Reevaluating Obama's North Korean Policy

In this photo released by Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service in Tokyo, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, seated left, meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, seated right, in Pyonggyang, North Korea, on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2009. Others are unidentified. Former US resident Bill Clinton met Tuesday with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il on the first day of a surprise visit to Pyongyang, holding "exhaustive" talks that covered a wide range of topics, state-run media said.(AP Photo/Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service) ** JAPAN OUT **
AP Photo/Korean Central News Agency
Joshua Stanton is an attorney in Washington, D.C.

I've let much of the sturm and drang over the Obama Administration's announcement of a bilateral meeting with the North Koreans pass while I tried to acquire a sense of what this really means, and whether it necessarily suggests that Obama's surprisingly-not-bad North Korea policy is going to revert to something weaker, something ironically like the policy George W. Bush ultimately delegated to Christopher Hill, now our ambassador in a sleepy backwater called Baghdad, and which failed so completely to achieve American interests.

Objectively, there's no denying that thus far, the Obama policy toward North Korea has defied all expectations and proven much tougher than Bush's. Kim Jong Il forced Obama's hand, of course, with his springtime provocations. The policy we have now may indeed be too good to last - as a habit, I never overestimate the U.S. Department of State - but this announcement doesn't necessarily signal a change.

My sense of this latest announcement from the Administration - and that sense is based in part on what the State Department is saying in public (see below the fold here) and how the South Koreans are reacting - is that this may not mean much of a change at all. It may mean much less than what the Administration continues to do behind the scenes, which is to impose some fairly tough sanctions on North Korea's arms trade, and more importantly, on the illicit income that finances Kim Jong Il's palace economy. Once we recognize talks with North Korea for the non-issue they really are, then we can shift our focus to things that matter, like following the money. On that account, this Administration has adopted many of the tough measures I was certain he would not. Last summer alone, Treasury issued a global money laundering alert against North Korea, sanctioned a North Korean bank for dealing with Iran, and sanctioned Iranian entities for dealing with North Korea, moves that essentially cut those entities off from the international financial system, and which will drive bankers and investors to sever their connections with the North. More sanctions were announced just this month. The financial connections we are finally attacking in earnest finance North Korea's military, inner party, and Kim Jong Il's own opulence. Obama's people appear to understand that Bush and Hill made a grave error when they relaxed similar sanctions and threw away this key leverage in 2007, and that's a mistake they at least say they don't intend to repeat.

The Obama Administration earns no such credit for its non-response to North Korea's atrocities against its own subjects, including its horrific chain of concentration camps. Taken in the context of North Korea's negligent homicide of the 2.5 million people it allowed to starve to death, these may well comprise the greatest ongoing crime against humanity anywhere on earth. Recent reports suggest that conditions for the North Korean people, if that is possible, only continue to deteriorate. At this post, for example, I located and published the first satellite images of a camp reported by defectors, where refugees repatriated by China are now being worked and starved to death in increased numbers. How the Administration responds to this, or fails to, will tell us much about whether it grasps the fundamental pathology that drives this regime to confront, to oppress, and to take the lives of those within its grasp. In the end, it is the absence of influence and information that make North Korea such a policy challenge. We've failed to address that challenge because our efforts to influence North Korea have focused on the regime itself and disregarded the direct pursuit of influence with the North Korean people.

Conservatives have opposed bilateral talks with North Korea and insisted that talks be in a multilateral forum for various good reasons, though some of them may have been more valid in 2002 than they are now. These include the risks that (a) North Korea wants them for prestige and other reasons, (b) it furthers North Korea's divide-and-extort strategy, and (c) because we get stuck paying most of the extortion. The big test of the multilateral concept was the six-party talks that George W. Bush insisted on while he was being denounced as a unilateralist by just about everyone, including the South Korean government which was thereby suggesting that it should be cut out of the discussion. But if North Korea isn't serious about disarming at any table, notwithstanding its shape, isn't the point moot? It's really not the talks themselves we fear, of course; it's what they might lead to that we fear. I believe that fear is healthy, but I don't think it's necessarily justified … yet.

Let's unpack the conservative argument on bilateral talks, point by point. Point (a) looks rather moot when Kim Jong Il can snap his fingers, summon Bill Clinton, and (despite Clinton's denials) engage in substantive discussions just weeks after a nuke test. Bush himself was willing to subvert the process by sending Chris Hill to talk to the North Koreans on the sidelines of the 6PT, or by meeting them in Berlin, or via the so-called "New York channel." The sheer abundance of bilateral talks during the Bush Administration suggests that what Obama is doing now is hardly a departure from past practice. Posing with Special Envoy Stephen Bosworth, a part-time envoy and professor at Tufts University, isn't going to raise anyone's stature (except mine, maybe). Bosworth lacks a deep political or diplomatic background, and he bears a rather striking resemblance to Larry "Bud" Mehlman. Obama's people are insisting that these talks are only about returning to multilateral talks, and so far, nothing I see contradicts that message.

Point (b) is about keeping a united front with the South Koreans and Japanese. This is indeed a very important point, but the six-party formula hasn't always advanced the goal of preventing China, South Korea, and Russia from double-dealing us. The South Koreans and the Chinese in particular continued talking to the North Koreans, supplying them with aid, undermining sanctions, propping up the regime, and generally giving them every reason not to take the talks seriously throughout Bush's presidency, despite his increasingly superficial insistence on a multilateral forum. Eventually, Bush's jarring accession to Agreed Framework II would be seen as a total surprise and betrayal by the Japanese, and it would leave the South Koreans looking at us with a blend of dismay and pity. The damage to America's position in Japan from that reversal is probably still considerable. The key, then, is not so much who is present but what is said, and how closely we coordinate with nations that are (for the moment) allied to us before we agree to any concessions of substance. I'm not hearing either through published sources, or through at least one well-connected contact, that the South Koreans are panicking about this. Yes, they're probably wary, but so far, they seem to be taking the Obama Administration's "talks-about-talks" line at face value. For the moment, I'm more worried that North Korea will find a weak link in Japan's new Prime Minister, and as I predicted, they're probing for one.

Point (c) is a based on the pattern of 1994, but since then, we've seen that China and South Korea were willing and able to keep Kim Jong Il alive and supplied with luxuries and arms without much contribution from us. The problem isn't really avoiding the bill; the problem is keeping other nations from undermining the pressure that will be necessary to achieving disarmament.

Where this leaves me is that the shape of the table matters much less than what's said over it, and what's passed under it. Throughout the entire Bush presidency, we adhered to the facade of a "united front" strategy while every one of the other parties, save Japan, was double-crossing us. Frankly, a united front might be an easier thing to hold together if there were some more mutuality in the fear of betrayal by those who hadn't previously feared the consequences of betraying us.

If talks are going nowhere anyway, then, the focus shouldn't be about talks at all. Yes, talks have cosmetic value for those who still fail, for a variety of reasons, to understand this. But I don't know of a single intelligent person in or out of government who really believes the North Koreans will ever keep an agreement to disarm without being brought to the brink of regime collapse (or, for that matter, beyond it). The focus should instead be on financial and political pressure on the regime itself, and thus, the most important thing is to keep the Chinese, Russians, South Koreans, and Japanese from undermining that pressure.

We have levers against each of those countries that will allow us to do that, but what matters is that so far, the Administration shows no signs of relaxing the economic pressure prematurely. And if the message Stephen Bosworth carries to the North Koreans is "disarm or prepare for extinction," I don't see how we've done ourselves much harm.
By Joshua Stanton:
Reprinted with permission from The New Ledger.