With Pyongyang celebrating its latest nuclear test, the U.S. president is being criticized for being both too soft on North Korea and too hard.
The White House came under fire from both key political allies and longtime opponents Wednesday in the wake of North Korea’s detonation of what it claimed was a hydrogen bomb, with critics lambasting the administration for not acting “tough” enough, while traditional supporters faulted the administration for missing opportunities to engage diplomatically with the regime.
The rare convergence of criticism came because of the steady advance of the North Korean nuclear program, which has carried out four nuclear tests since 2006 and three during Barack Obama’s presidency. Although analysts doubt Pyongyang’s claims that the new test involved a hydrogen bomb, there is near-universal agreement that the size and sophistication of North Korea’s nuclear program has increased during Obama’s years in office.
That has fueled new criticism of the Obama administration’s policy of so-called “strategic patience,” which is centered on the president’s insistence that Pyongyang commit to de-nuclearization as a precondition for direct talks. North Korea’s reclusive leader, Kim Jong Un, has chafed at the demand, which has impeded progress on a new round of direct talks.
On the campaign trail, the leading Republican presidential candidates accused Obama of not doing enough to punish North Korea for its continued violations of international law and called for a mix of stepped-up sanctions and increased pressure on the Chinese government, Pyongyang’s most important ally.
“China has total control, believe me,” businessman Donald Trump, the current Republican front-runner, said on Fox News. “And if they don’t solve the problem, we should make trade very difficult for China.” Other Republican candidates such as Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Ted Cruz of Texas recommended new economic sanctions on the already isolated hermit kingdom.
Some of Obama’s traditional supporters lobbed a different critique: that refusing to engage with the regime caused Pyongyang to detonate a bomb as a way of grabbing the attention of an administration preoccupied with other global crises.
Nonproliferation experts, who have long backed the White House’s nuclear deal with Iran, criticized the administration for not pushing harder for direct multilateral talks with North Korea and other regional partners.
“Strategic patience is not working: Rather than pushing North Korea to the negotiating table, the threat posed by Pyongyang’s nuclear program is escalating,” Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, told Foreign Policy.
Nonproliferation critics also argue the Obama administration’s engagement with North Korea has been far less substantive than the overtures it has made toward Iran, which agreed to a landmark international nuclear deal in July. Given Pyongyang’s ever-expanding nuclear program, they say the White House can’t afford to freeze out the North Koreans any longer.
“I do think the situation demands a shift in U.S. and allied strategy about talking with North Korea about its nuclear program,” Daryl Kimball, publisher of Arms Control Today, told FP.
Kimball urged the United States to kick-start the six-party de-nuclearization talks involving China, the United States, North and South Korea, Russia, and Japan.
“The talks can and should be renewed with the near-term goal of achieving a pause in long-range missile tests and a pause in the expansion of fissile material production,” he said. “If we don’t adjust, there’s no amount of additional U.N. Security Council sanctions and international rhetorical condemnation that’s going to take North Korea off its current trajectory.”
Obama’s current policy of “strategic patience” began in his first term when North Korea — just months after the president’s first inaugural address in which he pledged to extend his hand to tyrants willing to “unclench” their firsts — launched a multi-stage rocket and then detonated a nuclear weapon.
The policy signaled that the United States would not reward Pyongyang with diplomatic engagement for its bad behavior and would instead advocate for stepped-up sanctions against North Korea at the U.N. Security Council. But later in Obama’s first term, after revelations that North Korea was making advancements in uranium enrichment and the construction of a light-water reactor, the Obama administration launched three rounds of direct talks with Pyongyang between July 2011 and February 2012. The discussions failed to result in a deal and were declared dead after North Korea’s unsuccessful April 2012 satellite launch.
Now, given North Korea’s latest test, the White House will have to contend with a new sanctions push from both Democrats and Republicans.
On Wednesday, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton issued a statement condemning the apparent nuclear test as a “dangerous act” — and called for punitive economic sanctions against Pyongyang.
The statement also called on China to be more assertive with the North Koreans, but it did not break with Obama administration policy in the way she has on Syria and the Middle East.
“The United States and our partners, including the U.N. Security Council, need to immediately impose additional sanctions against North Korea,” Clinton said.
A sharp divide between the two on this issue is less likely to surface because the president’s lack of engagement with the hermit kingdom has left him less exposed to right-wing claims of “appeasement” and tepidness.
It’s also less likely given that Clinton is widely credited with defining the administration’s “strategic patience” policy in a December 2009 press conference during her tenure as the president’s secretary of state.
“The approach that our administration is taking is of strategic patience in close coordination with our six-party allies,” she said. “And I think that making it clear to the North Koreans what we had expected and how we were moving forward is exactly what was called for.”
Clinton, for her part, isn’t the only Democrat calling for sanctions.
On Wednesday, Democratic and Republican lawmakers, including the top Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Intelligence Committee, Ben Cardin of Maryland and Adam Schiff of California, pushed for punitive sanctions.
“I intend to work with my colleagues in the Senate on legislation to impose additional sanctions on North Korea and would also urge additional sanctions by the United Nations Security Council,” said Cardin in a statement.
It’s unclear how the White House might respond to such a sanctions push, but the measures don’t come without risk.
Scott Snyder, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted that “the initial impetus will be for more sticks” against North Korea. Still, it remained unclear “how to make them more than rhetorical and impose tangible costs on North Korea without feeding a cycle of outrage and risking additional symbolic escalation,” he said.
The White House, for its part, has condemned Pyongyang’s announcement while raising doubt about its claims that it successfully tested a hydrogen bomb.
“The initial analysis is not consistent with the claim the regime has made of a successful hydrogen bomb test,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday. “What is true is that North Korea continues to be one of the most isolated nations in the world, and their isolation has only deepened as they’ve sought to engage in increasingly provocative acts.”
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon also condemned North Korea’s actions on Wednesday and demanded that the country “cease any further nuclear activities.”
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