On the first day of spring President Obama paid an official visit to his next-door neighbor President Raul Castro of Cuba, becoming the first American president to visit that island nation since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. By executive order the president had already begun to ease a few of the embargo measures that have been imposed on Cuba since the early 1960s.

The perils of final-year presidential visits

While enjoying substantial support from many quarters, President Obama’s visit continues to be criticized by politicians in both parties for being premature, given that the Cuban government still persecutes its political dissidents at an alarming rate. The president tried to avoid such criticism by framing his visit as a rapprochement between the American and Cuban people, rather than between their governments. Arguably, the most important effect of the president’s Cuba policies will be the weakening of economic sanctions. As he said in his address to the Cuban people, “What the United States was doing was not working.” Much of the international community, which has long been critical of the American embargo, agrees with this assessment.

US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro in Cuba
US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro in Cuba

President Obama’s Cuban initiative is being launched in the final year of his presidency. His Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, undertook a somewhat similar initiative toward North Korea in his final year in office. At the time, the Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea was still in force although showing signs of age, and the North Korean economy was still on the ropes trying to recover from the “Arduous March” of 1995-1997. In short, the Kim regime needed to freshen up its relationship with the United States.

In Washington, the time seemed ripe to improve relations, especially with a view to completely ending North Korea’s military nuclear weapons program. North Korea’s second highest military officer, Jo Myong-rok, was invited to Washington to meet President Clinton in early October 2000, and a week later Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, traveled to Pyongyang to meet with Kim Jong-il and sound out the North Koreans about a possible visit by President Clinton, who had been urgently invited by General Jo.

Secretary Albright was criticized for traveling to Pyongyang and being entertained by the world’s most notorious dictator, and when she returned she convened a working dinner with a group of North Korea experts, myself included. She was looking for advice on how to respond to all the bad press surrounding her recent trip, and she also wanted our opinion on whether President Clinton should accept the Kim regime’s invitation. The consensus at the meeting was generally negative about the president making the visit, and in any case the difficulties Secretary Albright had recently encountered in dealing with North Korean logistics and the lack of time remaining in Clinton’s presidency prevented him from making the trip. He did, however, travel to Pyongyang nine years later as a private citizen to arrange the release of two American reporters.

Is North Korea next?

President Obama’s trip to Havana has aroused interest in re-engaging North Korea, not that the two countries are strictly comparable. Both governments subscribe to socialist principles, both are under the control of a single party run by family dynasties, both have struggling economies, and both severely limit the individual rights of their people. However, they are geographically and politically miles apart, and have little diplomatic contact. During a 2013 visit to Havana, a North Korean general said the two countries were “in the same trench,” which is a rather discouraging characterization. When a Cuba Worker’s Party delegation visited Pyongyang just a few weeks before Obama’s Havana visit, the North Korean media hardly mentioned it.  Nor were the North Korean people told about Obama’s visit to Havana; instead, the media were filled with North Korea’s threats to blast Washington and Seoul with rockets.

Kim Jong-un: Distant dictator
Kim Jong-un: Distant dictator

For the United States government the most important difference is that Cuba gave up its (Soviet) missiles years ago and never had a nuclear weapons program. The Obama administration wants Cuba to improve its human rights record, but even though North Korea’s human rights record is much worse, it is Pyongyang’s weapons of mass destruction that receive all the attention. To make matters worse, North Korea still boasts of its “victory” over the United States in the Korean War, which was only ended by a truce, not a peace treaty.

Sanctions or engagement?

President Obama has noted that the American sanction policy against Cuba has failed to change Cuban government policies.  Likewise, it is widely agreed that American sanctions on North Korea have failed to persuade the Kim government to give up its nuclear and missile programs. But how strong is the argument to replace a sanction program with an engagement policy? Just because one policy has failed does not mean that its opposite, if it can be called that, will work any better. Moreover, it is difficult to determine what would have happened if a different policy had been in place instead of sanctions. Would conditions in Cuba have been better or worse for its people? Would engagement have convinced the Kim government to end its weapons programs or grant its citizens more human rights?

In North Korea’s case, moderate engagement, both from the United States and for ten years on the part of two South Korean governments, failed to change the nature of the Kim regime, making it difficult to argue that a new American engagement policy would have any better success. With little to gain and a high political cost to pay, it is hard to imagine a presidential visit to Pyongyang in this last year of the administration.

Dr. Kongdan Oh is a senior Asia specialist at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA). Her most recent book is Hidden People of North Korea: Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdom, second edition.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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