August 20, 2009

August 20, 2009 | Commentary on Asia, Southeast Asia

Through the (North Korean) Looking Glass

Ironies abound in the current United States policy toward North Korea. Someone awakening from a long slumber could be forgiven for concluding that a naively liberal president George W Bush had been replaced by neo-conservative Barack Obama.

Moreover, one would assume that the majority of mainstream media must also be neo-conservative since there had been nary a squeak of derisive commentary about Obama's firm and unyielding pressure tactics except from a few isolated angry liberals. In this, the media must simply be reflecting the predominant conservative view of the public; two-thirds of American respondents feel Obama should be even tougher on North Korea.

However, those who have followed US policy toward North Korea will remember that the US media derided the first six years of the Bush policy as provocatively hard line, controlled by a cabal of ideologically-driven neo-conservatives. This widely-accepted paradigm persisted despite North Korean violations and provocations. The paradigm was superseded by another in which the Bush administration was praised during its final two years for seeing the light and adopting the pragmatic, realist policy long advocated by Democrats (eg Senators John Kerry, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton).

In response to North Korean escalatory behavior, Obama has largely adopted the policy of the first six years of Bush, even using strikingly similar rhetoric. To be sure, both policies were proper and prudent responses to North Korean violations of international agreements. There has been a conspicuous difference, however, in the response of the media and pundits. Those who excoriated Bush officials now remain silent over virtually verbatim statements by the current administration. Alice in Wonderland would describe it as "curiouser and curiouser". Yet, one can't help but suspect a demonstrable degree of hypocrisy.

Continuity we can believe in

In early 2009, there was near euphoric expectation that the change in US leadership would lead to a more accommodating Pyongyang eager for significant improvement in bilateral relations. Obama had even vowed during the presidential campaign to meet separately, without preconditions, during the first year of his administration, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, asserting that "the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them - which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration - is ridiculous".

Yet, despite campaigning on a platform strongly criticizing the Bush approach to North Korea, Obama planned to continue his predecessor's policy. A US diplomat involved in the North Korean negotiations commented privately that "we were going to largely pick up where we had left off [at the end of the Bush administration"].

Obama neglected to explain to the electorate that Bush did not have a single eight-year policy toward North Korea. Rather, he had pursued two diametrically opposed policies during his tenure - one overly confrontational, the other overly conciliatory. During its last two years, the Bush administration had, in fact, engaged in the direct, bilateral diplomacy with Pyongyang that Obama now advocated. Despite this Obama-like approach, however, North Korea continued its policy of intransigence, non-compliance, and brinksmanship.

Back to the future ... with a twist

Yet, just a few months into his administration, Obama was astoundingly adopting the policy and rhetoric of the first six years of the Bush administration which he and the Democrats had lambasted so fiercely in the past. A few examples:

North Korea as a tyranny

  • Secretary of state Condoleezza Rice (January 2005): "There remain outposts of tyranny - and America stands with oppressed people on every continent ... in Cuba, and Burma [Myanmar] and North Korea.
  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (February 2009): "South Korea's prosperity and democracy stood in stark contrast to the tyranny and poverty across the border to the North."


  • Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post (2007): "Rice had already made the diplomatic impasse worse with a rookie misstep during her confirmation hearings, when she referred to North Korea as an 'outpost of tyranny' just as North Korea was looking for a signal of respect."
  • The New York Times (February 2009) described Clinton's Asia trip, during which she called North Korea a tyranny, as "reshap[ing] diplomacy by tossing the script" and "redefining the job of secretary of state, fusing the weighty themes of regional security and nuclear proliferation with lighter encounters [by] exploiting her megawatt celebrity."

North Korean impasse not a crisis

  • Secretary of State Colin Powell (December 2002 - in response to North Korea's vow to reopen the Yongbyon reactor): "It is not a crisis, but it is a matter of concern."
  • Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (May 2009): "I don't think the North Korean nuclear program represents a direct threat to the United States ... the Obama administration did not consider the weapons tests of last week a 'crisis'."


  • Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman (December 2002): "It is indeed a crisis for which he blamed president Bush. 'The policy that the administration has followed thus far has made a difficult situation into a dangerous one'."
  • Democratic Senator Tom Dashle (February 2003): Scolded Mr Bush for playing down the threat from North Korea.

Insisting on North Korean preconditions prior to negotiations

  • Under secretary of state John Bolton (March 2004): The US "will not provide inducements or reward the North Koreans to come back into compliance with their international obligations."
  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (July 2009): "We do not intend to reward North Korea just for returning to the table, nor do we intend to reward them for actions they have already committed to taking."


  • Democratic senators (January 2003): criticized Bush's refusal to promptly resume negotiations with North Korea. Democratic Senator Carl Levin said the Bush administration "should meet face to face with North Korea so as to prevent any miscalculations".
  • Democratic Senator Tom Dashle (February 2003): urged Bush to "immediately engage the North Koreans in direct talks".

Impact of North Korean proliferation

  • Bush (November 2006): "The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States, and we would hold North Korea fully accountable for the consequences of such action."
  • Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (May 2009): "The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States and its allies."

