Once again, North Korea has unleashed threats that it is backing away from its pledge to denuclearize, challenging new US president Barack Obama to come up with a response. In South Korea, meanwhile, the government seems set to continue its hard-line approach towards Pyongyang, but there are also calls for the new US president to engage North Korea as quickly as possible.
So far, Barack Obama hasn't spelt out his North Korea policy in great detail
The South Korean military is on heightened alert after North Korea recently lashed out at Seoul. A spokesperson wearing a military uniform appeared on North Korean television declaring that Pyongyang is taking an all out confrontational posture against South Korea. He also called President Lee Myung Bak a traitor.
These types of remarks coming from the Kim Jong Il regime are nothing new, but their tone has increasingly become more belligerent. Analysts believe these threats are not only directed at Seoul, but also at the newly inaugurated Barack Obama administration.
As negotiations on ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program remain deadlocked, Pyongyang wants to up the stakes. In the past two weeks the North Koreans have sent out mixed messages to Washington; at first indicating that they want to establish bilateral relations before denuclearizing, and then declaring that they don’t need diplomatic ties at all with the US.
In Seoul, meanwhile, there have been calls for President Obama to ignore the rhetoric and fully engage North Korea. Kim Dae Jung is a vocal advocate of this line, the former South Korean president who in the late 1990s initiated the strategy of rapprochement, known as the Sunshine Policy.
Calls for engagement
Kim suggests that Mr. Obama give high priority to resolving the North Korean nuclear standoff through the framework of multilateral negotiations, known as the six-party talks. Kim recommends that the American president-elect adopt what he calls a "wholesale package" deal with Pyongyang, which he explains means giving whatever you can to North Korea and taking whatever is offered in return.
No one, including Kim, thinks this will be easy. Pyongyang has also reportedly told an American scholar visiting North Korea that the regime has turned its remaining stockpile of plutonium into weapons grade material. And that it will never relinquish its nuclear arsenal until the U.S. takes South Korea out of its nuclear umbrella.
Dialogue between the two Koreas is virtually frozen. Pyongyang says it won’t talk to Seoul until incumbent South Korean president Lee Myung Bak drops what it calls his hostile policy.
Former president Kim Dae Jung says Lee must re-engage North Korea and re-start joint economic projects that have been put on hold. He says that President Lee needs to stop activist groups from launching anti-Kim Jong Il propaganda leaflets over the border into North Korea.
Seoul remains sceptical
But long time observers such as Seoul-based Michael Breen do not think President Lee will alter his stance on his northern neighbour. "North Korea is not changing, the regime wants to maintain its power, it suppresses its people horribly. So this government particularly doesn’t want to waste its time dealing with them," says Breen.
While the Obama administration has not yet fully outlined its North Korea policy, there is speculation that Obama may replace Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who has been the point-man to the six party talks throughout the Bush administration.