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Obama and South Korea's President Park must agree on North Korea policy

As President Obama meets today with South Korea's President Park Geun-hye, how closely they agree on policy toward North Korea and whether they establish a good working relationship will be key to dealing with an increasingly dangerous new leadership in Pyongyang.

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Obama will have many issues to discuss with Park, but none nearly as important as North Korea. Having conducted its third nuclear test in February, North Korea’s rhetoric, always hair-raising, has been off the charts, including threats to conduct a pre-emptive nuclear attack on the United States.

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North Korea still doesn't have the capability to do that, but it is on a trajectory eventually to have a small nuclear arsenal that it wants to use to to bully South Korea and the US. Obama will thus reassure Park that the US nuclear umbrella remains fully credible, especially as a vocal minority of South Korean leaders is calling for South Korea to respond to the North by building its own nuclear weapons.

In the meantime, American officials worry about North Korean provocations that could trigger a tough South Korean response, potentially spinning out of control. That is why it is essential that Obama and Park also discuss military measures to increase deterrence on the Korean Peninsula.

Obama and Park both understand that the preferred path out of this impasse lies through diplomacy. But neither wants to reward Pyongyang for its belligerence, much less accept it as a nuclear weapons state, as it is demanding.

The Chinese-sponsored six-party talks to end the nuclear program have been moribund for four years. It is time for a new approach, and the answer may lie in letting Seoul take the lead in dealing with Pyongyang.

President Park’s “trustpolitik” vision is for Seoul to build mutual trust and confidence with the North, which she hopes will reduce inter-Korean tensions and might eventually prompt Pyongyang’s leadership to consider abandoning its nuclear weapons program.

As a Korean nation-state, South Korea, unlike the US, can negotiate with the North on non-nuclear matters without the implication of accepting the North’s claims to nuclear weapons status. The odds of success don’t appear great, but Park’s approach is worth trying and is certainly the best current opportunity to develop a useful diplomatic process with North Korea.

Park also intends to brief Obama on her concept for a new Northeast Asia diplomatic forum that broadens her approach to the North by drawing in China and Japan as well as the US in regional exchanges. Unlike the six-party talks, the focus of Park’s forum would not be on North Korea’s nuclear program but on less controversial regional issues, such as climate change.

It remains to be seen whether Washington will be comfortable with North Korea’s inclusion in such a forum as long as it is not prepared to give up nuclear weapons.

Americans might not be entirely at ease with letting their South Korean ally take the lead with North Korea. For that reason, President Park’s visit to Washington this week is vital to establishing the personal chemistry and policy consensus needed to get not just them but all of us through what could be the most harrowing times on the Korean Peninsula since the establishment of the US-South Korean alliance 60 years ago.

Gi-Wook Shin is director of Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, and David Straub is a former State Department Korean affairs director.


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