foreshadowing a policy shift on this side of the Pacific. I find those rumors hard to believe, beginning with the explanation that Hillary Clinton would step down … so spend more time with Bill. Yeah, right! If Hillary Clinton steps down, she’ll do it to distance herself from the administration or to mount a primary challenge, which I think is also unlikely.

Still, I can’t quite dismiss this. The obvious argument for Richardson’s appointment is that it would help the President with Latino voters, and I’ve always suspected that this President cares very much about domestic politics and so little about the actual substance of foreign policy that he’s delegated it to a group of sensible advisors, including James Steinberg, Kurt Campbell, Robert Einhorn, and Philip Goldberg. Putting Richardson in charge of them would be like putting a cat in a basket of pigeons. At a bare minimum, it would cost us a year of policy reviews, internecine struggles, and purges — a repeat of what happened after 2004. It might even mean that someone gets to follow in Mike Chinoy’s footsteps and write a book chronicling this administration’s paralysis-by-analysis on North Korea.

Ultimately, I don’t think it will happen because the adverse political consequences would outweigh the benefits, and the Administration seems smart enough to get this. Kim Jong Il’s behavior has been bad enough that any hint of Agreed Framework 3.0 would go over badly with the American people. Until now, President Obama has successfully neutralized foreign policy as a campaign issue, but a Bill Richardson foreign policy would give the Republicans an opportunity to cast off their discrediting by Bush, Rice, and Hill, find their voice, and make this an issue they can run on.

The greatest barrier, however, may be South Korea’s certain opposition to such a shift in Washington. Lee Myung Bak will still be President for a little more than two years, and with him facing a likely challenge from Park Geun-Hye on the right, you can expect his Administration to strongly oppose a new American diplomatic initiative to the North now. Say what you will about Lee not having a vote in our elections, but South Korea exerts a powerful influence over U.S. policy toward North Korea.


  1. I’ve heard Richardson touted as a replacement for Holbrooke. We do have to ask, however, how much, if any, diplomatic success has Richardson ever chalked up (as opposed to falsely taking credit for)?


  2. But LMB can’t run for re-election. Although he’s had his differences with Park, I would think that LMB would rather have someone from the right in the Blue House to continue his policies rather than someone from the Left.


  3. Hi Josh,

    What’s your opinion on Park Geun-Hye being elected? After the RMH debacle, would the left actually be able to win? Actually don’t answer the 2nd question.

    Also, PGH’s mother was killed by North Korean assassins, any speculation on what that means to her?



  4. Some provocative thoughts on US policy. Instead of pursuing ‘global dominance’ we should defend our interests through ‘offshore balancing’. Our greatest threat is not Al Qaeda but China. we should retain our hegemony here in the Western hemisphere, but

    ‘ … the United States should concentrate on making sure that no state dominates Northeast Asia, Europe or the Persian Gulf, and that it remains the world’s only regional hegemon. This is the best way to ensure American primacy. We should build a robust military to intervene in those areas, but it should be stationed offshore or back in the United States. In the event a potential hegemon comes on the scene in one of those regions, Washington should rely on local forces to counter it and only come onshore to join the fight when it appears that they cannot do the job themselves. Once the potential hegemon is checked, American troops should go back over the horizon.’

    He doesn’t say anything about unifying Korea, so I can’t claim him as a supporter of the Glans plan, but I thought the OFK community might be curious about the latest thoughts from John J Mearsheimer.