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Change on the Horizon for US Policy towards North Korea?

Jay Lefkowitz, the US Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights, spoke at AEI last week of a renewed debate within the administration over its restrained diplomacy track with North Korea. Indeed, he offered three concrete steps for future engagement:

“1. We should now shift our focus from a short to a longer time frame. It is increasingly likely that North Korea will have the same nuclear status one year from now that it has today.

2. Policy should rest on assumptions that correlate with recent facts and events. It is evident that South Korea and China will not exert significant pressure on North Korea if they think it might lead to its collapse.

3. All negotiations with North Korea should firmly link human rights, economic support, and security issues.”

State Dept. spokesman Sean McCormack was quick to distance the administration from Lefkowitz's comments. “He [Lefkowitz] is not, however, somebody who speaks authoritatively about the six-party talks. His comments certainly don't represent the views of the administration." However, North Korea policy likely falls along the usual fault lines within the Administration. The Vice President's office arguing for a tougher stance, whereas the State Department maintains diplomatic tenets, working with the most recent agreement made during six-party talks.

north-korea.jpg Another possibility is at play here, and seems to be consistent with our policy and rhetoric towards Iran. Sending out ripples of a tougher stance towards North Korea might be a useful diplomatic tool. Articulating stronger costs for not acting, could push North Korea to meet future deadlines, which they have already shown a penchant to delay or miss.

Perhaps sensing the debate brewing at the White House, John Bolton penned an op-ed arguing for the United States to abandon the agreement reached last year. Bolton has long held animosity towards any deal with North Korea lacking tough measures for failure to comply.

Bolton sees a window of opportunity for President Bush. "Given the recent South Korean presidential election results, Mr. Bush will soon have a willing ally in Lee Myung-bak, who will be inaugurated on Feb. 25. After 10 years, a realist will once again occupy Seoul's Blue House, one who will support a tougher American line rather than oppose it."

As Timothy Savage of North Korea zone notes, a shift in the diplomatic track with North Korea could be announced during the upcoming state of the union address. We will certainly be listening here and report back any significant changes, if they're mentioned.