Analysis: North Korea tests U.S. policy of 'strategic patience'

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday the world must respond to sinking of a South Korean warship that has been blamed on North Korea.
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2010

Obama administration officials have dubbed their policy toward North Korea "strategic patience" -- a resolve that Pyongyang has to make the first move to reengage and that it won't be granted any concessions.

Now that patience is going to be tested.

Since President Obama took office, North Korea has launched missiles, conducted a second nuclear test, seized a pair of U.S. journalists and sunk a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors. This week, after South Korea halted aid and trade to Pyongyang, the North said it would sever relations with its neighbor. It also warned of more provocative actions if Seoul pushes ahead with plans to seek a U.N. Security Council resolution imposing additional sanctions.

When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stopped in Seoul on Wednesday to meet with President Lee Myung-bak and other officials, Lee's spokesman said, she reaffirmed the policy of strategic patience. Officials traveling with Clinton said efforts to restart long-dormant nuclear disarmament talks had been put on hold.

"What we're focused on is changing North Korean behavior," one senior U.S. official said. "We are not focused on getting back to the table."

"We recognize that diplomacy, some form of diplomacy with North Korea, is inevitable at some point," another official said. "We're really not there."

Analysts worry, though, that the administration's policy allows North Korea to set the agenda. The United States and its allies are constantly reacting to Pyongyang's actions and, partly as a result, have little opportunity to reduce tensions or bolster diplomatic efforts.

The administration is "all about resolve. We want North Korea to know they can't jerk us around again," said Susan Shirk, a former Clinton administration official who is director of the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation and a professor at the University of California at San Diego. "The problem with it is, how do you credibly convince them that if they did something positive, we would be prepared to engage?"

The Obama policy is in many ways a reaction to the jarring dissonance of the George W. Bush administration's handling of North Korea. That administration veered from tough talk and actions -- which included the termination of a deal that had provided North Korea with fuel oil in exchange for freezing its nuclear program -- to a desperate gamble to strike any deal at almost any cost. In the end, Bush returned illicit funds and removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, only to see his efforts collapse with few lasting achievements.

Because the Bush approach also frayed relations with Japan and South Korea, the Obama administration has worked hard to coordinate closely with Tokyo and Seoul. U.S.-Japanese relations were rocky in the early months of the new government but seem to have stabilized in the wake of the North Korean actions. That coordination, U.S. officials say, has sharpened the attention of Chinese officials.

"It complicates their security environment. And over time, it affects their thinking," one of the U.S. officials said, predicting that China soon will signal support for South Korea despite Beijing's longtime alliance with the North.

People involved in the Obama transition say the North Korea portfolio was thought to have so little chance of success that there was no desire to invest much diplomatic capital in the effort.

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