Barack Obama and North Korea: A Study in Presidential Transition



This study will examine the policy of the incoming administration of Barack Obama toward North Korea's nuclear program as a case-study in presidential transitions. Obama did not give much prominence to North Korea during the campaign, but he clearly framed the talks on the DPRK nuclear question in the broader contexts of promoting international law, strengthening the nuclear nonproliferation regime, and pursuing broad multilateral diplomacy. Furthermore, he laid out simple but clear policy guidelines. The USA would engage the DPRK and remain open to positive incentives for denuclearization. On the other hand, the DPRK would receive no material incentives simply for returning to the Six-Party Talks, would have to meet its existing obligations before new incentives could be offered, and could not expect bilateral talks outside the context of the Six-Party Talks. The “two-track” policy of diplomatic engagement and sanctions that had emerged by the end of the presidential transition closely conformed to the general guidelines that Obama had laid out in the campaign. The administration pressed successfully for new UN sanctions and resumed enforcement of the UN ban on weapons shipments that had been allowed to lapse under Bush. These actions were intended, however, to complement, not supplant, an engagement strategy. Throughout his first year in office, Obama continued actively to seek resumption of dialogue, culminating in the bilateral talks of December 2009. When judged against the lessons of the transition literature, the administration's success in formulating a coherent North Korea policy comes out reasonably well. The six months it took to complete assembling a full team was within normal bounds for a new administration. The appointment of a talented mix of loyalists, holdovers, worthies and all-stars to the North Korea team provided a variety of experience and perspectives and positioned the administration well for either engagement or increased pressure. US policy reflected the diverse experiences and outlooks of the North Korea team. If the Six-Party Talks resume, Obama's resolve to hold firm to his demands will be tested by the same problems that his recent predecessors confronted.