Pyongyang a catalyst for US policy change

What brought about the reverse in Obama's nascent North Korea policy? Pyongyang's audaciously belligerent provocations and violations of United Nations resolutions. In a few short months, Pyongyang launched a Taepodong 2 long-range missile, conducted a nuclear test, abrogated all inter-Korean agreements, walked away from the armistice ending the Korean War, abandoned the six-party talks, kicked out international inspectors, vowed to build more nuclear weapons and threatened war against the US, Japan and South Korea.

North Korean violations also triggered a change in the Bush administration's policy in 2002-03. At that time, Pyongyang was pursuing a covert uranium-based nuclear weapons program in violation of four international agreements. The widespread misperception was that North Korea's highly enriched uranium program was merely a Bush administration fabrication to undermine the Agreed Framework. But the facts belie the mischaracterization.

Robert Gallucci, president Bill Clinton's negotiator for the 1994 Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea, rebutted assertions that the Bush administration had "politicized the question of North Korea's uranium-enrichment program". Gallucci explained that the US had "for a number of years, well-founded suspicions that North Korea has been working on the enrichment of uranium. Indeed, in both 1999 and 2000, the Clinton administration was unable to certify to Congress that North Korea was not pursuing a uranium-enrichment capability. This fact alone should dispel claims of partisanship on this point."

Gary Samore, Obama's special assistant and White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction, proliferation and terrorism, stated in July 2009, "I'm absolutely convinced that they have been pursuing a secret enrichment program."

What if North Korea hadn't shot itself in the foot?

What alternative scenario would have occurred had North Korea not been so belligerent in 2009 and, instead, reached out to Washington? Obama would have seen this as a vindication of his philosophy and been encouraged to pursue a vigorous outreach to Pyongyang. He could have blamed all of the shortfalls and failures of the six-party talks on Bush rather than North Korean intransigence and refusal to abide by its commitments. The talks would have resumed and it is uncertain what economic and diplomatic inducements the Obama administration might have offered to gain perceived progress.

Doing so, however, would have exacerbated South Korean and Japanese nervousness. These nations were leery of the naive and excessively eager approach taken by the US in the last two years of the Bush administration. Tokyo had publicly questioned the Bush strategy. Seoul had privately harbored concerns but remained mum so as not to undermine President Lee Myung-bak's determination to repair US-South Korean relations.

The difference in approach toward North Korea between Washington and its Asian allies would have caused strains in those bilateral relationships. This would have been particularly noticeable with South Korea since it would have come atop diametrically opposing views toward the stalled US-South Korean free-trade agreement (FTA). The protectionist Obama administration refuses to accept the FTA without first rewriting auto sector provisions to accommodate unreasonable demands by US automakers.

However, North Korean provocations since January led Obama to reverse his policy, bringing it into alignment with America's allies, allowing them to confront North Korea with a consensus unattainable during the past several years. Given rising concern over how far Kim Jong-il is willing to press a crisis, North Korea has crowded out all other items from the agendas of Washington and its Asian allies, overshadowing the trade dispute.

Talking and image aren't everything

Obama campaigned on the promise that initiating dialogue with rogue regimes and improving America's image overseas would solve the world's problems. But changing perceptions don't ensure changed policies. A mantra of "we're not the other guy" and a willingness to listen aren't enough of a basis for policy. Foreign public opinion polls showed soaring approval for the US following Obama's inauguration. But despots around the globe have bitten the extended open hand of dialogue and refused to change their behavior. Nor have US allies stepped up to provide resources to redress common security threats.

Former national security advisors Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski have praised Obama for defusing anti-Americanism overseas. Yet Brzezinski questioned whether the Obama administration has "sufficient steadiness and determination to implement it". Scowcroft commented, "I'm worried because I don't see much happening [on substance]. It's all still mood-setting."

The path ahead

When confronted with North Korean recalcitrance, the Obama administration correctly assessed the situation and altered course to adopt a pragmatic two-track approach of pressure and negotiation toward Pyongyang. Perhaps Obama has learned the famous adage of Frederick the Great that "diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments".

North Korea has proven to be its own worst enemy since Obama's initial willingness to engage. Pyongyang's blatant rejection of repeated US offers of bilateral dialogue has gained Washington traction for international pressure tactics that Bush was never able to achieve.

Putting an Obama face on Bush policies may offer the best opportunity to achieve a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear problem. Success depends, however, on sustaining extensive international sanctions against North Korea until the aberrant behavior that triggered them is rectified rather than abandoning them in return only for Pyongyang's willingness to return to the negotiating table. Principles shouldn't be abandoned for parsimonious progress.

The Obama administration must maintain its resolve to implement a "full range of particular steps [to] put pressure on North Korea [including] a robust set of sanctions and unilateral actions" [to show] there are consequences for these provocative actions" until North Korea undertakes "irreversible steps" to abandon its nuclear weapons programs.

In months to come, a growing chorus of voices will again call for throwing more inducements and lowering the bar of North Korean compliance to UN resolutions. The Obama administration must reject this tired siren song.

Bruce Klingner, is senior research fellow for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Bruce Klingner Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia
Asian Studies Center

First Appeared in the Asia Times