In response to North Korea conducting its second nuclear test, President Obama promised to “take action” in response to North Korea’s “blatant violation of international law.” “By acting in blatant defiance of the United Nations Security Council, North Korea is directly and recklessly challenging the international community,” Obama said in a statement yesterday. ” North Korea’s behavior increases tensions and undermines stability in Northeast Asia. Such provocations will only serve to deepen North Korea’s isolation.”
That was yesterday. Today we learned, “One day after its nuclear test drew angry and widespread condemnation, North Korea continued to defy the international community on Tuesday by test-firing two more short-range missiles,” a South Korean government official said. And according to the Associated Press, “just two weeks ago, the administration’s special envoy for disarmament talks with North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, said during a visit to Asian capitals that ‘everyone is feeling relatively relaxed about where we are at this point in the process.’” It appears as if Mr. Bosworth was a bit optimistic in his assessment.
President Obama’s condemnations of North Korea are predictable; the question is what he will do, in concrete terms, about it. I don’t pretend the answer is easy or obvious. The problem for Obama, though, is that during the campaign, he was the one who implied it was. In one speech, for example, he said this:
And I won’t hesitate to use the power of American diplomacy to stop countries from obtaining these weapons or sponsoring terror. The lesson of the Bush years is that not talking does not work. Go down the list of countries we’ve ignored and see how successful that strategy has been. We haven’t talked to Iran , and they continue to build their nuclear program. We haven’t talked to Syria , and they continue support for terror. We tried not talking to North Korea , and they now have enough material for 6 to 8 more nuclear weapons. It’s time to turn the page on the diplomacy of tough talk and no action. It’s time to turn the page on Washington’s conventional wisdom that agreement must be reached before you meet, that talking to other countries is some kind of reward, and that Presidents can only meet with people who will tell them what they want to hear. President Kennedy said it best: “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.” Only by knowing your adversary can you defeat them or drive wedges between them. As President, I will work with our friend and allies, but I won’t outsource our diplomacy in Tehran to the Europeans, or our diplomacy in Pyongyang to the Chinese. I will do the careful preparation needed, and let these countries know where America stands. They will no longer have the excuse of American intransigence. They will have our terms: no support for terror and no nuclear weapons.
President Obama now has an opportunity to put his vaunted diplomatic skills to work. We have “turned the page” on the past. President Obama can now negotiate to his heart’s content. He can now meet individually and without precondition with Kim Jong Il and other dictators, as he promised he would. He can do all the careful preparation he needs and let North Korea know exactly where America stands. After all, they will no longer have the excuse of American intransigence. And then we will see if the North Korean leader will bend to Obama’s will and personal charm. The early returns aren’t terribly encouraging. According to this report:
Brushing aside the latest international condemnation North Korea repeated its argument that it needed a “nuclear deterrent” because of US aggression. “Our army and people are fully ready for battle … against any reckless US attempt for a pre-emptive attack,” the North’s KCNA news agency said in a editorial released on Tuesday. “The US would be well advised to halt at once its dangerous military moves against the [North Korea] if it wants to escape the lot of a tiger moth, bearing deep in mind that any attempt to make a pre-emptive attack on [North Korea] is little short of inviting a disaster itself.” The North has repeatedly said it needs a deterrent to ward off an attack by the US . Following Monday’s test, North Korea again accused the US of trying to “stifle” it by continuing with what it called the “hostile policy” practiced by the previous administration of George Bush. “The current US administration is following in the footsteps of the previous Bush administration’s reckless policy of militarily stifling North Korea ,” the North’s main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in a commentary.
During the campaign, whenever asked how he would address a thorny foreign policy issue, Mr. Obama invoked the need for diplomacy — first, last, and always. The failure to reach agreement was found in some misunderstanding, some misperception, some problem of communication that could be cleared up by “talking.” Even those of us who don’t rule out the benefits of negotiating were skeptical about Obama’s seemingly limitless faith in it, or the ease with which he seemed to think these problems could be solved. As president, Obama has the perfect opportunity to prove that his approach will work and his precepts are the right ones. But I suspect he’ll learn — as he has with Iraq and the efficacy of surges and Guantanamo Bay and President Bush’s anti-terrorism policies more broadly — that reality has a way of colliding with, and exposing, shallow campaign words. Hopefully Obama will make the necessary adjustments again, as he has in the past.