In March 2012, during a nuclear summit in South Korea, in a conversation the two leaders believed was private, Barak Obama whispered to Dmitri Medvedev that his second presidential term would empower him with much flexibility. Certainly the European missile defence issue is not a sole problem that Obama will need to face after being re-elected. North Korea with its nuclear and missile programs will be the most burning issue of US foreign policy in East Asia. However, after six decades of confrontation in Korea, where a diplomatic cat-and-mouse game seems endless, one may ask a reasonable question: can America ever come to terms with the existence of North Korea?
The rules of the Cold War, which continues in East Asia, are based on the dialectical principle of the unity and struggle of the opposites. Washington badly needs Pyongyang to keep its presence in the region and to strengthen its security alliance with the ROK and Japan. Equally, Pyongyang cannot survive and justify its authority domestically without the hostile attitude and actions of Washington, helping China realise how much it needs North Korea. War preparations are too profitable and ideologically consolidating for both camps to render them obsolete. Thus, the US’s North Korea policy (under Obama or any other president) will remain the same and continue to hinge on the expectations of DPRK’s soonest collapse or democratisation (which is equivalent to collapse).
Any attempt to soften the US policy towards North Korea will ultimately lead to the question of diplomatic recognition, security assurance and fair trade. No president of the US will accede to that without damaging its relations with Seoul and Tokyo. Similarly, no North Korean leader would go as far as to making peace with the US without demanding excessive reparations, public apologies and other symbols of moral superiority. Everything else would be a mere diplomatic smoke screen designed to hide the real intentions of the parties voluntarily locked in a security dilemma until one of the actors of this stand-off decides to give up and unilaterally surrender. I don’t envisage this happening during president Obama’s second term.