North Korea is a state — why not say so?

Author: Jeong Lee, Pusan

In her Foreign Policy article last year, outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asserted that America is and must be ‘prepared to lead’ in the Asia Pacific.

In hindsight, her essay articulated the essence of President Barack Obama’s ‘pivot strategy’.

So how will the pivot affect the extant US–ROK alliance that has been in place for more than six decades? Most likely, the alliance will be fraught with uncertainties in the years to come. One crucial determinant in the future of US–ROK alliance is the US budget. Another is the evolution of the parties’ interests. However, most important problem is the question of what to do about the DPRK.

According to a report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) in 2012, ‘many of the moves the Administration has taken and said it will undertake are relatively small-scale’ since they are ‘designed to have a large symbolic impact’. So the pivot strategy for the Korean peninsula may mean the United States increasingly favours a diplomatic approach to the Korean peninsula over a long-term military presence, since, as the CRS report warns Congress, one salient ‘budgetary issue is that the number of U.S. troops sustained in Japan and Korea may, over time, prove to be more of a drain on U.S. flexibility’.

The diplomatic dimension of the alliance has become strained in recent times, despite Obama’s recent assurance to South Korea’s president-elect, Park Geun-hye, that: ‘The US–ROK alliance [continues to] serve as a linchpin of peace and security in the Asia Pacific’. The president’s official statement did not address the underlying issues in the relationship — America’s frustration with the ROK’s desire to develop its own nuclear capability and the unsuccessful attempt to bolster ROK–Japan ties to deal with the DPRK. It remains to be seen whether the Obama administration and the incoming Park administration can establish a good rapport.

Still, the pivot strategy within the context of the Korean/Choson Peninsula is feasible. But in order to translate this strategy into a viable solution, both the ROK and the United States should grant the DPRK long-overdue sovereign recognition. What would this entail? First, the ROK and DPRK must peacefully coexist and exchange embassies. For the United States, formally recognising the DPRK may bring mixed results, but it can and must live with them. Given that the DPRK has historically proven to be anything but predictable, and that the Obama administration may have to deal with Congress and hardliners who want to retaliate against the DPRK for its successful rocket launch and possible nuclear test in December 2012, diplomatic recognition may not seem initially appealing.

Nevertheless, in every crisis there is an opportunity. The key to successfully engaging North Korea, according to Nah Liang Tuang, is for the United States to ‘to look at the situation from North Korea’s perspective’. After all, Nah argues: ‘Kim and his advisors respond better to carrots than sticks’. Favourable outcomes of recognition would be that the United States may ultimately gain the upper hand by fostering trade and be able to keep the petulant DPRK ruler accountable to international norms. By offering carrots such as Most Favoured Nation status, it may wean Kim Jong-un away from China.

For the ROK, since the United States will hand over wartime operational control to the ROK military in 2015, recognition could help avert a potentially lethal fratricidal war in light of a diminishing American presence. Recognition may also foster trade with the DPRK and help its economy, which would lessen the ROK’s burden. As one South Korean academic told the New York Times in 2010 ‘Most South Koreans say they want unification, but they don’t necessarily want to pay for it’.

At the same time, recognition may be a bitter pill to swallow for ROK President-elect Park. Her attempt to extend the olive branch to Kim Jong-un may be opposed by hawks within her own ruling party and an international community bent on punishing the DPRK for its successful rocket test. There is also a constitutional issue — as Professor Yunshik Chang notes, ‘[since] the South Korean constitution does not recognize N.K. as a sovereign state, [a]mending the constitution for that purpose is not going to be easy’. Despite these challenges, Victor Cha of Georgetown University may be correct to argue: ‘She is the first South Korean president who has already been to North Korea and met with Kim Jong-il … she will have a more rational view on inter-Korean relations’.

Meanwhile, in the United States, now that the Obama administration has outlined its goal, time has come to turn it into reality. Formally recognising North Korea as a sovereign state may be the best means to do so.

Jeong Lee is a freelance blogger who lives in Pusan, ROK. He has been blogging for two years on International Security issues, and is also a contributing columnist for He may be reached by e-mail at or via Twitter at