North Korea has already begun testing Barack Obama, said Kang Chun-suk in the Seoul Chosun Ilbo. All last week, it did the equivalent of “kicking down doors, smashing windows, throwing its body against the walls, and knocking over the furniture.” To be more precise, Pyongyang suddenly announced that it would not allow international inspectors to take samples from its nuclear facilities, even though it had agreed to do so just last month. Then, for good measure, it declared that it was halting all border crossings and telephone communications with South Korea. Clearly, North Korea fears that it has become a low priority for an incoming Obama administration that will have to deal with the global financial crisis, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, rising unemployment, and the Iranian nuclear program. “The size of the U.S. cake is shrinking, so Pyongyang may well be hoping to get some attention before it turns into a mere cookie.”
Pyongyang is right to see an opportunity in Obama, said Lee Byong-chul in the Seoul Korea Times. Under President Bush, U.S. relations with North Korea worsened considerably because of Bush’s “unsound judgment” about North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Bush tried to bully Kim, threatening “regime change” and refusing to negotiate unless Kim unilaterally abandoned his nuclear weapons program. The result, of course, was that North Korea accelerated its weapons programs during the Bush years. Obama, by contrast, “is likely to establish high-level contacts with North Korea” right away.
Let’s hope Obama doesn’t move too fast, said the Seoul Dong-a Ilbo. His “well-intentioned proposal” to talk to Pyongyang “could hinder the six-party talks”—the forum in which the U.S., Japan, China, Russia, and North and South Korea have been carefully negotiating the North Korean nuclear issue for years. Obama should certainly make overtures to Kim, but “direct talks must come only when the United States is sure that they will lead to the denuclearization of the North.” More than anything, Kim wants recognition and validation, and that should be a reward for good behavior, not an outright gift.
It’s not just the U.S. that must be careful, said Kim Jong-cheol in the Seoul Hankyoreh. South Korea, too, needs to rethink its strategy toward the North. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has been echoing Bush’s hard line against Kim. Lee has halted trade and tourism projects and has allowed civic groups to send inflammatory propaganda leaflets to the North. This “slump in inter-Korean relations” could easily result in our being sidelined. “Pyongyang could just as well decide to ignore Seoul and move to improve relations with just the United States.” To avoid such an outcome, Lee will have to abandon his Bush-like ways and become more flexible and pragmatic—like Obama.