- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 16, 2008

In a little more than two months, my former Columbia University classmate (class of 1983), Barack Obama, will be inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States.

He will sit in the Oval Office at one of the most challenging junctures in any president’s history. Once he receives the full briefing on Iraq, he will find it is not that easy to set an etched-in-concrete timeline for withdrawal. He will find that a conditions-based approach for aid to Pakistan, in exchange for their efforts to take down the terrorist enclaves is not so simple. He will find that the war in Afghanistan will require reams of money at a time when the American economy is suffering its worst crisis of confidence since the Great Depression.

Then there is North Korea. I think the president would be best served by following the basic outlines of the policy that characterized the second term of the Bush administration, with some notable exceptions. He will inherit a Six Party process that has effectively mobilized key regional players, most importantly China, and has achieved a working disablement of the main nuclear facility at Yongbyon.

His team will need to implement the verification protocol for the North’s nuclear declaration as early as possible to ensure that the plutonium facilities in Yongbyon are continuously monitored and degraded.

The third phase, or dismantlement negotiation, will be even more difficult than the prior two negotiated agreements (September 2005 and February 2007). A key priority will be to address the ambiguities left by the earlier agreements on North Korea’s proliferation activities and its uranium-based nuclear activities.

The Obama administration must find a way to integrate a discussion on North Korea’s ballistic missile programs into the Six Party talks. Press reports show North Korea is plowing full-steam ahead with its engine-testing, launch-pad building, and missile-designing activities even as it negotiates a disablement of its nuclear program. This might be added as another working group in the Six Party process (in addition to the five: U.S.-North Korea, Japan-North Korea, denuclearization, energy assistance, and multilateral peace mechanism). Pyongyang will not give up its missiles for free, so the United States must tie the missile negotiations to incentives in its normalization and energy working group processes.

The next administration needs to consider a separate trilateral dialogue among the United States, South Korea and China. The North Korean leader’s time in office is limited given his rather serious health problems.

While the United States and South Korea have restarted 5029 planning on how to respond to a sudden collapse scenario north of the 38th Parallel, they need to also begin a quiet discussion with China.

The purpose of such a discussion would be to create some transparency about the relative priorities and likely first-actions by the three parties in response to signs of political instability in the North. This should be done in a small “cell” operating out of the National Security Council and counterpart agencies in Beijing and Seoul.

Coordination in advance helps to minimize misperception and miscalculation in a crisis. Koreans are suspicious about China’s intentions in a North Korean collapse scenario given Beijing’s investment in the North’s mineral resources, but such a three-way discussion is important to ensuring China’s support in any United Nations Security Council resolutions that might accompany sudden change in the North.

Finally, the Obama administration should not feel obliged to make a presidential meeting with the North Korea the banner of its policy as it did during the campaign. This is not in U.S. or South Korean interests.

Some may argue that an early meeting by the president (or vice-president) might be a good way to accelerate the negotiation process. Nothing could be further from the truth. The president of the United States is not a negotiator. He should not be treated as one.

Only after the denuclearization process is near completion should a presidential meeting even be considered. Hard-liners in Pyongyang will view the new Obama presidency as weak (electoral victories do not resonate with dictators), inexperienced and completely overwhelmed by two wars and a financial meltdown. To offer a presidential meeting amidst this mess would not only look amateurish, it would confirm the hard-liners’ views of American weakness and inexperience.

There is no denying, however, that if we want to move the denuclearization process more quickly, we need to reach higher into the Pyongyang leadership beyond the Foreign Ministry officials it has been trotting out for the last 16 years. In the course of Six Party talks, when the North Koreans were slow to make decisions, we challenged them to bring people from the Dear Leader’s office or from their National Defense Commission to their delegation who could make quicker decisions, pointing to our own interagency team of State, White House and Pentagon. They responded that such individuals were too “high-ranking.”

This is why Mr. Obama might be best advised to appoint the next U.S. Six Party lead negotiator from the White House National Security Council.

Congress long sought a senior coordinator on North Korea policy from the Bush administration so it should be supportive of such an appointment under Mr. Obama. Such an appointment would allow Mr. Obama to fulfill his campaign promise (sort of) and distinguish his policy from his predecessor’s. It would also relieve the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs of his current dual-hatted responsibilities as lead Six-Party negotiator, which tend to reduce attention to other aspects of U.S. policy in Asia.

While Chris Hill did a fine job in this dual role, there are only 24 hours in a day. Policy on Japan, Southeast Asia and regional architecture has ended up falling to extremely competent deputy assistant secretaries and regional office directors, but they have been either outranked in the interagency process or perceived by Asian governments as a sign of American deprioritizing of their country’s issues. This individual would be staffed by the State Department or other agencies and have as her deputy the State Department special envoy for North Korean affairs.

The White House carries undeniable cache for the North. Because this individual - with the rank of a NSC senior director and special assistant to the president - would report directly to the national security adviser, Pyongyang would have to bring forth members of its National Defense Commission and other key agencies to negotiate in earnest for a final solution. Otherwise, the same Foreign Ministry officials from Pyongyang will show up at Six Party talks to stall and slow-roll the negotiations.

Sending the new American president to North Korea is not the answer. But challenging North Korea to bring people to the Six Party talks who can make real decisions is.

Victor Cha is a professor at Georgetown University and former director of Asian affairs at the National Security Council and deputy head of U.S. delegation to the Six Party talks until 2007.

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