In January, John Kerry replaced Hilary Clinton as United States Secretary of State. Secretary Kerry, who has called for more engagement with Pyongyang in the past, could usher in a new American strategy towards North Korea.
In a 2011 commentary for the Los Angeles Times, Secretary Kerry advocated a policy of direct engagement. He called for a return to the six-party talks. He also proposed resuming recovery operations in North Korea for American military personnel still missing from the Korean War, as a means of communicating directly with Pyongyang. This would have the dual purpose of opening communications with North Korea, as well as ensuring that no American is left behind. Secretary Kerry has also criticized the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience,” in which U.S. dialogue with North Korea is conditional upon North Korea’s denuclearization. He argues that the administration’s current approach of harsh sanctions and ignoring North Korea is inadequate, and will not change its behavior.
However, there is also the possibility that Secretary Kerry will maintain the status quo of U.S.-North Korea relations. His attention may be occupied by security threats in the Middle East, which would move North Korea down on the U.S.’s list of diplomatic priorities. Furthermore, Secretary Kerry will have to work with President Obama, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Republicans in Congress, and other hardliners against North Korea, who would impede his more liberal vision. Political climate at the moment—so soon after the North’s recent missile launch—calls for sanctions against North Korea, not direct dialogue. Lastly, there is a very real possibility that Secretary Kerry will grow tired of North Korea’s intransigence and violations of international law, and adopt a more conservative policy down the road. When President Obama first entered office in 2009, he advocated resuming the six-party talks and directly engaging with the North. But after repeated breaches of international agreements and numerous missile launches, President Obama abandoned this agenda for his “strategic patience” doctrine.