Friday, February 06, 2009

Analysis: Few details on U.S. North Korea policy

President Barack Obama already has senior envoys working on crises in South Asia and the Middle East. The new administration has said little, however, about how it will handle a standoff with an increasingly hostile, nuclear-armed North Korea.

The North does not like being ignored by the United States, which the Bush administration was reminded of in 2006 when Pyongyang quickly moved itself up the list of top U.S. foreign policy problems by staging nuclear and missile tests.

North Korea is again showing signs of restlessness, and its belligerence toward its Asian neighbors could escalate should Pyongyang see a lack of U.S. attention or urgency.

In recent days, the North has pledged to scrap pacts designed to prevent hostilities with South Korea and apparently is preparing to test-fire a ballistic missile capable of striking the western United States.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to name a special representative for North Korea, but the timing is uncertain. She also has not yet named other top officials for Asia.

An absence of U.S. leadership is potentially risky, according to John Bolton, George W. Bush's U.N. envoy and a strident critic of what he sees as lenient U.S. policy toward North Korea.

"Neglecting North Korea is a dangerous gamble with very high stakes," Bolton wrote in a recent opinion piece.

So far, the State Department has provided few details about the future of North Korean nuclear efforts. Clinton has praised the Bush administration's use of six-nation disarmament talks, which are now stalled over North Korea's refusal to agree to a nuclear verification process, but she has said little else.

Still, Clinton will be sending an important message by making her first visit abroad to Asia. She will travel this month to Japan, South Korea and China three nations that, along with the United States and Russia, are pressing the North to abandon its bombs. Although North Korea will feature prominently in Clinton's meetings, it will be one of many topics, including climate change and tensions over natural resources, trade and Taiwan.

The naming of an envoy would be a break from the Bush administration, which called upon the heads of the State Department's East Asian affairs bureau to negotiate with the North. The Clinton administration used special envoys.

The return of a high-level special envoy dedicated to the time-consuming nuclear talks would allow the assistant secretary of state for East Asia to deal with parts of the region that have often felt neglected during Washington's push to settle a North Korean deal.

Michael Green, a former Bush administration Asia adviser, said the assistant secretary for East Asia has "become the North Korea desk officer. It's too much to ask one person to do both jobs."

The current top diplomat for East Asia, Christopher Hill, in a recent interview with The Associated Press, defended the focus on North Korea.

"In this line of work, when you're confronted with an urgent problem versus an important problem, you focus on the urgent," said Hill, the leading candidate to become the next U.S. ambassador to Iraq. "So I can't say I would do it differently, but, certainly, any time you spend a lot of time on an urgent problem, you're not spending time on other problems."

Clinton has yet to name her assistant secretary for East Asia but is expected to choose an Asia adviser from her husband's administration, Kurt Campbell.

The delay in naming a special envoy for North Korea could be because of a need to make sure the person chosen can work well with Campbell, especially if the envoy should be ordered to report to Clinton and Obama, and not to Campbell. Any friction between the assistant secretary and the envoy could complicate diplomatic efforts.

Ralph A. Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank, said Campbell has close ties with Clinton and, therefore, will feel free "to walk into her office and say we need to coordinate a little better."

Any North Korea envoy, Cossa said, "will know Kurt has that special relationship with Clinton." ◦

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