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White House: Obama is tougher than Bush on North Korea

U.S. President Barack Obama’s push for engagement with North Korea, which was effectively ended by yesterday’s missile launch, was not a failure and actually shows that this administration is tougher on Pyongyang than its predecessor, a top White House official said today. “What this administration has done is broken the cycle of rewarding provocative actions ...


U.S. President Barack Obama’s push for engagement with North Korea, which was effectively ended by yesterday’s missile launch, was not a failure and actually shows that this administration is tougher on Pyongyang than its predecessor, a top White House official said today.

“What this administration has done is broken the cycle of rewarding provocative actions by the North Koreans that we’ve seen in the past,” said Deputy National Security Advisor for Communications Ben Rhodes, speaking to reporters on Air Force One Friday.

The Cable detailed yesterday the Obama team’s extensive efforts over the past year to enter into a new round of negotiations with the North Korean regime, which included offering North Korea 240,000 tons of food aid and asking the North Koreans to refrain from enriching uranium and firing off any missiles. The deal fell through Thursday when North Korea launched an Unha-3 rocket with a “satellite” attached.

Rhodes argued that the Obama administration’s stance was tougher than George W. Bush‘s, given that Bush’s top negotiator Chris Hill held several rounds of protracted negotiations with North Korea and even got North Korea to sign an agreement in 2005 to end its nuclear weapons program in exchange for security and economic guarantees from the West.

“Under the previous administration, for instance, there was a substantial amount of assistance provided to North Korea. North Korea was removed from the terrorism list, even as they continued to engage in provocative actions. Under our administration we have not provided any assistance to North Korea,” Rhodes said.

He also seemed to abandon the administration’s claim that the food aid was not “linked” to the nuclear and missile discussions, a claim most observers scoffed at because the two issues were negotiated at the same time by the same people and because the food aid was cancelled after North Korea announced the missile launch.

“When this new regime took power after the death of Kim Jong Il, we had discussions with them about potentially an agreement where they would freeze their enrichment activities and take some other steps towards denuclearization, and that we as a part of that might provide food assistance,” Rhodes said. (Emphasis added.)

He also repeated the administration’s contention that North Korea could not be trusted to deliver the food aid to its people because the regime in Pyongyang could not be trusted to uphold its international commitments.

Rhodes said the United States would discuss with its allies and partners “additional steps” that might be taken to punish North Korea for its latest provocation, but he couldn’t name any specific steps that under consideration. He also said there was concern that North Korea could conduct another nuclear test soon.

The U.N. Security Council issued a statement Friday condemning North Korea for the launch but no new punitive measures were announced. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said it was “premature … to predict or characterize the form of the reaction.”

Speaking to reporters, Rhodes also criticized North Korea for inviting journalists to visit, saying, “The North Korea government is trying to put on this propaganda show over the course of the last several days, inviting journalists in to take a look at this particular rocket launch.”

After three years of practicing “strategic patience” with North Korea, which basically amounted to ignoring Pyongyang, the Obama team took a political risk by engaging with the North Korean regime and then announcing an “agreement” even though there was no single set of items that the two sides actually agreed upon. Each side issued its own unilateral statements about what it thought the deal included.

Republicans are already pouncing on what they portray as a naïve mistake by the administration.

“Instead of approaching Pyongyang from a position of strength, President Obama sought to appease the regime with a food-aid deal that proved to be as naïve as it was short-lived. At the same time, he has cut critical U.S. missile defense programs and continues to underfund them,” GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney said in statement. “This incompetence from the Obama administration has emboldened the North Korean regime and undermined the security of the United States and our allies.”

The Obama administration requested $7.75 billion for missile defense in fiscal 2013, which is $810 million less than Congress appropriated for the program this year.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) piled on.

“Once again, Pyongyang has demonstrated its complete disregard for international sanctions and its proclivity for worthless commitments. Moreover, North Korea’s actions and gathering of global media to witness the launch make a mockery of the recent ‘Leap Day agreement’ with the Obama administration,” he said in his own statement. “The administration should abandon its naive negotiations with North Korea (and Iran), and instead focus on fully funding missile defenses that can protect the United States from ballistic missile threats.”

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin