Much will be made of President Barack Obama’s speech in Tokyo as it is dissected over the coming days to find kernels of wisdom. 

Perhaps President Obama has jet lag.  Perhaps there were technical problems with his teleprompters.  Whatever the reason, Obama’s speech today was marred by more unplanned pauses and verbal miscues than I have ever heard him make. Sure, Obama will be forgiven for butchering the name of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.  It must be difficult for any American to remember how to pronounce all the ‘funny sounding’ names he has to learn on overseas trips.

Maybe, consumed as he is with domestic politics these days and comparatively more focused on the Middle East, Obama just could not get up for a speech at was essentially a patchwork of boiler plate messages.  It was like listening to short previews of all of upcoming speeches across Asia stitched together with a few transitional phrases.

(Of course, Obama is still a long way from entering the level of speech mangling of his immediate predecessor.)

The section of Obama’s Tokyo speech dealing with North Korea was essentially the same thing that we have heard from Washington since the beginning of the Obama administration and, to be frank, the second term of the Bush administration. 

Obama stressed direct diplomacy with North Korea while working in tandem with America’s allies in the region.  That has been standard American conduct since 2006.  If anything, the Obama administration has been more beligerent towards North Korea that the Bush administration was in its waning days.  Christopher Hill, who was the architect of the Bush administration bilateral deal with Pyongyang last year that resulted in its removal from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, has been safely (or not so safely) sent away to a nice retirement posting in Baghdad.  There have so far been comparatively tentative contacts between American and North Korean officials since Obama took office.

Some other items in the North Korea section of the speech include:

  • Quote: “We will not be cowed by threats.”  (For once, I would love to hear someone say “we can be cowed by threats.”
  • References to the opportunities North Korea would have if it gave up its nukes.
  • A call for the full and verifiable denuclearization

All standard fare for the Obama and Bush administrations.

The item that perhaps got the biggest applause of the evening came when Obama said that “full normalization with [North Korea's] neighbors can only come if Japanese families receive a full accounting of those who have been abducted.”  The abduction issue has been a major stumbling block for improving relations between North Korea and Japan.  Without a resolution on that front, there is little chance of Japan providing aid to North Korea as part of a nuclear disarmament deal.

Perhaps we will hear something different and more detailed when Obama comes to Seoul to meet President Lee Myung-bak next week.

Here is the section on North Korea taken from the full text of Obama’s Tokyo speech

As I have said before, strengthening the global nonproliferation regime is not about singling out individual nations. It is about all nations living up to their responsibilities. That includes the Islamic Republic of Iran. And it includes North Korea.

For decades, North Korea has chosen a path of confrontation and provocation, including the pursuit of nuclear weapons. It should be clear where that path leads. We have tightened sanctions on Pyongyang. We have passed the most sweeping UN Security Council resolution to date to restrict their weapons of mass destruction activities. We will not be cowed by threats, and we will continue to send a clear message through our actions, and not just our words: North Korea’s refusal to meet its international obligations will lead only to less security – not more.

Yet there is another path that can be taken. Working in tandem with our partners – and supported by direct diplomacy – the United States is prepared to offer North Korea a different future. Instead of an isolation that has compounded the horrific repression of its own people, North Korea could have a future of international integration. Instead of gripping poverty, it could have a future of economic opportunity – where trade, investment and tourism can offer the North Korean people the chance at a better life. And instead of increasing insecurity, it could have a future of greater security and respect. This respect cannot be earned through belligerence. It must be reached by a nation that takes its place in the international community by fully living up to its international obligations.

The path for North Korea to realize this future is clear: a return to the Six-Party Talks; upholding previous commitments, including a return to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; and the full and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. And full normalization with its neighbors can only come if Japanese families receive a full accounting of those who have been abducted. These are all steps that can be taken by the North Korean government, if they are interested in improving the lives of their people and joining the community of nations.

The Obama administration seems to be contenting itself with ’big speech’ diplomacy, seeking a silver bullet by building support for the administration’s position through Obama’s famed oratory, be it nuclear weapons (the Prague speech), relationship between the United States and Islamic nations (the Cairo speech) or the United States’ role in Asia.

It is still too early to know if there is any substance to back up his latest big speech.