Connect to share and comment

North Korea: It's a cyclical thing

Carter echoes Clinton in Pyongyang. Kim Jong-il takes off for China. And round again.

London-based Colin McAskill is another European for whom U.S. sanctions have gotten in the way of business. As chairman of the Hong Kong-incorporated Koryo Asia Ltd., McAskill has sought since 2005 to establish an investment fund focusing on North Korea — an initiative that, at the beginning at least, had U.S. encouragement, he said in an email exchange. McAskill complained that policies of the Obama administration and South Korea’s Lee Myung-bak administration aim at bringing down Kim Jong-il and are counter-productive.

Instead they should encourage and work with Kim, who is “the only real arbiter of change in that country, with enormous internal opposition to his plans for reform,” said McAskill. “He started the market reforms in 2002 and brought in Pak Pong-ju over many opponents.”

“Sure, he is weakened both by illness and internal dissent at the very highest level and by a tunnel-visioned administration in Washington and a neo-con in Seoul giving succor to his enemies by advocating ‘regime change,’” McAskill said of Kim, who reportedly suffered a stroke in 2008. “Tell me this: Who will you change him with?”

North Korea said recently that it’s willing to return to stalled “six-party” nuclear talks with China, Russia, the U.S., South Korea and Japan, and Carter has long been on record favoring engagement. In a speech in Seoul in March the former U.S. president reportedly said, “There is no harm in making a major effort, including unrestrained direct talks. The initiative must be from America and South Korea.”

But even if, in addition to getting Gomes released, his visit has elicited some concessions from Kim Jong-il, Carter could have a difficult time persuading the Obama administration that it’s time once again to trade an easing of sanctions for possible progress on the nuclear issue.

“My impression is that the people with the most influence on policy are very skeptical about North Korea,” said former State Department Korea Desk chief David Straub. That skepticism “deepened after Pyongyang ignored their overtures in early 2009 and proceeded to test a second nuclear advice.”

Worries about crossing signals with the heretofore cooperative South Korean Lee administration combine with political fears that Republicans would cast Obama as “the fool in dealing with North Korea” to reinforce that skepticism, said Straub, who currently is associate director of the Korean Studies program of the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University.

“Of course, all this might be different if the Obama administration’s analysis were that the North Koreans might actually be willing to agree to a deal giving up their nuclear weapons on terms that the U.S. could accept, but I doubt there is more than a handful of people in the U.S. government who still feel that’s possible,” Straub said.

“As for North Korean economic ‘reform’ specifically, the reforms in 2002-2003 were very limited, nothing even close to what would be required for North Korean to begin to overcome its internal contradictions,” Straub said. “I don’t know why the Obama administration would be encouraged by Pak’s reported rehabilitation.”

Bradley K. Martin is the author of "Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.”