News / Asia

Report: More Urgency Needed in Washington's Approach to North Korea

A bipartisan task force of former U.S. officials and experts is urging the U.S. government to do more to actively resolve issues with North Korea.  

A Council on Foreign Relations sponsored task force has released a report saying the Obama administration should take a more aggressive approach in its North Korea policy.

A former special envoy for negotiations with North Korea and co-chair of the task force, Charles Pritchard, says that while the administration has handled North Korea relatively well, the task force did find fault with the approach that Obama administration officials have dubbed "strategic patience."

"There is a risk involved, if you continue down that line, that these very very serious issues with regard to North Korea - you risk turning them into a never ending, never resolved issue," said Charles Pritchard.

Pritchard says that this is why the task force is recommending Washington take a more targeted approach.

North Korea's actions in the past two years - including the launch of missiles and a second nuclear test - have increased tensions in the region. It has refused to return to six-party talks on ending its nuclear program that include China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and the United States.

More recently, it has been accused of sinking a South Korean warship, in which 46 sailors were killed.  At the U.N. on Tuesday, the North Korean ambassador denied involvement in the sinking incident and warned his government's military could respond if the U.N. Security Council takes action against Pyongyang.   

The council's report said the United States should focus on three areas with regard to North Korea; preventing the spread of nuclear weapons technologies from the communist nation to other countries or groups; stopping the build-up of North Korea's missile arsenal; and de-nuclearizing the Korean peninsula.

The report lists North Korea's missile development program as an urgent issue, and recommends the United States hold bilateral talks with Pyongyang on that issue.

Balbina Hwang at the National Defense University in Washington says that just as North Korea's nuclear program requires an international response, so does North Korea's missile program.

"Now, what worries me here is that essentially they seem to be saying to go back and revive where we left off in the 1990s because the Clinton administration approach was a bilateral approach," said Balbina Hwang. "And I think that was one of the problems - that uniquely bilateral approach, I think, is not the best way to address the issue."

However, Hwang says that after reviewing the report's recommendations, she does not see new or creative approaches to dealing with North Korea.

The report recommends two options - one that seeks to better manage the problem and another that calls for the administration to consistently press North Korea to return to the path of denuclearization.

Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow on Korea Studies Scott Snyder says the report recommends the use of diplomatic tools, in coordination with regional support and coercive measures.

"Another strand of the report suggests that we should do what we can to enable internally driven change, transformation in North Korea, as the best possible way to achieve the goal of integration of North Korea with the rest of northeast Asia," said Scott Snyder.

Members of the task force also stressed the importance of stepping up efforts to engage China on North Korea.

Pritchard says one area where the U.S. could engage China more is in its response to the allegations North Korea sunk the South Korean warship in March.

Pritchard says Chinese support of the punishment of North Korea over the incident is a litmus test for Beijing.

"We have to watch that play out," he said. "If the Chinese do not step up, it is indication there, that they are in fact supporting the actions of North Korea.  I do not think that that is the message the Chinese want to send."

China has downplayed the incident and focused on avoiding further escalation.  Beijing is North Korea's major political ally and its most important source of food and energy.  

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