President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address is a speech that is always listened to very carefully by North Korea watchers, and North Korea is particularly sensitive to the State of the Union Addresses. We watch for whether “North Korea” is mentioned and how it’s mentioned, which would then set the stage for how Pyongyang will react and the direction of diplomacy (or sometimes absence of diplomacy).
This year’s 2011 State of the Union Address is interesting and positive for several reasons.
President Barack Obama: “On the Korean peninsula, we stand with our ally South Korea, and insist that North Korea keeps its commitment to abandon nuclear weapons.”
First, this year’s State of the Union Address mentions North Korea, which has not always been the case in the past.
Second, it sends a very clear message – that Washington and Seoul stand firmly united, which also has not always been true in the past. Washington and Seoul have been deeply divided on North Korea in past administrations. Pyongyang has also consistently and constantly tried to drive a wedge between the allies and we have seen such movements recently.
Third, it does not condemn Pyongyang or use harsh language about the regime, which was heard in past American SOTU addresses and had aggravated Pyongyang to react with provocations. The absence of condemnation this year, despite recent revelations of a uranium enrichment program, may be seen as Washington’s way of trying to create an environment conducive to dialogue and avoid aggravating Pyongyang.
-The North has proposed on January 26th that the two Koreas hold military talks to discuss the Yeonpyeong attack and Cheonan sinking. Seoul reportedly countered that proposal on January 26th (25th U.S. time) that prior working-level talks be held on February 11, 2011 at 10:00 a.m. on the South Korean side of the truce village of Panmunjeom. Washington’s precondition for dialogue has been inter-Korean dialogue and sincere action toward denuclearization.
-U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg is currently in Seoul to debrief is ally on last week’s U.S.-China summit that called for dialogue, and reportedly to discuss ways to take the North’s uranium enrichment program to the UN Security Council.
Finally, it sends a clear message demanding Pyongyang to surrender its nuclear arsenal and ambitions. However, it does not mention consequences, which may be a way of avoiding confrontation.
Obama’s State of the Union Addresses & North Korea comments:
2009 – (not mentioned)
2010 – “Now, these diplomatic efforts have also strengthened our hand in dealing with those nations that insist on violating international agreements in pursuit of nuclear weapons. That’s why North Korea now faces increased isolation and stronger sanctions, sanctions that are being vigorously enforced.”
2011 – “And on the Korean peninsula, we stand with our ally South Korea, and insist that North Korea keeps its commitment to abandon nuclear weapons.”