Frequent Flyer Diplomacy and the Plane to Pyongyang

Secretary of State John Kerry needs to pay Kim Jong Un a visit. Because North Korea is muscling up and the Obama administration's "strategic patience" isn't working.

JUNG YEON-JE AFP / Getty Images
JUNG YEON-JE AFP / Getty Images

John Kerry is often accused of "frequent flyer" diplomacy. Now, every secretary of state has been accused of relying too much on travel except for, of course, those secretaries who have been criticized for traveling too little. They can’t win either way. Taking criticism for travel schedules is as old as Dwight D. Eisenhower telling his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles: "Don’t just do something, Foster; stand there." There is a reason that the State Department publishes a "Travels of the Secretary" volume and modern cabinet memoirs are little more than limp travelogues masquerading as policy tomes. (Oh, really, you got past page 33 of Clinton’s Hard Choices? Liar.)

But, even by modern standards, this sentence about the power of Kerry’s mere presence to bring order to chaos is a real howler: "And you will notice," Kerry said in July, "since the visit last year, North Korea has been quieter." The visit to which the secretary was referring is none other than his own April 2013 trip to Beijing. There are two wondrous things about this statement. The first is the causal relationship Kerry infers between a couple of meetings with senior Chinese officials and the regional security situation. Here is how Kerry described his face-to-face about North Korea with Chinese State Councilor and former Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi:

"And what we agreed to do is immediately bear down with further discussion at a very senior level in order to fill out exactly what steps we can take together to make sure that this is not rhetoric, but that it is real policy that is being implemented. And then I asked him to pass the dumplings."

OK, I added the last sentence. But come on; adding that detail only emphasizes natural silliness of the statement: We’re going to talk really hard about moving past talking really hard.

Beyond the inanities of diplomatic briefings, is Kerry right about North Korea being quieter? Well, I suppose compared to the bloodbaths in Gaza and eastern Ukraine, Northeast Asia is a garden spot. But quiet it is not. So far, 2014 has been an unprecedented year of missile-related provocations by North Korea that will only get worse.

North Korea has launched more than 14 Scud and Nodong ballistic missiles on seven or eight occasions — as far as I can tell I am the only one keeping a running count. This is far and away the most intense year of missile testing conducted by North Korea.

To be sure, North Korea has not launched its Unha Space Launcher (which the United States calls the Taepodong-2 ICBM), as it did twice in 2012; tested a nuclear weapon, as it did in February 2013; or threatened to launch the new long-range Musudan missile, as it did throughout the spring of 2013. Then again, there are still four months to go.

While it is easy to focus on Ukraine and Gaza, North Korea is making a lot of noise — and it may get worse. Since March, North Korea has been complaining about U.S.-led military exercises. In March, Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) warned that U.S.-South Korean military exercises "would only compel the DPRK to develop all its steps for bolstering up its war deterrent and demonstrating it into more annual and regular processes." In other words, buckle your seat belts.

A partial list of significant launches from 2014 include:

  • Four Scud missiles on Feb. 27.
  • Four 300 mm artillery rockets on March 4.
  • Two Nodong medium-range ballistic missiles on March 26.
  • Two "newly developed cutting-edge ultra-precision tactical guided missiles" on June 26. Kim Jong Un reportedly attended the launch.
  • Two Scud missiles as part of an exercise to test "dispersion effect for striking individual and group targets of the enemy" on June 29. Again, Kim Jong Un reportedly attended the launch.
  • Two Scud missiles in a nighttime "combination of a sudden movement and firepower strike" on July 9. And, once again, guess who was there?
  • Five more "ultra-precision high-performance tactical rocket[s]" to greet Pope Francis on August 14. Guess who was there, too?

KCNA has continued the U.S.-South Korea incitement theme to justify the frequent test firings, arguing that recent tests "took place at a time when the dangerous war provocation moves of the U.S. and its allies have reached an extreme phase."

North Korea appears to be placing great emphasis on responding with its own demonstrations of artillery and rocket firepower. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin once called artillery "the god of war"; recent propaganda efforts by the DPRK suggest that’s pretty much how the North Koreans see it, too. Early in the year, before many of the launches had occurred, the DPRK released a propaganda film best known among defense geeks for its brief depiction of a sea-launched anti-ship cruise missile resembling the Russian-manufactured Kh-35. The general thrust of the film is firepower — nearly an hour of Kim Jong Un watching rockets and missile firings. The most, er, unusual part is a two-minute sequence in which a squatting Kim Jong Un watches a sweat-soaked all-female artillery team launch rockets.

