Although Obama’s foreign policy is often off-base, the administration must be commended for its recent handling of the North Korean journalist-cum-hostage situation. Two American journalists, held by Kim Jong-Il’s regime were released after Former President Bill Clinton descended on North Korea.
The exploit was truly a move of smart diplomacy. It allowed the United States to stick course with its current spoken strategy, while enabling sufficient stroking of Kim Jong-Il’s ego to facilitate the release of Laura Ling and Euna Lee. While the Obama administration has generally claimed non-involvement, it is clear that they played a predominant role in approving and developing the mission. Apparently, much pre-planning occurred; including discussions with the North Koreans on what unofficial American envoy would have high enough stature to make the trip.
This recent event highlights an important characteristic of North Korea – they want things from America. Unlike Iran which views itself largely as a counter-weight and antagonist of America, North Korea sees, at least some aspects of the West which it desires. While not all of North Korea’s behavior can be understood as motivated by wanting something from America, in this instance that is precisely the case. North Korea wanted recognition from the United States– represented by the visitation of a prestigious emissary.
The North Korean desire for items of value gives the United States considerable power over the regime. The U.S. can use these “shiny objects” to coerce North Korea into behaving in an acceptable fashion. In many ways, North Korea is like a defiant child. It wants recognition; it wants to feel important. If it fails to get what it wants it throws a temper-tantrum. However as most parents know, the logic in dealing with such a child (although not always the practice) is straightforward. Misbehavior is punished; good behavior is rewarded.
This is something that the Obama administration needs to exploit. While Bill Clinton's journey into the third pillar of the Axis-of-Evil demonstrates the administration’s understanding of rewarding good behavior, the administration, as has been argued before, has yet to show a strong commitment to punishing misbehavior. A failure to punish misbehavior severely weakens the equally important goal of rewarding good behavior. In fact, it encourages misbehavior. Nations (and people) will misbehave if they can then backtrack and be rewarded for ‘good behavior’.
Because of this, the two tactics in conjunction are necessary when dealing with North Korea. Carrots and sticks will help push the regime in the right direction. Too many carrots, however, will deplete America’s ability to influence North Korea’s behavior. After all, if Kim Jong-Il gets everything he wants he’ll have no incentive to listen to us. While this episode of Clintonian mediation may be a strong and successful example of diplomacy at its best, care must be taken to avoid the mistaken belief that anything has fundamentally changed in the relationship with North Korea. The regime will test the United States again. The administration must be ready to respond with punishment and show the regime what behavior is and is not acceptable.