A Very Special Envoy
Why Obama should make Dennis Rodman his man in Pyongyang. Seriously.
Just back from quality time with Kim Jong Un, Dennis Rodman delivered a message: U.S. President Barack Obama should give North Korea’s dictator a call. The administration has been quick to dismiss his suggestion, as has most of the press. And it certainly hasn’t helped Rodman’s argument that North Korea is now threatening to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against American targets in response to new United Nations sanctions. Still, while there is a strong element of truth to these criticisms, Rodman may be onto something here.
In the aftermath of the North’s recent missile and nuclear tests, there is widespread agreement in Washington that the Obama administration’s policy of strategic patience has failed. It has done nothing to stop North Korean provocations aimed at our South Korean ally or to slow down Pyongyang’s growing weapons of mass destruction programs. Moreover, the cycle of action and reaction we have been caught in for the past several years (they test, we sanction), has had little effect on Pyongyang, its WMD programs, or its overall behavior despite the administration’s claims to the contrary.
The latest developments in this time loop seem to have been lifted straight from the movie Groundhog Day, in which a TV weather forecaster finds himself repeating the same day over and over again. Following almost universal denunciation of the third North Korean nuclear test, the United States sought international sanctions. Speculation that China, Pyongyang’s closest ally, had finally become fed up with North Korean misbehavior has proven to be untrue. After weeks of U.S.-Chinese haggling at the United Nations, sanctions now emerge that are much more limited than the United States wanted. American officials trumpet that this resolution will have an important impact on North Korea’s nuclear program (just like the previous ones). Sound familiar?
One prominent Republican expert’s recent observation that "strategic patience" is more like a "strategic coma" is an assessment that is shared by many Democrats as well. That consensus has manifested itself in a Senate bill passed at the end of February that calls for a comprehensive review of the administration’s North Korea policy, including alternative approaches. The point is, since the current approach doesn’t appear to be working, shouldn’t the United States be seriously considering other ones? But the odds-on betting is that the State Department will just dust off a few well-worn talking points, meld them together, and send them to the Hill.
Which brings us back to Rodman. Granted, he doesn’t know anything about North Korea except what he learned during his recent whirlwind tour of Pyongyang. But "Dennis the Menace" may have unwittingly stumbled onto an important truth about how to deal with Pyongyang. There can be a diplomatic upside to a political system based on one-person, one-family rule. North Korean leaders have a history of issuing "on-the-spot guidance" — pronouncements that instantly set policy. So reaching out directly to Kim Jong Un might not be such a bad idea, particularly since he is still new on the job.
Historically, Jimmy Carter’s meeting with Kim Il Sung during the dangerous nuclear crisis of 1994 helped steer Washington and Pyongyang back to a more peaceful trajectory. South Korean President Kim Young-sam, excited by the prospect of Seoul’s first-summit ever with Kim Il Sung in summer 1994, banked on his counterpart issuing "on-the-spot guidance" that would alter history, only to have the North Korean leader die before the meeting. The ensuing summitry between Kim Jong Il and two South Korean presidents played a conspicuous role in building better relations beginning in the late 1990s. Even President Lee Myung-bak, second to none in his tough approach to the North, yearned for a summit, as does Park Geun-hye, the new South Korean leader.
Of course, no American president would just pick up the phone to call the leader of a country that had just conducted its third nuclear test in defiance of the international community. But this administration studiously avoided contact with the North Korean leadership for much of its first term, probably because of concerns about domestic political blowback. Former President Bill Clinton’s visit to Pyongyang in summer 2009 to retrieve two American journalists detained by the North was a rare opportunity for a face-to-face meeting with Kim Jong Il. However, rather than allow the former president to explore solutions to the serious problems between Washington and Pyongyang, the administration tied his hands. Kurt Campbell, until recently the State Department official in charge of Asia, even recommended to the former president that he "channel his inner Dick Cheney" and "look as dour as possible whenever there were cameras around." That explains pictures of a smiling Kim with an uncharacteristically glum Clinton.
What does all this mean for U.S. policy? Rodman’s trip highlighted a need, if I can use a basketball metaphor, to step up our game and adopt a "strong diplomacy, strong containment approach." An important part of such an approach would be a willingness to hold face-to-face meetings between authoritative officials from both countries. The third-ranking official in the State Department now meets regularly with Iranians in multilateral nuclear negotiations, while we talk to North Korea only through low-level diplomats at the United Nations or Foreign Ministry bureaucrats. Those meetings would clarify North Korean views, particularly on whether there is room to negotiate (we can’t get that from Pyongyang’s hyperbolic media) or to rebuild cooperation with a China that desperately wants to dampen tensions on the peninsula and, if possible, to reach agreements that serve U.S. interests.
To be effective, strong diplomacy must be backed by serious financial and material sanctions, military measures to bolster our defenses, others to stop Pyongyang’s efforts to earn hard currency through illicit activities, and anything else we can think of to raise the costs of North Korean misbehavior. The Obama administration would argue that it is pursuing such an approach, but it’s clear there is room for additional measures. That would be one objective of a policy review — to evaluate steps already taken and to posit new ones. An added benefit is that if our diplomacy fails to stop Pyongyang, we will be in a strong position to contain the North.
Unfortunately, diplomacy has become a dirty word for a U.S. administration driven by domestic politics, not national interest. As former State Department official Vali Nasr observed this week in his revealing Foreign Policy article about his time inside the administration, "the president had a truly disturbing habit of funneling major foreign-policy decisions through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisors" whose primary concern was "how any action in Afghanistan or the Middle East would play on the nightly news or which talking point it would give the Republicans." If the Obama administration is more concerned with Republican criticism than the growing North Korean threat, maybe putting Dennis Rodman in charge of our North Korea policy is exactly what we need.