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It's "Groundhog Day" All Over Again in Pyongyang

September 9, 2010 ·

The United States is sanctioning North Korea at the worst time -- for itself, as well as them.

Kim Jong II PosterIt’s 1994 all over again in North Korea, and that’s not good news for the country. The nuclear crisis continues to burn. There are food shortages and flooding. Jimmy Carter has gone to Pyongyang. Relations between North and South have sunk to new lows. And the country is preparing to pass the reins of power from father to son.

But this time around, Groundhog Day in Pyongyang looks even grimmer. In 1994, the nuclear crisis was averted at the last minute. In 2010, no one is even at the negotiating table (no one even knows where the negotiating table is!). Jimmy Carter visited Pyongyang in 1994 and secured a nuclear deal with long-time leader Kim Il Sung. Just last month, Carter returned to North Korea and won the release of Aijalon Mahli Gomes, an imprisoned U.S. citizen. But he didn’t get a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (the current leader and son of Kim Il Sung) and couldn’t announce any larger breakthrough. Meanwhile, in South Korea, the new hard-line government of Lee Myung Bak in Seoul has suspended most contact with the North after the sinking of a South Korean ship in March. Seoul is currently sitting on twice the amount of rice that it usually has in storage, partly as a result of not sending the surplus northward. It costs the South hundreds of millions of dollars to store the rice it isn’t sending.

And then there’s the transfer of power, which is attracting the most headlines outside the country. In 1994, Kim Il Sung died rather soon after Jimmy Carter’s visit. But his son Kim Jong Il had been preparing to take over for at least two decades. This time around, Kim Jong Il has chosen his youngest son, Kim Jong Eun, who is reportedly only in his twenties. According to defector reports, there wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm for Kim Jong Il when he took over after his father’s death. This time around, according to The Washington Post, there is even less excitement, perhaps because even North Koreans don’t know much about Kim Jong Eun.

Pyongyang is preparing this week for a party conference to herald the leadership change. Don’t confuse this gathering with a party congress, North Korea watcher Andrei Lankov warns. “In North Korea it has become an established tradition that a party congress should be accompanied by lavish celebrations and expensive gifts to both the elite and the general public,” he writes at Asia Times. And this time around, the state just doesn’t have the money to indulge in such largesse.

And what is the Obama administration doing to take advantage of possible new leadership in Pyongyang? Sending Jimmy Carter was certainly a good idea. Announcing $750,000 in humanitarian assistance in the wake of the floods in North Korea was also a positive step. Dispatching North Korea envoy Stephen Bosworth for consultations next week in Seoul, Beijing, and Tokyo is also wise. But at the same time the administration has announced new sanctions against Pyongyang. "In many respects, what's happening is the Obama administration is going back to the hard-line Bush approach to North Korea that Democrats had criticized," says Michael Green, who was once part of the Bush administration.

But the Bush administration turned on a dime back in 2006 and embarked on an engagement policy with North Korea that almost bore fruit. The Obama administration should welcome the new leadership in Pyongyang with a similar offer of engagement. Why leave all the surprises to the North Koreans?