North Korea is one of Obama's more delicate challenges. It looks like the regime hopes on better relations than with Bush. But on the other hand it is making its usual bunch of threats.
The special challenge of North Korea is that it is an absolute dictatorship. Unlike Milosevic or Mugabe North Koreas rulers have absolute control over their country. They won't allow dissidence to exist, let alone to florish. But the price for that power is that no one will tell them when they are wrong. This has consequences for how to handle them:
- be trustworthy. Anbsolute dictators are very suspicious. The US already broke its words several times in the past by finding "creative" excuses for not doing what they promissed. This works counter-productive.
- expect some unrealism. Dictators are used to not being contradicted and tend to form an unrealistic picture of the world. Domestic propaganda only worsens this. A small diplomatic victory can easily be explained like North Korea being more powerful than the US. Try to be consistent and clear. And avoid Cold War style rhetorics that may be taken more literal than intended.
- Given their suspicions dictators tend to come back on what they promissed. Unfortunately the US has a history where the smallest diplomatic slight is taken as an insult that needs heavy retaliation. This won't work and will only confirm the suspicions.
- The US has a history of undermining regimes that it doesn't like: from Allende to Milosevic to Putin. This doesn't work with an absolute dictatorship as it doesn't leave the room for opposition that this undermining exploits. With North Korea the chance for succes is zero and it will only make the situation worse by increasing distrust. There is a chance that the regime will implode by its own. But if the US as an outsider wants to end the North Korean dictatorship there is only one way: full military action. Other than that one can only hope for autonomous gradual improvement.
- this doesn't mean that one cannot be strict with North Korea's rulers. But such strictness should be accompanied with strict honesty and strict consistency.
The North Korea Deal That Wasn't discusses how the US ignored a North Korean offer to sell thousands of nuclear fuel rods and that they were ignored by the Obama administration.