The Cable

Obama administration ignoring Congress on new North Korea policy

The Obama administration has now met with the North Koreans twice and appointed two new top envoys for North Korea policy, but it has not yet consulted with Capitol Hill and has no plans to seek confirmation of the two new officials. Glyn Davies, the newly appointed special representative for North Korea policy, attended the ...

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The Obama administration has now met with the North Koreans twice and appointed two new top envoys for North Korea policy, but it has not yet consulted with Capitol Hill and has no plans to seek confirmation of the two new officials.

Glyn Davies, the newly appointed special representative for North Korea policy, attended the Oct. 24 and Oct. 25 talks in Geneva with North Korean government officials, along with his predecessor, outgoing Ambassador Stephen Bosworth. But Davies, who previously served as  ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), will not have his title of "ambassador" carry over to his new position, because the State Department has no intention of putting him before the Senate for confirmation.

Clifford Hart is the new special envoy to the (now defunct) Six Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, the second-ranking U.S. diplomatic position toward North Korea. He also does not enjoy the title of ambassador, because he was not put before the Senate for confirmation. His predecessor, Sung Kim, was confirmed as ambassador to South Korea, and is now on his way to Seoul.

All of the previous top diplomats dealing with the North Korea issue were ambassadors. Robert Gallucci, Chuck Kartman, Jim Kelly, Jack Pritchard, Joe DeTrani, Chris Hill… you get the idea. Not all went through Senate confirmation for their North Korea jobs; some, like Bosworth, were able to keep their ambassador titles from previous gigs if they had reached a certain rank. Davies hasn’t reached that level.

But regardless of whether Davies and Hart will actually hold the ambassador title or face a Senate confirmation process, many on Capitol Hill concerned with U.S. policy toward Northeast Asia are unhappy with the fact that neither Davies nor Hart has met with any senators, that there have been no Hill briefings on the administration’s new engagement with the North Koreans, and that Senate staffers who have worked on the issue for years had to learn about the new developments through the press.

"State has not reached out to us on these appointments," one Senate aide told The Cable. "They have responded to our requests for briefings on food aid, and they have generally been responsive for briefings when we asked.  But there has been no outreach at their initiative … which helps explain, I think, why they had the House move to prohibit food aid and why they now face a lack of confidence up here, more generally, about their approach."

After multiple rounds of negotiations between The Cable and various State Department offices, State declined to give us a comment for this story.

The law doesn’t require that the North Korea special envoy be confirmed. There are laws that require other envoys be confirmed, such as for the special envoy for North Korean human rights, now filled by Ambassador Bob King, and the special representative and policy coordinator for Burma, now held by Derek Mitchell.

Hill aides point out that the jobs of North Korea special representative and special envoy for the Six Party Talks came out of what’s known as the Perry Process, an interagency policy review of U.S. policy toward North Korea in 1998 that was led by then-State Department counselor and now Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman.

One of the key recommendations that came out of the Perry Process was that the U.S. government should have "a small, senior-level interagency North Korea working group … chaired by a senior official of ambassadorial rank, located in the Department of State, to coordinate policy."

Another recommendation of the Perry Process was that the administration should develop its North Korea policies on a bipartisan basis, in consultation with Capitol Hill.

"Just as no policy toward the DPRK can succeed unless it is a combined strategy of the United States and its allies, the policy review team believes no strategy can be sustained over time without the input and support of Congress," the Perry review team, led by Sherman, wrote.

So why won’t the administration keep Congress in the loop on what it’s doing with the North Koreans? One Asia hand in Washington told The Cable that the administration doesn’t want a public debate over its North Korea engagement, which is not likely to produce dramatic results and could be a political liability in an election season.

"They’re definitely avoiding going to the Hill with these guys because they’re afraid of criticism and they’re afraid the senators are going to use it to criticize where the policy is now," the Asia hand said. "It’s all part of their management approach, where you keep everything low key and don’t want everybody to know what you’re doing."

Former National Security Council Senior Director for Asia Mike Green argued in an article for Foreign Policy last week that the Obama administration is downgrading the prominence of its North Korea diplomats in order to lower expectations for the new engagement, and to keep the podium away from more senior diplomats who might act more independently.

"High profile special envoys and message discipline tend not to go together, and the Obama White House is clearing the decks for a major fight for the presidency next year," Green wrote. "Lower key professionals make sense at a time when North Korea is unlikely to yield much ground."

Perhaps the administration doesn’t want senators to bring up this 2008 column by the Washington Post‘s Al Kamen, where he reveals that Davies worked to water down language criticizing North Korea in an internal e-mail. Here’s the relevant portion of the column:

So on Friday, Glyn Davies, the principal deputy assistant secretary in the East Asia bureau, sent an e-mail to Erica Barks-Ruggles, a deputy assistant secretary in the DRL bureau, regarding some changes in the introductory language of a report on North Korea.

"Erica," he wrote, "I know you are under the NSC [National Security Council] gun," apparently to get the report done so the NSC can review it, "but hope given the Secretary’s priority on the Six-Party Talks, we can sacrifice a few adjectives for the cause.

"Many thanks. Glyn."

And the changes? Eliminated words are in brackets, and additions are in italics:

"The [repressive] North Korean government[regime] continued to control almost all aspects of citizens’ lives, denying freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association, and restricting freedom of movement and workers’ rights. Reports of extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and arbitrary detention, including of political prisoners, continue to emerge [from the isolated country]. Some forcibly repatriated refugees were said to have undergone severe punishment and possibly torture. Reports of public executions continued to surface[were on the rise]."

As Hemingway might have written: For Whom the Kowtows?

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