I remember sitting in the Situation Room after returning from Pyongyang in October 2002 with the news that North Korea had confirmed the existence of its clandestine uranium enrichment program. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told the assembled principals that there would be no blaming the Clinton administration, whatever flaws there had been in the Agreed Framework it had negotiated with the North. This was a moment of national urgency and not a time for partisanship, she emphasized, and all the principals agreed.
In the aftermath of North Korea’s fourth nuclear test this week, the Obama administration is in full spin mode, with current officials going on background and former officials going on the record to blame the North’s dangerous provocation on George W. Bush. The Obama administration has reasons to be defensive. The President came into office in 2009 promising he would solve national security challenges by engaging in unconditional dialogue with the leaders of regimes like North Korea. When Pyongyang rebuffed that offer and instead conducted a nuclear test in May of 2009, the administration pushed through an initial set of U.N. Security Council sanctions, and then set aside the issue explaining that its new policy would be one of “strategic patience.”
“Strategic patience” has been a recipe for non-action. Clinton and Bush each had failings on North Korea. The 1994 Agreed Framework might have worked, but once the deal was concluded, the pressure came off and Pyongyang used the time to develop its highly enriched uranium program and scuttle the prospects for de-nuclearization. The Bush administration then had massive arguments about how to approach the North, but eventually engaged in direct negotiations and then mobilized the region to pressure the North in the Six Party Talks. Ambassador Chris Hill’s efforts to negotiate a new deal towards the end of the administration failed, but those negotiations were based on the idea that heavy financial sanctions on the North for money laundering (the Banco Delta Asia case) and proliferation (U.N. Security Council sanctions) would prove to Pyongyang that the United States could hurt them. It was a tactical mistake to relax that pressure before negotiations began in 2007, but the bottom line was that for both Clinton and Bush, the North Korea nuclear problem remained a high priority.
For the Obama administration, in contrast, North Korea has been more of an inconvenient exception to the proposition that dialogue could turn enemies into friends. Administration supporters have argued this week — predictably — that the critics’ only solution to the current policy is war. This false dichotomy between bombing and talking has become a standard trope for the White House, and one that is completely wrong in the case of North Korea. Despite claims from frustrated engagers that North Korea is already the most sanctioned and isolated country in the world, the fact is that economic sanctions on Pyongyang fall short of those put on Iran before the administration’s nuclear deal with Tehran. An excellent study in the Fletcher Security Review demonstrates how incomplete sanctions on the North really are. If the United States worked with Japan, South Korea, and other allies to require inspections of all vessels and aircraft arriving from North Korea, for example, there would be a considerable impact on the country’s illicit shipments of drugs and counterfeit money, as well as the North’s ability to procure materials for its missile and nuclear weapons programs. Other measures would also impact the North, such as blacklisting known North Korean individuals and entities involved in commerce (none of which are purely commercial entities).
The United States has not done this for two reasons. The first is the desire to isolate North Korea with unanimous Security Council resolutions, which necessarily required watered-down sanctions and implementation in order to keep Moscow and Beijing on board. There may have been some logic to that diplomatic play in the past, but the stratagem has clearly had no impact on the North’s weapons programs and should now be dropped. The second reason has been that coalition-led sanctions take enormous amounts of work: the North will threaten war; tensions will rise with China; Japan and South Korea would be reliable, but other states would require constant pressure and monitoring. It is much easier to engage in a flurry of activity at the U.N. Security Council for a few days, and then let the problem recede into the periphery for a while in order to focus on other parts of the world or political priorities.
No doubt, elements of the administration are now arguing for precisely these tougher U.S.-led measures, but in all likelihood the priority will again be placed on consensus in the Security Council and “isolating” North Korea, diplomatically. Beijing is prepared to express its unhappiness with Pyongyang, but will not likely put material pressure on the regime as long as it is obvious that the United States is unwilling to build its own coalition to constrain the North’s proliferation and criminal activities.
It’s a good racket for North Korea. One might call it “strategic patience.”
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