Posted by: Ihlwan Moon on June 17, 2009
President Barack Obama and his South Korean counterpart Lee Myung Bak on June 17 displayed a strong unity, both vowing to depart from a pattern of rewarding North Korea for creating a crisis. After a meeting at the White House, they told a news conference that they are committed to the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula despite North Korea’s second nuclear test on May 25. They also pledged stern measures against North Korea aimed at blocking its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Yet, in spite of the achievement of a high level of solidarity between Washington and Seoul that lacked during their predecessors’ presidency, the past pattern of alternating between pressure and dialogue may well continue. That’s because there appears to be no better option, given that a military strike is out of the question and China, Pyongyang’s main ally, is not prepared to pull the plug. North Korea’s reclusive leader Kim Jong Il, on the other hand, has made it clear that he will push ahead with his nuclear ambition at all costs.
Sure, the international community is united in condemning North Korea’s defiance of calls for an end to nuclear proliferation. The U.N. adopted a resolution of sanctions last week and the new penalties toughened an arms embargo against Pyongyang that had been already in place since its first nuclear test in 2006. The U.N. Security Council also authorized searches of North Korean ships suspected of carrying weapons, but stopped short of endorsing the enforcement of the measures through military force.
The question is what would Obama do if Pyongyang continues to threaten the international community with more provocations? Obama said after his meeting with Lee: “Belligerent, provocative behavior that threatens neighbors will be met with serious enforcement of sanctions that are in place.” But he left the door open for dialogue. “We are more than willing to engage in negotiations to get North Korea on a path of peaceful coexistence with its neighbors, and we want to encourage their prosperity,” he said.
Meanwhile, with all the display of unity (Lee was the first foreign leader in Obama’s presidency to appear in the Rose Garden together with the U.S. president), parliaments in Washington and Seoul are unlikely to approve a bilateral free trade agreement any time soon either. Asked about the issue, Obama talked about the need to clear some barriers, including concerns among industries to be affected, and said: “Once we have resolved some of the substantive issues, then there’s going to be the issue of political timing and when that should be presented to Congress. But I don’t want to put the cart before the horse.”