North Korea’s most recent test looks like a new missile. (I told you so!) Although the South Korean press initially reported that the launches on June 26 and Aug. 14 were of artillery rockets, there is growing evidence that the weapon is a new solid-fueled missile. "We have a problem with this new system," a U.S. official explained a few years back, "because it is much more accurate and survivable" than Scud-type missiles. (Scuds are liquid-fueled, which is a drag if you have to fuel them during a war. Think how impatient you get at the gas station, and that’s without the U.S. Air Force trying to kill you at the pump.)

It is not clear to me that Washington is paying any attention to the pace of missile launches in Northeast Asia. The only reference to missile launches in departing U.S. special representative for North Korea policy Glyn Davies’s July 30 testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee was to note that North Korea had initiated the provocations, despite U.S. offers for negotiations to improve the bilateral relationship. Japan leads the only diplomatic efforts underway with North Korea, which seek to resolve the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea. Seoul has its own diplomatic effort — to persuade North Korea to participate in the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon this autumn. (Or at least not to blow them up.) The United States has largely discouraged these efforts.

The U.S. policy, according to Davies, is "seeking to increase the volume" of the message that Pyongyang should knock it off. I have no idea what Davies means by that metaphor. But whatever he does, he might want to make sure to turn the volume up loud enough so Kim can hear it over the sound of all that artillery fire.

(Oh, and let’s pause to remember the late Robin Williams, who, as usual, had the funniest observation on the sound of artillery, in Good Morning Vietnam.)

Things are about to get worse. For weeks, North Korea has been especially vociferous in demanding that Washington and Seoul cancel the next joint military exercise, Ulchi Freedom Guardian, scheduled to begin Aug. 19.

Washington and Seoul will not, cannot, and probably should not cancel the exercise. But they should be honest about what comes next — the collapse of those limited diplomatic efforts by Tokyo and Seoul, followed by what pseudonymous North Korea expert James Church has called a "bad action-reaction cycle" culminating in "more artillery exercises, more missile launches, and possibly even a nuclear test."

(This seems really loud. Maybe Davies has an amp that goes to 11?)

There is something disconcerting about our allies negotiating with North Korea, when we will not. They surely aren’t under the illusion that the North Korean leadership is filled with nice people or that the country is likely to change. But neither are they under the illusion that their neighborhood is "quiet" or that the current policy of scolding Pyongyang is working. It is clear that the administration’s policy of "strategic patience" — a term the White House hates — has left a vacuum that Seoul and Tokyo are trying to fill. No one thinks this will change North Korea, but perhaps Tokyo and Seoul can advance their interests. Of course, we have interests, too. North Korea is holding hostage at least three U.S. citizens — Kenneth Bae, Matthew Todd Miller, and Jeffrey Edward Fowle.

It’s satisfying to say that we won’t negotiate with such horrible people. It’s certainly unpleasant to imagine sitting down to dinner with Kim’s henchmen. But that’s why we have diplomats (and, well, Dennis Rodman). North Korea is an egregious violator of human rights armed with nuclear weapons — but since we are not willing to use force to fix that little inconvenience, we have to talk to them.

Which brings us back to our globe-trotting secretary of state. Here’s the thing: This is one case where frequent flyer diplomacy can be very helpful. The North Koreans have long placed special value on high-level summits. That reflects both their desperate craving for legitimacy as well as a political system that centralizes decision-making. The United States and North Korea nearly reached a deal to limit the latter’s ballistic missile programs following a high-level North Korean visit to Washington and a reciprocal Oct. 2000 visit to Pyongyang by then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright. It fell apart when then-President Bill Clinton would not commit to a summit in Pyongyang.

Although North Korea is unlikely to abandon its nuclear weapons or missile programs anytime soon, Pyongyang continues to crave high-level visits. That is why Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has offered to visit Pyongyang. Rather than prattling on about turning up the volume, it’s time for Washington to offer something new: the prospect of a Kerry visit if North Korea resolves the abductee issue with Japan, participates in the Asian Games without incident, and is willing to release the American hostages.

It’s long past time for Washington to put Kerry on a plane.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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