Mr. President: N. Korea is not Burma

President Obama’s past overtures to North Korea have been rebuffed. Will Pyongyang “unclench” its fist?

President Obama’s visit to Burma only a year after the country began embarking on a dramatic but “tenuous” reform path has naturally fed speculation about lessons the leadership in Pyongyang might take from the visit. President Obama highlighted that question for North Korean leaders in his speech at the University of Yangon, issuing a direct challenge to North Korean leaders to “let go of your nuclear weapons and choose the path of peace and progress . . . you will find an extended hand from the United States of America.”

This is the second time this year President Obama has publicly addressed direct messages to the North Korean leadership, following a speech at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul last March in which he reiterated that the United States has no hostile intent toward Pyongyang, that the United States is prepared to take steps toward normalization, and that further provocations will only bring North Korea more isolation.

In response to a question in a speech at CSIS last week in advance of President Obama’s visit, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon provided specifics by stating that if North Korea were to “demonstrate a seriousness of purpose” on denuclearization, then the path of entry into the international community would be available to North Korea.


But the Burmese path to political reform provides an imperfect analogy for North Korea since Burma’s experience did not involve denuclearization. Kim Jong-un has recognized that it is necessary to address North Korea’s economic problems, promising in his first public speech last April that the North Korean people should not again have to “tighten their belts.” But the regime is also holding on to its nuclear program, and in fact threatening to expand the program if the United States does not drop its “hostile policy” toward North Korea rather than making the “right” choice.

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North Korea’s options for earning hard currency are narrowing. Burma’s reforms have curtailed the military relationship with North Korea and UN sanctions implementation has squeezed North Korean missile and conventional arms sales to other partners. In the coming months, Kim Jong-un will seek expanded assistance from new Chinese leaders, and will test prospects for assistance from South Korea’s new president as strategic alternatives to denuclearization. Given the risks reform may post to North Korea’s regime stability, it is unlikely that North Korea will pursue both economic reform and denuclearization without a prior strategic understanding with the United States, hence North Korea’s public insistence on the removal of the U.S. “hostile policy” as a prerequisite for denuclearization.

In President Obama’s first inauguration address in 2009, he promised to “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” Kim Jong-il responded in the months following that speech with a multi-stage rocket test in April 2009 and a nuclear test the following month. Let’s hope that in the Obama administration’s second term, North Korea under Kim Jong-un offers a more constructive response to America’s “extended hand.”

Scott A. Snyder is senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was previously a senior associate in the international relations program of The Asia Foundation and Pacific Forum CSIS. He blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared.