Commentary Magazine


Topic: North Korea

Reform Conservatism, Foreign Policy, and Epistemic Closure

The rise of the “reformicons”–reform conservatives–is one of the more encouraging developments in the conservative movement’s introspection during its time (mostly) in the wilderness. It hasn’t said much on foreign policy, however, a fact which Ross Douthat mentions in a post on the subject. But Douthat–generally one of the sharpest policy minds in the commentariat–makes a crucial, and inexplicable, mistake: he ignores the debate taking place on the right, rather than joining it, and then wonders where the debate is.

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The rise of the “reformicons”–reform conservatives–is one of the more encouraging developments in the conservative movement’s introspection during its time (mostly) in the wilderness. It hasn’t said much on foreign policy, however, a fact which Ross Douthat mentions in a post on the subject. But Douthat–generally one of the sharpest policy minds in the commentariat–makes a crucial, and inexplicable, mistake: he ignores the debate taking place on the right, rather than joining it, and then wonders where the debate is.

In making the case for the necessity of an expanded debate on foreign policy, Douthat references two prominent paleocons, a left-wing opinion writer, and the “Israel Lobby” conspiracist Andrew Sullivan, none of whom has a fresh or coherent take on GOP foreign policy. In his one exception, he briefly mentions his coauthor Reihan Salam, a self-described neoconservative, but quickly insists that Salam’s worldview is “highly idiosyncratic, and takes as a given that the Iraq invasion was a folly”–in other words, he’s far enough removed from what Douthat refers to as “Cheneyism.”

I have a few thoughts. The first is that, if I conducted a discussion on domestic-policy reform conservatism while excluding actual reform conservatives, how informative do you suppose that would be? The second is, Douthat worries about affiliation with identifiably neoconservative and hawkish organizations, which presumably is why he doesn’t even mention our own Pete Wehner, himself one of the prominent reformicons.

And that leads to the third point, which is closely related. I understand the realist right’s desire to see their own policy preferences reflected in the Republican Party’s agenda. And I welcome them to the debate many of us are already having, regardless of the mistakes I think they made. For example, the realist approach to Russia has been a complete and total failure–one with consequences. The realist fantasy of strongman-stability in the Middle East is currently in flames, with the death toll rising (and rising and rising). The realist take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as we see, is disastrous, etc. But I’m happy for the realists to finally be engaging this debate, and I’m not interested in putting them in cherem just because they’ve been wrong as often as they have.

If you can’t name any hawks you’ve been reading on the subject, perhaps you haven’t been reading enough hawks. So let me do some outreach. Here at COMMENTARY, we’ve been having this debate for years, and it continues. Here, for example, is John Agresto–who served in the Bush administration in Iraq–critiquing the policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East and Central Asia. The article is followed by Abe Greenwald’s response. It’s a thoughtful debate on the relationship between democracy and liberalism and the thorny issue of culture.

More recently, here is my essay on the war on terror in which I engage the criticism of it from all sides–left, right, and center, and offer my own critique of some of the right’s approach to the war on terror. Here is Joshua Muravchik on “Neoconservatives and the Arab Spring.” Those are broad topics, and perhaps reformicons would like discussions with specific relevance to current debates. Should we arm the Syrian rebels? Here is Michael Rubin arguing no; here is Max Boot arguing yes. Here is Pete Wehner on nonintervention and global instability. Here is Michael Auslin on Ukraine and North Korea; Jamie Kirchick on Russia; Jonathan Foreman on Afghanistan.

I could go on. And it’s certainly not just here at COMMENTARY either. I realize that none of the links I’ve offered are in themselves a complete blueprint for a foreign-policy agenda. But neither is vague nostalgia for the days of James Baker. (Reform conservatives looking to shake things up by revivifying the administration of George H.W. Bush because they’re unhappy with the administration of George W. Bush is no more groundbreaking or creative than those on the right who just repeat the word “Reagan” over and over again–which, by the way, includes the realists’ beloved Rand Paul.)

My point in here is that there has been an ongoing debate, assessment, and reassessment of conservative internationalism, neoconservative foreign policy, and interventionist strategy on the right. If conservative reformers truly want a debate, they’ll need to engage the arguments already taking place instead of talking amongst themselves about the conservative movement’s hawkish establishment.

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Time to Give Iran the Human-Rights Test

I’m not necessarily opposed to diplomacy with rogue regimes, but the idea that “it never hurts to talk,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Undersecretary Nicholas Burns, and Bush-era Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage have said is simply false. In my book, I chronicle the costs of engaging rogue regimes so at least policymakers can enter into negotiations with eyes wide open rather than simply assume their outreach is cost-free.

Whether in Clinton and Bush’s outreach to North Korea, Obama’s diplomacy with the Taliban, Reagan’s engagement with Saddam’s Iraq, or today with regard to Iran, diplomats often dispense with human rights in order to suffer no impediment in their drive to deal-making. The current flourish of nuclear deal-making, after all, had its roots in the Critical Dialogue initiated by German foreign minister Klaus Kinkel in 1993. The “critical” portion of that dialogue, European diplomats explained, was because Europe would tie tough discussion of human rights with nuclear talks and trade. Of course, it was just a matter of months before the Europeans dispensed with the critical aspect of their dialogue and nearly tripled trade. Iran took that hard currency windfall and invested it in their nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Obama is different. Or at least he says he is. Both he and John Kerry have colored their careers with flowery rhetoric about human rights. The question is whether they consider such lip service to human rights and religious freedom merely props in their now-fulfilled quest for power.  

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I’m not necessarily opposed to diplomacy with rogue regimes, but the idea that “it never hurts to talk,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Undersecretary Nicholas Burns, and Bush-era Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage have said is simply false. In my book, I chronicle the costs of engaging rogue regimes so at least policymakers can enter into negotiations with eyes wide open rather than simply assume their outreach is cost-free.

Whether in Clinton and Bush’s outreach to North Korea, Obama’s diplomacy with the Taliban, Reagan’s engagement with Saddam’s Iraq, or today with regard to Iran, diplomats often dispense with human rights in order to suffer no impediment in their drive to deal-making. The current flourish of nuclear deal-making, after all, had its roots in the Critical Dialogue initiated by German foreign minister Klaus Kinkel in 1993. The “critical” portion of that dialogue, European diplomats explained, was because Europe would tie tough discussion of human rights with nuclear talks and trade. Of course, it was just a matter of months before the Europeans dispensed with the critical aspect of their dialogue and nearly tripled trade. Iran took that hard currency windfall and invested it in their nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Obama is different. Or at least he says he is. Both he and John Kerry have colored their careers with flowery rhetoric about human rights. The question is whether they consider such lip service to human rights and religious freedom merely props in their now-fulfilled quest for power.  

May 14 marked the sixth anniversary of the imprisonment of seven Baha’i leaders in Iran. Their plight is an issue I covered often in the years before I started writing for COMMENTARY. To mark the anniversary, Bahá’ís of the United States and a host of other religious organizations including the American Jewish Committee, the American Islamic Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Baptist World Alliance have sent a letter to Kerry which reads in part:

May 14 will mark the sixth anniversary of the imprisonment of the seven members of the former ad hoc leadership group of the Bahá’ís of Iran… As governments and human rights organizations have attested, their imprisonment is for no other reason than their membership in the Bahá’í Faith and their service to the Bahá’í community… They were convicted on a number of charges, including espionage, propaganda activities against the Islamic order, acting against the security of the country, and corruption on earth – all of which they categorically denied… Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, over 200 Bahá’ís have been killed, the majority by execution, and thousands have been imprisoned. Bahá’ís are denied government jobs and business licenses, and are excluded from university. Their marriages are not recognized, their cemeteries are desecrated, and their holy places have been destroyed…

Mr. Secretary, the gross mistreatment of the Yaran [imprisoned Bahá’í leadership] and the severe and systematic state-sponsored persecution of the Bahá’ís is emblematic of a deteriorating human rights situation in Iran. In addition to Bahá’ís, other religious minorities, including Christians, Sufis, and Sunnis face persecution; ethnic minorities are repressed; journalists are jailed; lawyers and other human rights defenders are targeted; and executions are on the rise. We are deeply concerned about religious freedom and human rights in Iran. We ask you to call for the release of the Yaran and all prisoners of conscience in Iran, and to speak out for the fundamental rights of all citizens of Iran.

Demanding the release of the Baha’i leaders is the perfect opportunity for Kerry to determine Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s sincerity and his ability to deliver, especially because both Obama and Kerry imagine Rouhani as some sort of Iranian Deng Xiaoping. But if Rouhani isn’t able to release seven Baha’i, then how can they be so sure he will be able to stand up to the supreme leader, the Principalist faction, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to deliver on a nuclear deal, even if Rouhani were sincere? It’s time for a test of Iranian intentions, and if that test results in freedom and liberty for prisoners of faith and conscience, all the better.

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Assessing John Kerry

Almost all secretaries of state believe they shine but for most, their legacy is at best basic competence. Amidst all their ceremonial trips, with hindsight it is clear that for the majority, their legacy is simply to have done no harm. This certainly would be the case for Hillary Clinton, a woman who famously cannot name her accomplishments as secretary, as well as Bush-era secretaries Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Rice’s whole strategy was to make no waves and while Powell’s detractors point to his speech before the United Nations laying out the rationale for war against Iraq, that was less his initiative than the consensus policy of the Bush administration. Warren Christopher’s tenure was largely forgettable, and his successor Madeleine Albright was likewise just a manager. While I disagree with them on many issues, James Baker and Henry Kissinger set themselves apart, although for Baker, his success may have been less because of personal abilities and more the result of being in the right place at the right time.

Secretary of State John Kerry may be the exception: He has defined himself as a truly lousy secretary of state, with almost everything he touches turning to vinegar: The Middle East peace process is in shambles. Had Kerry simply ignored the process, the hurdles facing the two sides would be less. And, because of some ill-chosen and self-defeating words, there is virtually no choice to revive such talks under Kerry. While Vladimir Putin is the villain when it comes to the situation in Eastern Europe, the reverberations which the United States will feel for the impotency under Kerry’s watch will be felt for years to come. Libya continues to disintegrate; the Egyptians remain furious at American waffling; freedom-seeking Venezuelans wonder what American silence means; Argentina salivates over the Falklands; and a whole host of allies from Japan and South Korea to the Philippines and Indonesia fear what American weakness means in East Asia.

The Iran deal seems to be shaping up to be predicated on a willingness to sacrifice its substance rather than to win an agreement that bolsters regional or national security. Regardless, it’s hard to count as a success an agreement that has yet to be struck, especially with Tehran’s penchant for throwing a last-minute wrench into the cogs.

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Almost all secretaries of state believe they shine but for most, their legacy is at best basic competence. Amidst all their ceremonial trips, with hindsight it is clear that for the majority, their legacy is simply to have done no harm. This certainly would be the case for Hillary Clinton, a woman who famously cannot name her accomplishments as secretary, as well as Bush-era secretaries Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Rice’s whole strategy was to make no waves and while Powell’s detractors point to his speech before the United Nations laying out the rationale for war against Iraq, that was less his initiative than the consensus policy of the Bush administration. Warren Christopher’s tenure was largely forgettable, and his successor Madeleine Albright was likewise just a manager. While I disagree with them on many issues, James Baker and Henry Kissinger set themselves apart, although for Baker, his success may have been less because of personal abilities and more the result of being in the right place at the right time.

Secretary of State John Kerry may be the exception: He has defined himself as a truly lousy secretary of state, with almost everything he touches turning to vinegar: The Middle East peace process is in shambles. Had Kerry simply ignored the process, the hurdles facing the two sides would be less. And, because of some ill-chosen and self-defeating words, there is virtually no choice to revive such talks under Kerry. While Vladimir Putin is the villain when it comes to the situation in Eastern Europe, the reverberations which the United States will feel for the impotency under Kerry’s watch will be felt for years to come. Libya continues to disintegrate; the Egyptians remain furious at American waffling; freedom-seeking Venezuelans wonder what American silence means; Argentina salivates over the Falklands; and a whole host of allies from Japan and South Korea to the Philippines and Indonesia fear what American weakness means in East Asia.

The Iran deal seems to be shaping up to be predicated on a willingness to sacrifice its substance rather than to win an agreement that bolsters regional or national security. Regardless, it’s hard to count as a success an agreement that has yet to be struck, especially with Tehran’s penchant for throwing a last-minute wrench into the cogs.

Perhaps the only success to which Kerry can point is the deal for Syria to forfeit its chemical-weapons arsenal, never mind that a cynic could see the precedent as rogue leaders getting a free shot to kill 1,400 civilians before coming in from the cold. In recent weeks, however, even that deal appears to be less than meets the eye. Last month, the Syrian regime apparently again used chemical weapons, an incident blogged about at the time and an attack subsequently acknowledged by the State Department, even if the State Department spokesman declined to assess blame.

Subsequently, the Brown Moses Blog, which tends to be the most careful and credible open source resource on Syrian chemical weapons, has posted video outlining claims of a new attack in Al-Tamanah. While the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) says Syria has complied with the removal or disposal of Syrian chemical material, it is important to remember that is based on what Syria has declared, and there is no way of knowing whether it includes all Syrian chemical munitions. Meanwhile, the OPCW has concluded “sizeable and unambiguous traces of chlorine and ammonia” in the aftermath of apparent regime attacks on civilians in northern Syria. And so, while Kerry celebrates, Syrians suffocate.

Let us hope that Kerry can redeem himself. But if there’s one lesson he might learn as he assesses his tenure so far, it’s that he isn’t the center of the world and desire and rhetoric aren’t enough to win success. Perhaps he might look at his failures and recognize that many problems are more complicated than he—or the staff charged with preparing him—seems to recognize. In the meantime, while he assesses where the United States was diplomatically when he took office and where it is today, he might remember the maxim for doctors could just as easily apply to himself: First, do no harm.

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What China Really Thinks of North Korea

As a kind of secretive hermit state, North Korea clings to its remaining ally in China. Yet the recent leaking of sensitive documents from the Chinese military to the Japanese media might suggest that China has just about had enough of its eccentric friends over the northern border. The documents in question are contingency plans for what is to be done in the event of a collapse of the regime in Pyongyang. Yet, as the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs scholar Jun Okumura told the Daily Telegraph, such plans have likely existed for years: their leakage now may be significant. After all, the People’s Liberation Army of China is a pretty tightly run ship, and would-be leakers might think twice about proceeding without a high-ranking green light. Are these contingency plans perhaps more prescriptive than predictive on China’s part?

The leaked documents may reveal more about China’s own outlook than about a likely trajectory of future events. Of course we know so little about what is really going on in North Korean society that these things are difficult to predict, but if a North Korean spring were to burst forth now, it is fair to say that most would be caught off guard. Still, the Chinese report seems to envisage that the regime might collapse on account of outside intervention of some kind, presumably on the part of the United States. If China really imagines that this could happen anytime soon then it is simply projecting its own paranoia. Ever since the West foolishly let the North Koreans pass the nuclear threshold in around 2003, America’s appetite for intervention there fell below the already non-existent levels seen prior to that point. And while the Obama administration may have spoken of pivoting toward Asia, a war with North Korea was surely not what the president had in mind.  

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As a kind of secretive hermit state, North Korea clings to its remaining ally in China. Yet the recent leaking of sensitive documents from the Chinese military to the Japanese media might suggest that China has just about had enough of its eccentric friends over the northern border. The documents in question are contingency plans for what is to be done in the event of a collapse of the regime in Pyongyang. Yet, as the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs scholar Jun Okumura told the Daily Telegraph, such plans have likely existed for years: their leakage now may be significant. After all, the People’s Liberation Army of China is a pretty tightly run ship, and would-be leakers might think twice about proceeding without a high-ranking green light. Are these contingency plans perhaps more prescriptive than predictive on China’s part?

The leaked documents may reveal more about China’s own outlook than about a likely trajectory of future events. Of course we know so little about what is really going on in North Korean society that these things are difficult to predict, but if a North Korean spring were to burst forth now, it is fair to say that most would be caught off guard. Still, the Chinese report seems to envisage that the regime might collapse on account of outside intervention of some kind, presumably on the part of the United States. If China really imagines that this could happen anytime soon then it is simply projecting its own paranoia. Ever since the West foolishly let the North Koreans pass the nuclear threshold in around 2003, America’s appetite for intervention there fell below the already non-existent levels seen prior to that point. And while the Obama administration may have spoken of pivoting toward Asia, a war with North Korea was surely not what the president had in mind.  

While China would no doubt fiercely resent any Western intervention in what it views as its sphere of influence, it may well be the case that the Chinese are also growing weary of the Kims and the weird brand of Stalinism-meets-Medieval-absolutist-monarchy that they keep ticking over in North Korea. If the North Koreans have now become too unpredictable and are viewed by Beijing as a likely source of instability in the region, then it could well be that these contingency plans are essentially wishful thinking on the part of a China just about ready to be rid of North Korea. Indeed, ahead of a widely anticipated nuclear test by the North Koreans, the Chinese have released a statement expressing a clear tone of disapproval. It has also been reported that China refused to transfer oil supplies to the North Koreans during the first three months of this year.

The contingency plans drawn up by the Chinese include the anticipation of large numbers of refugees fleeing over the North Korean border, but also preparations for creating some kind of internment camp for North Korea’s leadership. Hardly the most friendly of moves, although it would appear that such a plan is as much driven by concerns about preventing the country’s former rulers from falling into foreign hands as by the desire to ensure that the ruling clique couldn’t continue to wage long-term civil war Assad-style.

For the moment it seems that China is simply planning to monitor its border with North Korea still more closely than it already does. Regardless of whether or not the leaking of these contingency plans was instructed from higher up, they certainly provide a window into Chinese thinking on North Korea. A collapse of North Korea’s government may not appear quite imminent, nor is it so easy to imagine outside intervention in the way that the Chinese report would seem to. What these contingency plans do expose, however, is a growing Chinese disinterest in preserving the regime ruling North Korea at the present. 

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The President Sees a Different Reality in Northeast Asia

Peter’s take on President Obama’s retreat from reality on the consequences of Russia’s annexation of Crimea is paralleled in Northeast Asia. On the plus side, the president’s team should be given lots of credit for getting Japan’s prime minister and South Korea’s president to sit down together for a trilateral meeting. America’s two closest allies in Asia have barely been on speaking terms the past year. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has consistently refused overtures from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to meet, claiming that until Tokyo fully owns up to its wartime atrocities, deals fully with the comfort women issue, and clamps down on revisionist textbooks, there is no reason for full-fledged talks. Abe’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine last December put ties into the deep freeze, until this week.

In Brussels, the president managed to break through this reluctance, at least for one day. South Korea’s Park, in particular, may well have felt dragged into the meeting, while Japan’s Abe clearly saw it as a diplomatic victory. There was little substantive achievement from the trilateral gathering, at least based on media reports, but at this point, having Park and Abe actually sit in the same room was a big achievement.

Yet in the press conference afterwards, President Obama made an almost bizarre statement that redounds to Peter’s observation with regard to Russia. The president was quoted as saying, “Over the last five years, close coordination between our three countries succeeded in changing the game with North Korea…”

That is a completely different view of reality than most observers of Northeast Asia have. To be charitable, the president may merely have been talking about getting closer trilateral “response” in the event of future North Korean provocation, but even that was left completely undefined and vague.

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Peter’s take on President Obama’s retreat from reality on the consequences of Russia’s annexation of Crimea is paralleled in Northeast Asia. On the plus side, the president’s team should be given lots of credit for getting Japan’s prime minister and South Korea’s president to sit down together for a trilateral meeting. America’s two closest allies in Asia have barely been on speaking terms the past year. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has consistently refused overtures from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to meet, claiming that until Tokyo fully owns up to its wartime atrocities, deals fully with the comfort women issue, and clamps down on revisionist textbooks, there is no reason for full-fledged talks. Abe’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine last December put ties into the deep freeze, until this week.

In Brussels, the president managed to break through this reluctance, at least for one day. South Korea’s Park, in particular, may well have felt dragged into the meeting, while Japan’s Abe clearly saw it as a diplomatic victory. There was little substantive achievement from the trilateral gathering, at least based on media reports, but at this point, having Park and Abe actually sit in the same room was a big achievement.

Yet in the press conference afterwards, President Obama made an almost bizarre statement that redounds to Peter’s observation with regard to Russia. The president was quoted as saying, “Over the last five years, close coordination between our three countries succeeded in changing the game with North Korea…”

That is a completely different view of reality than most observers of Northeast Asia have. To be charitable, the president may merely have been talking about getting closer trilateral “response” in the event of future North Korean provocation, but even that was left completely undefined and vague.

More directly, however, the president seems to be ignoring that young dictator Kim Jong-un appears to be even more unpredictable and uncontrollable than his late father. Kim has purged his father’s officials, executing the former No. 2 official, who also happened to be his uncle. While the president was speaking, Kim was firing off medium-range ballistic missiles. He has already conducted a nuclear test and tested a long-range ballistic missile, in addition to breaking his one agreement with the Obama administration. Pyongyang’s rhetoric is as bellicose as ever, if not more so. I defy the president to find one knowledgeable observer outside his administration who believes America has “changed the game” with North Korea since 2009.

The same can be said for the president’s continued belief that China is somehow a partner of the United States. After meeting with President Xi Jinping of China in Brussels, the president again stated that the two sides are creating a “new model” of relations between Washington and Beijing. The new model increasingly seems to be one where China tries to revise international norms, supports destabilizing actors, and coerces its neighbors, while the United States does its best to ignore such actions. That would include such things as declaring an intrusive air defense identification zone over part of the East China Sea, violating Japan’s territorial waters, preventing the Philippines from resupplying troops on claimed territory in the South China Sea, supporting North Korea, and preventing stronger action on Iran, among others.

Diplomacy often requires saying untrue things in service of a greater cause, but no cause is helped by pretending that things are what they are not. After five years, it would be more reassuring to see the president humbled and frustrated by his lack of progress in dealing with North Korea or in making China a more constructive actor on the world stage. Assertions of a parallel reality either are boilerplate to be ignored or reveal a worrisome lack of understanding of actual trends. In either case, they also abet the continued uncertainty and sense of insecurity that is increasing risk throughout East Asia.

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Another Such Isolation and We Are Undone

Secretary of State Kerry held a town hall yesterday, delivering remarks to students on “Making Foreign Policy Less Foreign” and then taking questions. The last question came from a woman named “Yulia,” a University of Georgia student originally from Kiev in Ukraine. She was disturbed by the rise in Putin’s approval ratings and the inability to inform the Russian public of the facts relating to Ukraine: 

QUESTION: … Given [Putin’s] policy in Ukraine, that’s frankly a little bit terrifying. And the fact that I heard the other day a statistic that only about 11 percent of Russians have regular access to the internet also makes it difficult for us to give them any other kind of message besides what they’re hearing from the likes of Dmitry Kiselev and (inaudible) and the kind of just nasty propaganda that’s being told about us.   

SECRETARY KERRY: … you’re right; [Putin's] approval ratings have gone up significantly. They’re at 70 percent or something. Everybody’s feeling great about flexing their muscles about this, quote, “achievement,” as they put it. But in the end, I think it’s going to be very costly if they continue to go down that kind of a road. Because it will wind up – I mean, the vote in the United Nations on a resolution the other day about this was 13 in favor of the resolution; one abstention, China; and one no, Russia. I call that isolation. [Emphasis added].  

I call it an un-adopted UN resolution. In UN parlance, the “no” from Russia was a “veto.” 

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Secretary of State Kerry held a town hall yesterday, delivering remarks to students on “Making Foreign Policy Less Foreign” and then taking questions. The last question came from a woman named “Yulia,” a University of Georgia student originally from Kiev in Ukraine. She was disturbed by the rise in Putin’s approval ratings and the inability to inform the Russian public of the facts relating to Ukraine: 

QUESTION: … Given [Putin’s] policy in Ukraine, that’s frankly a little bit terrifying. And the fact that I heard the other day a statistic that only about 11 percent of Russians have regular access to the internet also makes it difficult for us to give them any other kind of message besides what they’re hearing from the likes of Dmitry Kiselev and (inaudible) and the kind of just nasty propaganda that’s being told about us.   

SECRETARY KERRY: … you’re right; [Putin's] approval ratings have gone up significantly. They’re at 70 percent or something. Everybody’s feeling great about flexing their muscles about this, quote, “achievement,” as they put it. But in the end, I think it’s going to be very costly if they continue to go down that kind of a road. Because it will wind up – I mean, the vote in the United Nations on a resolution the other day about this was 13 in favor of the resolution; one abstention, China; and one no, Russia. I call that isolation. [Emphasis added].  

I call it an un-adopted UN resolution. In UN parlance, the “no” from Russia was a “veto.” 

The Obama administration prides itself on “isolating” U.S. adversaries. (1) North Korea: last year, after its third nuclear test, following a ballistic missile launch two months before, President Obama issued a written statement calling it “a highly provocative act” that violated numerous UN resolutions and agreements and threatened U.S. and international security, declaring North Korea “increasingly isolated.” (2) Syria: during the third 2012 presidential debate, Obama declared: “What we’ve done is organize the international community, saying Assad has to go. We’ve mobilized sanctions against that government. We have made sure that they are isolated.” (3) Iran: Obama declared at a 2012 press conference, “When I came into office, Iran was unified, on the move, had made substantial progress on its nuclear program … [currently] Iran is politically isolated.”

Now Russia joins the list: it is supposedly isolated because of an un-adopted UN resolution. 

They are laughing at the American president in North Korea, Syria, Iran, and Russia (literally in the latter case): do not cross President Obama, or he might “isolate” you. Meanwhile, the nuclear tests, ICBM launches, civilian massacres (using only conventional weapons), centrifuge whirrings, and cross-border military moves go on, undeterred by past or prospective Obama “isolations.”

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The Reverberations of American Weakness

Myopia is epidemic in Washington, and always has been. So too is compartmentalization. When a crisis occurs in Syria, anyone who’s anyone within government stumbles over themselves to get into the crisis meetings, and everything else falls off the radar screen. Two months ago, if someone in government called a meeting about Crimea, perhaps two or three people would show up, and one of them would be an intern hoping to avoid Xerox duty; today, any Crimea meeting would be packed. Those in the meetings will look at the immediate next steps for U.S. policy with regard to the immediate belligerents, but discussion does not go broader.

The real world is the polar opposite. What happens in Crimea doesn’t stay in Crimea. In 1994, Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum. In short, Russia recognized Ukrainian sovereignty over Crimea, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons, and the United States and Great Britain offered Ukraine security guarantees. In hindsight, only the Ukrainians kept their promise; everyone else broke their pledge.

The problem is not simply potential Russian aggressiveness against former Soviet states like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Moldova, but rather the notion that U.S. and European security guarantees are meaningless: Russia invaded a sovereign state and Obama reacted by putting Russian President Vladimir Putin on the diplomatic equivalent of double-secret probation. Rogue states and America’s adversaries do not ignore the world around them. In Dancing With the Devil, I document how Iranian negotiators treat North Korea as an example to replicate, not a rogue to condemn. So, where might the next crisis be?

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Myopia is epidemic in Washington, and always has been. So too is compartmentalization. When a crisis occurs in Syria, anyone who’s anyone within government stumbles over themselves to get into the crisis meetings, and everything else falls off the radar screen. Two months ago, if someone in government called a meeting about Crimea, perhaps two or three people would show up, and one of them would be an intern hoping to avoid Xerox duty; today, any Crimea meeting would be packed. Those in the meetings will look at the immediate next steps for U.S. policy with regard to the immediate belligerents, but discussion does not go broader.

The real world is the polar opposite. What happens in Crimea doesn’t stay in Crimea. In 1994, Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum. In short, Russia recognized Ukrainian sovereignty over Crimea, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons, and the United States and Great Britain offered Ukraine security guarantees. In hindsight, only the Ukrainians kept their promise; everyone else broke their pledge.

The problem is not simply potential Russian aggressiveness against former Soviet states like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Moldova, but rather the notion that U.S. and European security guarantees are meaningless: Russia invaded a sovereign state and Obama reacted by putting Russian President Vladimir Putin on the diplomatic equivalent of double-secret probation. Rogue states and America’s adversaries do not ignore the world around them. In Dancing With the Devil, I document how Iranian negotiators treat North Korea as an example to replicate, not a rogue to condemn. So, where might the next crisis be?

The Korean War initially broke out when Kim Il-song interpreted Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s “Defensive Perimeter” speech as a sign that the United States would no longer defend its ally on the Korean Peninsula. Is there any reason why President Obama believes Kim Jong-un, the dear leader’s grandson and new dear leader, will interpret Obama’s weakness any differently?

Likewise, Putin acted in Ukraine against the backdrop of stagnation in the Russian economy. Whipping up nationalist sentiment seems to have successfully distracted Russians from Putin’s own domestic incompetence. If sparking a crisis can distract from economic woes without fear of reprisal, why shouldn’t the Argentine government make its move against the Falkland Islands? After all, the age of Reagan and Thatcher is over. Israel, too, must recognize that American security guarantees aren’t worth the paper upon which they are written, even if Kerry returns from Geneva waving a paper and boasting that he has Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s signature upon it.

The greatest difference between left and right in America today when it comes to national security is that the left always demonizes power, while the right recognizes that power can be used for good or bad. What Obama and his supporters do not recognize, however, is the reverberations of American weakness. Altruistic powers will not fill the vacuum; dictatorships will. When a Niccolò Machiavelli challenges a Neville Chamberlain, not only will the Chamberlains not win, but death and destruction will follow.

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George W. Bush, Still Living Rent-Free in Their Heads

Remember that time the George W. Bush administration simultaneously invaded Russia, Iran, China, and North Korea? Apparently, according to the New York Times report today on the Obama administration’s foreign-policy readjustment, a former national-security aide to Obama does. The Times’s article is an in-depth look at how the Obama administration’s naïve worldview has shattered on the rocks of reality. Only they don’t know what to replace it with, because they still seem to think they’re running against George Bush.

The guiding principle of Obama administration strategy, to try to figure out what Bush would do and then do the opposite all the while proclaiming moral superiority, has been a flop. But the fact that they still seem to be haunted by their obsession with him is troubling. And yet we get this, from the Times:

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Remember that time the George W. Bush administration simultaneously invaded Russia, Iran, China, and North Korea? Apparently, according to the New York Times report today on the Obama administration’s foreign-policy readjustment, a former national-security aide to Obama does. The Times’s article is an in-depth look at how the Obama administration’s naïve worldview has shattered on the rocks of reality. Only they don’t know what to replace it with, because they still seem to think they’re running against George Bush.

The guiding principle of Obama administration strategy, to try to figure out what Bush would do and then do the opposite all the while proclaiming moral superiority, has been a flop. But the fact that they still seem to be haunted by their obsession with him is troubling. And yet we get this, from the Times:

The White House was taken by surprise by Vladimir V. Putin’s decisions to invade Crimea, but also by China’s increasingly assertive declaration of exclusive rights to airspace and barren islands. Neither the economic pressure nor the cyberattacks that forced Iran to reconsider its approach have prevented North Korea’s stealthy revitalization of its nuclear and missile programs.

Followed by this:

“We’re seeing the ‘light footprint’ run out of gas,” said one of Mr. Obama’s former senior national security aides, who would not speak on the record about his ex-boss.

“No one is arguing for military action, for bringing back George Bush’s chest-thumping,” the former aide said. At the same time, he said, the president’s oft-repeated lines that those who violate international norms will be “isolated” and “pay a heavy price” over the long term have sounded “more like predictions over time, and less like imminent threats.”

I don’t know who the source is obviously; since it’s in the New York Times he or she is anonymous. (How long until Times bylines are also anonymous? And how much would this benefit Tom Friedman?) But I sincerely hope this person’s view isn’t too widely shared among the Obama inner circle.

It was understandable to run against Bush in 2008. He was the sitting president of the other party, and his approval numbers were low. Additionally, the GOP candidate that year, John McCain, was considered even more hawkish than Bush. At the very least, he was more closely associated with the successful “surge” in Iraq than pretty much anyone except the president himself. Obama (who made a prediction on the surge that turned out to be completely and totally wrong) ran on his opposition to the Iraq war. So the contrast between the two candidates was clear, and it made sense for Obama to play up those differences. He felt he was on the right side of public opinion on them.

But that stark contrast had more or less evaporated by Obama’s reelection in 2012. He ran against Mitt Romney, who was certainly tougher on Putin’s Russia (Obama turned out to be wrong there too, as a pattern emerges) but who was otherwise hesitant to run too far to Obama’s right. Obama even used their debates to taunt Romney for being insufficiently bloodthirsty and too hesitant to blow stuff up. Obama ran as the bold assassin. Bin Laden is dead, or haven’t you heard?

More revealing is the fact that Democrats still slamming Bush aren’t actually criticizing Bush, but instead taking aim at the version of Bush they seemed to invent for electoral purposes but ended up believing was real. The power of propaganda can sometimes be most acutely felt by the propagandist. Bush didn’t bomb Iran in response to its nuclear pursuit, or Russia in response to its invasion of Georgia, etc.

And it’s a testament to the incoherence of leftist foreign policy that we’re also reminded of that by the White House–such as when Bush is portrayed as being too naïve for looking into Putin’s eyes and seeing his soul. It’s no wonder the administration has no idea how to respond to the provocations of rogue states: if they want to do the opposite of Bush, but believe Bush is all over the map on policy, what space is left for them?

Not much. The Obama administration has boxed itself in by not giving up its long-stale and outdated campaign rhetoric. It’s disturbing to have to say this in 2014, but it’s time for Democrats still obsessed with Bush to just let it go.

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A Lesson in How to Embolden Aggressors

Yesterday morning on Fox’s America’s Newsroom, Sen. John McCain echoed comments made over the weekend by former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates that Crimea is essentially lost. Even after ticking off a list of things the Obama Administration could do to pressure Vladimir Putin, McCain had to answer in the negative to anchor Bill Hemmer’s question about whether any such actions could reverse the Crimean invasion.

Both McCain and Gates are probably right. They are old-fashioned realists who have incurred the ire of more interventionist conservatives and multilateralist liberals alike. They know that only Putin can unwind the takeover of Crimea, and they are certainly right that there is almost no force that can make him do so, short of a massive military operation by U.S. forces, which is never going to happen. Further, McCain echoed numerous analysts who have warned that Putin is almost certainly setting his eyes on expanding Russian control over eastern Ukraine in due time. Such salami-slicing tactics are a time-honored approach to making aggression seem less threatening that it really is.

Yet while facing such facts may be the only realistic response, it also validates the actions of aggressors and indeed may encourage further opportunism. It is less than two weeks since Russian forces invaded Crimea and the world’s most powerful nation is, in essence, saying, “It’s time to move on.” There are the expected protestations that Washington will do everything possible to ensure that such aggression does not happen again, but such rhetoric is inevitably undercut by the quick acceptance of the fait accompli.

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Yesterday morning on Fox’s America’s Newsroom, Sen. John McCain echoed comments made over the weekend by former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates that Crimea is essentially lost. Even after ticking off a list of things the Obama Administration could do to pressure Vladimir Putin, McCain had to answer in the negative to anchor Bill Hemmer’s question about whether any such actions could reverse the Crimean invasion.

Both McCain and Gates are probably right. They are old-fashioned realists who have incurred the ire of more interventionist conservatives and multilateralist liberals alike. They know that only Putin can unwind the takeover of Crimea, and they are certainly right that there is almost no force that can make him do so, short of a massive military operation by U.S. forces, which is never going to happen. Further, McCain echoed numerous analysts who have warned that Putin is almost certainly setting his eyes on expanding Russian control over eastern Ukraine in due time. Such salami-slicing tactics are a time-honored approach to making aggression seem less threatening that it really is.

Yet while facing such facts may be the only realistic response, it also validates the actions of aggressors and indeed may encourage further opportunism. It is less than two weeks since Russian forces invaded Crimea and the world’s most powerful nation is, in essence, saying, “It’s time to move on.” There are the expected protestations that Washington will do everything possible to ensure that such aggression does not happen again, but such rhetoric is inevitably undercut by the quick acceptance of the fait accompli.

The alternative is just as unpalatable: refusing to acknowledge reality. That is the approach successive administrations have taken in regard to North Korea. By now, it should be obvious that North Korea is a nuclear power. While Pyongyang may not have yet perfected making a weapon out of its nuclear capability, there seems little doubt that it will eventually do so, and then mate a weapon to its intercontinental ballistic missile capability. Yet Washington steadfastly refuses to admit that the North is a nuclear state, since that would open up a Pandora’s box of containment and arms control negotiations that no U.S. administration wants to engage in.

How can it be right to both acknowledge reality and also to refuse to accept it? A risk-averse status quo power, which describes the United States today, has little other choice. Its own track record (Georgia in 2008, Syria since 2012, East China Sea in 2013) proves that it believes it must accommodate itself to unpalatable realities, while pretending that it continues to uphold international order. That is today’s real grand strategy, shared largely by Democrats and Republicans alike. Self-inflicted wounds, like meaningless defense cuts, only exacerbate the fear of over extending itself, of committing to a cause that may charge too high a price.

Perhaps that is indeed the more prudent course of action. But it must inevitably lead to a changed world, one in which the fig leaf of international law can no longer cover the nakedness of great power ambition. It is happening in the world’s three most important regions: Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia. It is a slow process, one that moves in fits and starts, but one that will continue uninterruptedly absent a turn around or collapse of the challenging power. China, Russia, and Iran may all face such a day soon, but until then, they will continue to chip and bite away at the supports of the post-1945 liberal international order. It will alter the international system, most likely in malignant ways, if for no other reason than that no one is prepared seriously to stop it.

 Emboldening such aggressive opportunism seems to be the only coherent policy the liberal world has in this decade.

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Meanwhile in North Korea …

The 2014 “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” presented by national intelligence director James Clapper to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last week had a stunning conclusion regarding Iran, as Tom Wilson and Evelyn Gordon have noted. Clapper told the committee Iran “has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons.” The “central issue” is now “its political will to do so.” In other words, Iran can produce nuclear weapons if it wants; it only needs to decide when. 

The portion of the Clapper report relating to North Korea has been little reported, but it is equally stunning, and it bears on the situation involving Iran. Let’s review what happened in the last three years regarding North Korea, notwithstanding crippling sanctions and a tableful of options. 

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The 2014 “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” presented by national intelligence director James Clapper to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last week had a stunning conclusion regarding Iran, as Tom Wilson and Evelyn Gordon have noted. Clapper told the committee Iran “has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons.” The “central issue” is now “its political will to do so.” In other words, Iran can produce nuclear weapons if it wants; it only needs to decide when. 

The portion of the Clapper report relating to North Korea has been little reported, but it is equally stunning, and it bears on the situation involving Iran. Let’s review what happened in the last three years regarding North Korea, notwithstanding crippling sanctions and a tableful of options. 

The 2011 Assessment stated “we do not know whether [North Korea] has produced nuclear weapons, but we assess it has the capability to do so.” The 2012 Assessment reported “North Korea has produced nuclear weapons.” The 2013 Assessment concluded the North Korean nuclear weapons and missile programs “pose a serious threat to the United States.” The 2014 Assessment states North Korea has expanded its uranium enrichment facility; has restarted its plutonium reactor; has begun fielding its road-mobile ICBM system; is developing long-range missile technology capable of directly threatening the United States; and is making efforts to market ballistic missiles, raising “global security concerns.” 

In other words, between 2011 and 2014, North Korea went from (a) having nuclear-weapons “capability,” to (b) having nuclear weapons, to (c) having weapons and missile programs posing “a serious threat” to the U.S., to (d) starting to sell ballistic missiles across the globe. As North Korea moved steadily to nuclear-weapons capability, then weapons, then missile delivery systems, then global impact, the effect of the unfortunate message to Iran from watching what happened to North Korea (nothing) was entirely predictable.

Back in 2012, when Clapper presented the 2012 Worldwide Threat Assessment to the Senate, he had the following exchange with Sen. Lindsey Graham about Iran: 

SEN. GRAHAM: Do you think they’re building these power plants for peaceful nuclear power generation purposes?

CLAPPER: That remains to be seen.

SEN. GRAHAM: You have doubt about the Iranians’ intention when it comes to making a nuclear weapon?

CLAPPER: Uh-h, I do.  I, I, uh, I –

SEN. GRAHAM: You’re not so sure they’re trying to make a bomb? You doubt whether or not they are trying to create a nuclear bomb?

CLAPPER: I think they are keeping themselves in a position to make that decision, but there are certain things they have not yet done and have not done for some time.

SEN. GRAHAM: How would we know when they have made that decision?

CLAPPER: I am happy to discuss that with you in closed session.

SEN. GRAHAM: Well I guess my point is that I take a different view. I’m very convinced that they’re going down the road of developing a nuclear weapon. I can’t read anyone’s mind, but it seems logical to me that they believe that if they get a nuclear weapon they’ll become North Korea …

Clapper’s 2014 report states “Iran already has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East” and has “the means and motivation to develop longer-range missiles, including an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).” Perhaps Iran is interested in a road-mobile one, or long-range missile technology capable of directly threatening the United States. The report indicates another country–one that in a different era might have been called part of an “axis of evil”–may be willing to help out, if it is not already doing so. 

Meanwhile, the administration purports not to know whether Iran decided to follow the trail blazed by North Korea. We may eventually find out, however, that “Uh-h, I do.  I, I, uh” was simply the least untruthful statement Clapper could make, as the slow-motion Munich proceeded.

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Was Dennis Rodman’s North Korea Diplomacy Wrong?

Dennis Rodman checked into an alcohol rehab center this past week, a source close to the former National Basketball Association star told CNN. The move caps off another bizarre North Korea trip in which Rodman played basketball for North Korea’s murderous ruler, Kim Jong-un, questioned whether imprisoned American pastor Kenneth Bae deserved his 15-year sentence in North Korea and, after apologizing for those remarks, headed off to go skiing in a North Korean resort.

Just about every commentator condemned Rodman’s North Korea spectacle, although Rodman himself and some of the former NBA stars who he brought to Pyongyang defended his “sporting diplomacy.” His agent Darren Prince defended the trip. “People forget Dennis is just an entertainer and retired NBA star… The fact remains that a basketball game was played in North Korea live in front of 14,000 people and hundreds of millions around the world viewed clips of the game.”

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Dennis Rodman checked into an alcohol rehab center this past week, a source close to the former National Basketball Association star told CNN. The move caps off another bizarre North Korea trip in which Rodman played basketball for North Korea’s murderous ruler, Kim Jong-un, questioned whether imprisoned American pastor Kenneth Bae deserved his 15-year sentence in North Korea and, after apologizing for those remarks, headed off to go skiing in a North Korean resort.

Just about every commentator condemned Rodman’s North Korea spectacle, although Rodman himself and some of the former NBA stars who he brought to Pyongyang defended his “sporting diplomacy.” His agent Darren Prince defended the trip. “People forget Dennis is just an entertainer and retired NBA star… The fact remains that a basketball game was played in North Korea live in front of 14,000 people and hundreds of millions around the world viewed clips of the game.”

Make no mistake: Rodman’s North Korea forays do not advance diplomacy; they retard it. They legitimize a barbaric regime, give it free press and propaganda points, and do nothing to break down barriers or create understandings. But, while many commentators are quick to condemn Rodman, they never question why Rodman is wrong but they assume so many other episodes of sporting diplomacy to be right. The State Department celebrates, for example, football friendlies and wrestling exhibitions with Iran and Cuba, but never explains why those events are any different than what Rodman does in Pyongyang.

Many diplomats point to the famous Ping-Pong exhibition with China to justify almost all sporting diplomacy, but there was context to that episode, and it was carefully choreographed by both sides against the backdrop of simultaneous initiatives. As Kissinger notes in his 1979 book White House Years, that iconic moment did not initiate relations but followed months of secret diplomacy. To credit “ping pong diplomacy” with the China breakthrough puts the cart before the horse.

Rodman was wrong. His antics in North Korea were clownish and an embarrassment to the United States. How sad it is, then, that they are not too different in result from much of the other sporting diplomacy which the State Department actually encourages. There is a time and a place for athletic exchanges, but seldom do they accomplish what American diplomats claim. Attending a soccer match might be fun, but it does not resolve the threat posed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, any more than Rodman reduces the menace posed by the dear leader.

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re: Why the Secrecy on the Iran Deal?

Earlier this week, Emanuele Ottolenghi asked “Why the Secrecy” about the Iran deal, a reference to the Obama administration keeping the implementation agreement of the Joint Plan of Action out of the public eye. Ottolenghi is absolutely correct that the desire to keep the agreement secret “will only enhance legitimate suspicions that none of Iran’s concessions are irreversible and that the West volunteered to reduce its own leverage in exchange for vague promises.”

There are many more specific reasons why the State Department leaders want to keep the agreement secret, and a lot of them have to do with learning the wrong lessons from the past. Among other episodes, my new book Dancing with the Devil, a history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, explores Bill Clinton-era diplomacy in depth.

The Clinton administration, of course, considered the 1994 Agreed Framework a great success. After the deal had been signed, Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland noted the difficulty of trusting North Korea, and demanded that Clinton’s team answer three questions:

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Earlier this week, Emanuele Ottolenghi asked “Why the Secrecy” about the Iran deal, a reference to the Obama administration keeping the implementation agreement of the Joint Plan of Action out of the public eye. Ottolenghi is absolutely correct that the desire to keep the agreement secret “will only enhance legitimate suspicions that none of Iran’s concessions are irreversible and that the West volunteered to reduce its own leverage in exchange for vague promises.”

There are many more specific reasons why the State Department leaders want to keep the agreement secret, and a lot of them have to do with learning the wrong lessons from the past. Among other episodes, my new book Dancing with the Devil, a history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, explores Bill Clinton-era diplomacy in depth.

The Clinton administration, of course, considered the 1994 Agreed Framework a great success. After the deal had been signed, Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland noted the difficulty of trusting North Korea, and demanded that Clinton’s team answer three questions:

 (1)   Do they really believe that North Korea has ceased being a backlash state and should therefore be trusted?

(2)   Why did Kim Jong-il do the deal now?

(3)   Won’t it serve as an incentive for other backlashers to pursue nuclear-weapons programs, to get bought off by the United States if for no other reason?

Clinton refused to answer such questions but, by 1997, there was little doubt that the Agreed Framework had failed. The State Department would not accept such findings, though, even when they came from the intelligence community. To do so would invalidate Clinton’s approach. Nicholas Burns, the State Department spokesman (and an avid supporter of Obama’s diplomacy with Iran) declared, “We are absolutely confident … that the agreed framework, put in place two and a half years ago is in place, it’s working. We are absolutely clear that North Korea’s nuclear program has been frozen and will remain frozen.”

When they looked at the facts, the General Accounting Office (GAO) concluded otherwise. In 1999, it reported that it could no longer verify how North Korea distributed or used its food aid. North Korea would allow international monitors to visit only 10 percent of institutions receiving food aid, and regularly blocked inspectors. The State Department refused to accept the GAO findings, though, because to accept them would be to admit North Korean cheating and to undermine the premise of the diplomatic process in which they had already invested too much. Likewise, when the GAO reported that monitoring of heavy fuel oil had gone awry, the State Department informed Congress that they trusted that the regime’s use of the heavy fuel oil was consistent with the Agreed Framework. Like today, Congress was dubious, but the State Department effectively covered up North Korean noncompliance and insisted that the deal was “a concrete success.”

A theme of my book is that the State Department never conducts lessons-learned episodes to determine why certain high-profile diplomatic engagements have failed in order to better execute diplomacy in the future. Perhaps that’s unfair, however. It seems that the State Department has considered what went wrong 15 years ago but, rather than conclude that the original agreement or rogue behavior was the problem, they have determined that too much transparency forces them to answer uncomfortable questions and can empower Congress to demand accountability. That, more than rogue regime cheating, seems to be the State Department’s greatest concern. Simply put, a secret agreement is necessary, in diplomats’ eyes, in order to ensure that cheating, violations, and insincerity don’t sidetrack the continuation of the diplomatic process.

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Take Claims of Diplomatic Progress with a Grain of Salt

The White House is denying that talks over the technicalities of the Iranian nuclear deal have broken down, never mind that diplomats have so far been unable to resolve differences regarding Iran’s nuclear centrifuge research and so the preliminary deal announced late last year has yet to take effect. “The P5+1 and Iran made progress in our discussions regarding the implementation of the Joint Plan of Action over the past several weeks,” White House National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan assured the Washington Free Beacon when it asked about the state of negotiations, given that negotiators had gone home absent an agreement.

Talk of progress might be reassuring, but it is important for outside observers to take them with a grain of salt. While conducting research for my forthcoming book about the history of diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, I went through decades of State Department and National Security Council briefings regarding high-stakes diplomacy with North Korea, Iran, and the Palestinian Authority. With the benefit of time, I was also able to compare the statements of the diplomatic briefers with their declassified notes and intelligence regarding what actually had occurred. Seldom did claims of progress actually correlate to progress. Nor had the State Department developed metrics before beginning talks to chart their progress. Rather, the State Department often claims progress not to describe the results of negotiations, but instead to protect the institutional interest of continuing talks and a process in which politicians have invested.

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The White House is denying that talks over the technicalities of the Iranian nuclear deal have broken down, never mind that diplomats have so far been unable to resolve differences regarding Iran’s nuclear centrifuge research and so the preliminary deal announced late last year has yet to take effect. “The P5+1 and Iran made progress in our discussions regarding the implementation of the Joint Plan of Action over the past several weeks,” White House National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan assured the Washington Free Beacon when it asked about the state of negotiations, given that negotiators had gone home absent an agreement.

Talk of progress might be reassuring, but it is important for outside observers to take them with a grain of salt. While conducting research for my forthcoming book about the history of diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, I went through decades of State Department and National Security Council briefings regarding high-stakes diplomacy with North Korea, Iran, and the Palestinian Authority. With the benefit of time, I was also able to compare the statements of the diplomatic briefers with their declassified notes and intelligence regarding what actually had occurred. Seldom did claims of progress actually correlate to progress. Nor had the State Department developed metrics before beginning talks to chart their progress. Rather, the State Department often claims progress not to describe the results of negotiations, but instead to protect the institutional interest of continuing talks and a process in which politicians have invested.

Diplomacy might yet yield results but, in the meantime, rather than accept claims of progress, it would behoove congressmen and journalists to ask the State Department in advance of any talks what their definition for progress is absent any final agreement. If they do so, they may find that, in diplo-speak, the line between progress and failure does not exist.

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North Korea Amnesia and Iran Engagement

Who says the ayatollahs don’t have any holiday spirit? In what some might interpret as a courtesy to their Western diplomatic partners, Iran suspended the negotiations being conducted to nail down the details of the implementation of the Geneva agreement they reached with the U.S. and the P5+1 group last month until after the Christmas holidays. Though some might consider this gesture just one more delaying tactic, the Iranians are confident that the Obama administration will be just as pliable after the celebrations as before them. With the president threatening a veto of a proposed bill to toughen sanctions on Iran, the commitment of this administration to what appears to be a push for détente with Tehran is not in question. Nor is it worried much about having to defend the Geneva deal since much of the foreign-policy establishment loves the idea of more engagement and a war-weary public is disinclined to support further confrontation with the Islamist regime in spite of worries about the nuclear threat from Iran.

But in spite of the clear public-relations advantage the administration has in the debate over their approach to Iran, the news cycle has a way of exposing even the most confident narrative involving negotiations with rogue states. As often as President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and other administration figures speak up about the need to try diplomacy and to avoid “breaking faith” with Iran, the example of the last tyranny that the U.S. tried to bribe to drop a nuclear program keeps popping up. As the New York Times reports today:

Satellite imagery suggests that North Korea may have begun producing fuel rods for its recently restarted nuclear reactor, a United States-based research institute said in a report published Tuesday.

The signs of new activity at North Korea’s main nuclear complex in Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, follow the country’s repeated assertions that it is strengthening its capabilities to produce nuclear arms. North Korea, which has conducted three nuclear tests since 2006, the most recent in February, has used spent fuel rods from the reactor as a source for plutonium, a key component for nuclear weapons.

The five-megawatt reactor was restarted earlier this year after a six-year hiatus. Its ability to produce plutonium again depends in part on how quickly North Korea can supply it with new fuel rods. North Korea is believed to have only 2,000 fuel rods in its inventory, a quarter of the 8,000 needed for a full load of fuel.

It bears repeating that Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, the lead negotiator with Iran at Geneva, played the same role for the Clinton administration with North Korea. Sherman claims that there is no comparison between the two situations, but the plain fact remains that Sherman believed Pyongyang could be bribed rather than pressured into giving up its nukes and thinks the same thing now about Iran. That is why even those who are unenthusiastic about confronting Tehran think there’s little doubt that the U.S. is well down the road toward embracing containment of a nuclear Iran rather than stopping it.

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Who says the ayatollahs don’t have any holiday spirit? In what some might interpret as a courtesy to their Western diplomatic partners, Iran suspended the negotiations being conducted to nail down the details of the implementation of the Geneva agreement they reached with the U.S. and the P5+1 group last month until after the Christmas holidays. Though some might consider this gesture just one more delaying tactic, the Iranians are confident that the Obama administration will be just as pliable after the celebrations as before them. With the president threatening a veto of a proposed bill to toughen sanctions on Iran, the commitment of this administration to what appears to be a push for détente with Tehran is not in question. Nor is it worried much about having to defend the Geneva deal since much of the foreign-policy establishment loves the idea of more engagement and a war-weary public is disinclined to support further confrontation with the Islamist regime in spite of worries about the nuclear threat from Iran.

But in spite of the clear public-relations advantage the administration has in the debate over their approach to Iran, the news cycle has a way of exposing even the most confident narrative involving negotiations with rogue states. As often as President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and other administration figures speak up about the need to try diplomacy and to avoid “breaking faith” with Iran, the example of the last tyranny that the U.S. tried to bribe to drop a nuclear program keeps popping up. As the New York Times reports today:

Satellite imagery suggests that North Korea may have begun producing fuel rods for its recently restarted nuclear reactor, a United States-based research institute said in a report published Tuesday.

The signs of new activity at North Korea’s main nuclear complex in Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, follow the country’s repeated assertions that it is strengthening its capabilities to produce nuclear arms. North Korea, which has conducted three nuclear tests since 2006, the most recent in February, has used spent fuel rods from the reactor as a source for plutonium, a key component for nuclear weapons.

The five-megawatt reactor was restarted earlier this year after a six-year hiatus. Its ability to produce plutonium again depends in part on how quickly North Korea can supply it with new fuel rods. North Korea is believed to have only 2,000 fuel rods in its inventory, a quarter of the 8,000 needed for a full load of fuel.

It bears repeating that Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, the lead negotiator with Iran at Geneva, played the same role for the Clinton administration with North Korea. Sherman claims that there is no comparison between the two situations, but the plain fact remains that Sherman believed Pyongyang could be bribed rather than pressured into giving up its nukes and thinks the same thing now about Iran. That is why even those who are unenthusiastic about confronting Tehran think there’s little doubt that the U.S. is well down the road toward embracing containment of a nuclear Iran rather than stopping it.

The problem with negotiating with such regimes is that the West plays by the rules but nuclear tyrannies don’t. The North Koreans never put forward an alleged moderate as the face of their government the clever way the Iranians have done with Hassan Rouhani. But they often made the same kind of promises to American negotiators like Sherman about giving up their nukes for relaxation of sanctions, the way the Iranians have now done. Despite pledges of transparency and allowing inspections, such governments can revoke their promises at the whim of leaders like Kim Jong-un or Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In the absence of the rule of law, any deception is possible.

But the problem goes deeper than just a matter of a few foolish negotiators or the technical problems of keeping track of nuclear scofflaws. Integral to the story of what happened with North Korea and what may well be unfolding now with Iran is a refusal to learn from history and the inclination of Westerners to project their own beliefs onto totalitarians—be they Communists or Islamists—that view such foolishness as their diplomatic ace in the hole. Twenty years ago, the notion of a nuclear North Korea was considered science fiction by many in the foreign policy establishment. Today, it is a fact. Ten years from now we may look back on our current debate about Iran with the same incredulity that Sherman’s talks with North Korea now provoke. So long as there will be gullible diplomats whose zeal for the deal exceeds their common sense, Western governments will believe the promises of countries like North Korea and Iran.

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It’s Time to Close the Camps

The last quarter century has been a time of great change across the globe, much of which has been for the better. The number of electoral democracies has grown from 69 in 1989 to 118 today. Despite Russia’s resurgence, the instability wrought by the Arab Spring, and the dangers posed by rogue regimes, the world remains far freer now than at any point in history.

How tragic it is, then, that so many tens of thousands remain effectively imprisoned in political concentration camps. North Korea, of course, is the world’s worst violator. According to the Guardian, the left’s flagship paper, up to 200,000 North Koreans remain imprisoned. CNN has detailed some of the ongoing horror in the six camps, and any report from the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea is worth reading. The Hermit Kingdom is not alone, though.

For decades, China has also maintained a series of “re-education through labor” [laojiao] camps. And while the Chinese government has recently promised to dismantle its network, actions ultimately speak louder than words.

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The last quarter century has been a time of great change across the globe, much of which has been for the better. The number of electoral democracies has grown from 69 in 1989 to 118 today. Despite Russia’s resurgence, the instability wrought by the Arab Spring, and the dangers posed by rogue regimes, the world remains far freer now than at any point in history.

How tragic it is, then, that so many tens of thousands remain effectively imprisoned in political concentration camps. North Korea, of course, is the world’s worst violator. According to the Guardian, the left’s flagship paper, up to 200,000 North Koreans remain imprisoned. CNN has detailed some of the ongoing horror in the six camps, and any report from the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea is worth reading. The Hermit Kingdom is not alone, though.

For decades, China has also maintained a series of “re-education through labor” [laojiao] camps. And while the Chinese government has recently promised to dismantle its network, actions ultimately speak louder than words.

The United States might have little leverage over China and North Korea, but low-hanging fruit which could be resolved with American diplomatic pressure does exist. The Mujahedin al-Khalq (MKO) is correct to castigate those who believe that the Iranian government or its militia proxies should enjoy an open season on group members. Opposing massacres is not synonymous with support for the group, however; it may no longer be a U.S.-designated terror group, but remains just as much an authoritarian cult. And while MKO spokesmen may castigate the Iraqi government and the Iranian regime, the real victims of the MKO lay within the group itself. Camp Liberty—the successor to Camp Ashraf—exists as much if not more to keep MKO members insulated from the real world and under the control of MKO leader Maryam Rajavi’s commissars than as a means of protection for group members.

Other camps exist in the Tindouf province of southwestern Algeria. Here, perhaps 40,000 residents of southern Morocco, Algeria, western Mali, and northern Mauritania languish in camps controlled by the once-Marxist Polisario Front, largely kept from returning home by the group’s political commissars and the Algerian government. During a recent visit to Dakhla, in Western Sahara, I had the opportunity to speak to former members who described not only their own escape from the camps, but the attempts by others who were forcibly returned to the camps, where Polisario authorities punished them for the audacity of seeking to return home rather than languish in camps 22 years after the war between Morocco and Algeria ended. Simply put, Polisario realizes that if the camps close, the gravy train of international assistance would end and the Polisario would lose its raison d’être.

The Polisario is not the only Cold War remnant stubbornly holding hostages. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia also engages in the practice, holding some prisoners for more than a decade. While some journalists parachute in and whitewash just what happens in FARC camps, it is hard to see “cultural programming” as anything other than an attempt at ideological re-education.

The Obama administration came into office seemingly committed to prioritizing human rights, never mind the debates about how best to guarantee rights, freedom, and liberty. The State Department became a revolving door not only for journalists, but for human-rights advocates, most notably Human Rights Watch’s Tom Malinowski and writer Samantha Power. Increasingly, however, it seems such figures are either window dressing for an administration so disinterested in human rights that it is willing to sanction political concentration and re-education camps or, worse yet, that these figures are so permeated by moral equivalency and skewed in their understanding of what universal human rights are that they are willing to normalize with the regimes, sponsors, and groups which engage in such practices.

Concentration camps and slavery (discussed in a previous post) are two phenomena that simply should not exist in the 21st century. That they do is a sad testament to the reality of regimes like North Korea’s, China’s, Algeria’s, Venezuela’s, and Cuba’s, and the choices which successive U.S. administrations–both Democrat and Republican–have made to not let such issues be stumbling blocks to engaging with the United States on other issues.

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Appeasing Nuclear Tyrannies Doesn’t Work

The news that North Korea’s young dictator Kim Jong-un has executed his uncle and mentor Jang Song-thaek has provoked jokes about family spats run amok and further confirmed the conventional wisdom that the Communist nation is the craziest place on Earth. The purge of the uncle may be, as the New York Times says, a power struggle about the future of a country desperately in need of reform and rational leadership. In that scenario, Jang Song-thaek might have been an incipient Khrushchev or Gorbachev to his nephew’s Stalin. Or it may just be in the grip of the sort of bloody dynastic court politics that was a staple of monarchies in an earlier, less enlightened era in Western as well as Eastern civilizations. Think of Game of Thrones with nuclear weapons rather than dragons and zombies and maybe that makes some sense of North Korea.

Yet the mention of North Korea’s nuclear capability should remind us that the wacky goings-on in Pyongyang are not just the stuff of a cable thriller. What happens in the impoverished northern half of the land once known as the Hermit Kingdom may seem as remote to our existence as the mythical continent of Westeros in George R. R. Martin’s fantasy novels, but the fact that Kim Jong-un has his stubby little fingers on a nuclear button ought to stand the hairs on the back of our heads on end. But the fact that he was largely handed control of a small, but growing nuclear arsenal through a bipartisan policy of appeasement carried out by both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations is more than an unfortunate aspect of a horror story. If, as seems likely, the United States is currently embarked on a similar effort to achieve détente with another maniacal tyranny bent on gaining nuclear capability, what is really shocking is that official Washington has learned so little from its mistakes with North Korea.

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The news that North Korea’s young dictator Kim Jong-un has executed his uncle and mentor Jang Song-thaek has provoked jokes about family spats run amok and further confirmed the conventional wisdom that the Communist nation is the craziest place on Earth. The purge of the uncle may be, as the New York Times says, a power struggle about the future of a country desperately in need of reform and rational leadership. In that scenario, Jang Song-thaek might have been an incipient Khrushchev or Gorbachev to his nephew’s Stalin. Or it may just be in the grip of the sort of bloody dynastic court politics that was a staple of monarchies in an earlier, less enlightened era in Western as well as Eastern civilizations. Think of Game of Thrones with nuclear weapons rather than dragons and zombies and maybe that makes some sense of North Korea.

Yet the mention of North Korea’s nuclear capability should remind us that the wacky goings-on in Pyongyang are not just the stuff of a cable thriller. What happens in the impoverished northern half of the land once known as the Hermit Kingdom may seem as remote to our existence as the mythical continent of Westeros in George R. R. Martin’s fantasy novels, but the fact that Kim Jong-un has his stubby little fingers on a nuclear button ought to stand the hairs on the back of our heads on end. But the fact that he was largely handed control of a small, but growing nuclear arsenal through a bipartisan policy of appeasement carried out by both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations is more than an unfortunate aspect of a horror story. If, as seems likely, the United States is currently embarked on a similar effort to achieve détente with another maniacal tyranny bent on gaining nuclear capability, what is really shocking is that official Washington has learned so little from its mistakes with North Korea.

The differences between North Korea, where a bizarre family dynasty misgoverns a nation by employing Stalinist-style Communism, and Iran are vast. Kim Jong-un almost makes Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose anti-Semitic and anti-Western rants are broadcast live on Iranian TV, look like a rational actor. Though it is governed by Islamist theocrats whose mystical beliefs are as scary as North Korean ruling family dynamics, Iran is a place with a sophisticated system of government and an advanced economy that was, at least until recently, fueled by oil exports.

But it should not be forgotten that while the Obama administration has bought into the myth that the selection of a supposed moderate, Hassan Rouhani, in Iran’s faux presidential election, meant that the Islamist tyranny had become a haven for moderation, the reality of Iran is very different. As much as Rouhani’s predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seemed like a cartoon villain, that Holocaust denying demagogue was quite representative of the character and ethos of his nation’s government.

The point is, American diplomats, and in particular State Department staffer Wendy Sherman, who helped lead the talks with North Korea under Clinton, were convinced that the irrational nature of the dictatorship was no bar to a common sense deal. Why wouldn’t the current dictator’s father accept a huge bribe to foreswear nuclear weapons? The North Koreans took the money and the aid and then violated every agreement they had signed and got their bomb. Today, Sherman, who has been recycled and rewarded for failure by being given the task of leading negotiations with Iran, thinks what didn’t work with North Korea will succeed with Iran. The U.S. has discarded the impressive economic and military leverage it had over Tehran and signed a deal predicated on the notion that Iran is run by rational people who prefer the welfare of their people to the dream of nuclear weapons.

But just as the megalomania of the North Korean leadership always trumped any idea of their nation’s economic interests, the Iranian theocrats will always prioritize their vision of regional hegemony in which nukes will be complimented by their thriving side business funding international terrorism and their alliances with the Assad clan in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and perhaps a renewed friendship with Hamas in Gaza. And at the pinnacle of the Iranian system remains an autocratic cleric who dreams of destroying Israel and has no interest in détente with the West. Appeasing him and his minions is just as futile a task as Sherman’s previous efforts in North Korea.

Laugh all you want about the craziness in North Korea and pretend, if you can manage it, that their nuclear arsenal doesn’t pose a threat to the U.S. But the cost of playing the same game in Iran will be even higher. Appeasing or containing a nuclear tyranny run by hate-filled theocrats is as hopeless as was the attempt to do the same thing with one run by a Stalinist family gang. Though Obama, Kerry, and Sherman want the nuclear deals signed with North Korea to be thrown down the memory hole, they stand as an indictment against the administration’s current Iran policy.

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The Barbaric Cruelty of North Korea

It seems like only yesterday that gullible commentators were welcoming the ascension of Stalinist prince Kim Jong-un in North Korea and claiming he would inaugurate a new era of openness. There has since been scant evidence of change–and to the extent that there has been change, it has generally been for the worse. 

The latest sign of just how despicable this regime is? The detention of an 85-year-old American, a Korean War veteran named Merrill Newman, who was hauled off his airplane as he was about to leave the North at the end of a tour. His family has no idea why he was arrested. They don’t even know if he has received the drugs he needs to keep him alive, which they have sent via the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang. 

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It seems like only yesterday that gullible commentators were welcoming the ascension of Stalinist prince Kim Jong-un in North Korea and claiming he would inaugurate a new era of openness. There has since been scant evidence of change–and to the extent that there has been change, it has generally been for the worse. 

The latest sign of just how despicable this regime is? The detention of an 85-year-old American, a Korean War veteran named Merrill Newman, who was hauled off his airplane as he was about to leave the North at the end of a tour. His family has no idea why he was arrested. They don’t even know if he has received the drugs he needs to keep him alive, which they have sent via the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang. 

Even by North Korea’s barbaric standards, this is pretty cruel and shocking behavior. Moreover, it makes little sense from the standpoint of a regime that would like to encourage tourism to keep a small pittance of hard-currency earnings flowing. 

It’s impossible to say why the North Koreans detained Newman. But it’s obvious that this is yet another sign of a hard-line regime that will never voluntarily liberalize on its own, at least not under Kim Jong-un’s leadership.

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The Missing Pivot

So much for the vaunted “Pacific pivot.” When Barack Obama came into office, he vowed to reverse the Bush administration’s focus on the Middle East by “rebalancing” toward East Asia and the looming menace of China. The argument of the incoming administration was that the previous administration had lost sight of the bigger strategic realities as a result of the post-9/11 aftermath.

It turns out it’s not so easy to disengage from the Middle East–or to double down on the Far East. Look at what happened this weekend, or rather what didn’t happen.

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So much for the vaunted “Pacific pivot.” When Barack Obama came into office, he vowed to reverse the Bush administration’s focus on the Middle East by “rebalancing” toward East Asia and the looming menace of China. The argument of the incoming administration was that the previous administration had lost sight of the bigger strategic realities as a result of the post-9/11 aftermath.

It turns out it’s not so easy to disengage from the Middle East–or to double down on the Far East. Look at what happened this weekend, or rather what didn’t happen.

On the one hand, Obama ordered commando raids in Libya and Somalia. This comes after weeks, even months, of near-total focus in Washington on Syria and Iran–not on China or North Korea. On the other hand, Obama decided to not to go on a planned swing through East Asia. This included skipping an Asia Pacific Economic Summit meeting in Indonesia. Secretary of State John Kerry went instead, but he simply doesn’t carry the same diplomatic megawattage as the president. Obama’s absence left China’s leader, Xi Jinping, as the top dog.

Obama’s absence had more than symbolic import. It probably slowed the process of completing negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade zone that includes most of the major countries of East Asia but excludes China. More broadly, Obama’s absence no doubt causes wavering nations such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and many others, which fear China but live in its shadow, to doubt how much they can rely on a putative alliance with the United States.

The president’s absence suggests that dysfunction and deficits at home are preventing American engagement in the broader world. That impression is not necessarily true; if Delta Force and SEAL Team Six could travel abroad this weekend, even as the government is partially shuttered, so too President Obama could have traveled. He just didn’t want to, because he figured it would be bad politics to leave the country during a major budget crisis. It would certainly hamper, in a cynical interpretation, his efforts to lay all the blame on the Republican side, or, to adopt a more charitable explanation, to negotiate a way to end the crisis.

That’s an understandable political calculation, and one that most presidents no doubt would have made. But it comes at a strategic cost in the very region of the world that Obama claimed he would pay more attention to.

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Does North Korea Sense U.S. Weakness?

At first glance, the news coming out of North Korea would seem to have nothing to do with President Obama’s dispiriting retreat on Syria. Young dictator Kim Jong-un’s mad regime needs no foreign incentives or influences to impel it toward provocations or abuses. Thus, the news that–in violation of its six-year-old promise to the Bush administration to dismantle its nuclear reactor–steam is emerging from a reconstructed facility is hardly surprising. The North Koreans already have enough plutonium for several nuclear weapons and it will, according to the New York Times, take years for the reactor at the Yongbyon complex to produce more of the material. The conventional wisdom about this is that the cash-starved regime is hoping to entice the West to once again bribe it to desist from further nuclear work. Since such tactics have often worked in the past, it’s hard to blame Dennis Rodman’s buddy from seeing if he can squeeze more concessions out of the United States knowing his country’s status as a nuclear power gives him impunity.

But coming as this does just months after Pyongyang conducted its third nuclear test, which was accompanied by bluster threatening nuclear attacks on South Korea and anyone else it can reach if more international sanctions are imposed on it, it might be a mistake to put this down as just business as usual in North Korea. Though most Americans ignore the country except when its goofy leader poses with Western nitwits who come to visit, the heavily armed North is always a hair trigger away from starting a shooting war along the 38th parallel that would immediately involve the U.S. in a conflict that would be the opposite of “incredibly small.” While predicting the actions of a country as crazy as North Korea is impossible, it would be a mistake to think that the basketball fan running it hasn’t been watching the dismaying spectacle of U.S. indecision and impotence on Syria and drawing his own conclusions. Most of us have been rightly worried about the impact of the president’s decisions on Iran’s conduct. But perhaps we should be just as worried about whether Kim Jong-un is thinking such a moment of American weakness is the perfect opportunity for him to stage another provocation along the border or even something more ambitious.

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At first glance, the news coming out of North Korea would seem to have nothing to do with President Obama’s dispiriting retreat on Syria. Young dictator Kim Jong-un’s mad regime needs no foreign incentives or influences to impel it toward provocations or abuses. Thus, the news that–in violation of its six-year-old promise to the Bush administration to dismantle its nuclear reactor–steam is emerging from a reconstructed facility is hardly surprising. The North Koreans already have enough plutonium for several nuclear weapons and it will, according to the New York Times, take years for the reactor at the Yongbyon complex to produce more of the material. The conventional wisdom about this is that the cash-starved regime is hoping to entice the West to once again bribe it to desist from further nuclear work. Since such tactics have often worked in the past, it’s hard to blame Dennis Rodman’s buddy from seeing if he can squeeze more concessions out of the United States knowing his country’s status as a nuclear power gives him impunity.

But coming as this does just months after Pyongyang conducted its third nuclear test, which was accompanied by bluster threatening nuclear attacks on South Korea and anyone else it can reach if more international sanctions are imposed on it, it might be a mistake to put this down as just business as usual in North Korea. Though most Americans ignore the country except when its goofy leader poses with Western nitwits who come to visit, the heavily armed North is always a hair trigger away from starting a shooting war along the 38th parallel that would immediately involve the U.S. in a conflict that would be the opposite of “incredibly small.” While predicting the actions of a country as crazy as North Korea is impossible, it would be a mistake to think that the basketball fan running it hasn’t been watching the dismaying spectacle of U.S. indecision and impotence on Syria and drawing his own conclusions. Most of us have been rightly worried about the impact of the president’s decisions on Iran’s conduct. But perhaps we should be just as worried about whether Kim Jong-un is thinking such a moment of American weakness is the perfect opportunity for him to stage another provocation along the border or even something more ambitious.

The details about North Korea’s blatant violations of the nuclear agreements it made with the West are bad enough if viewed only in the context of a divided peninsula that the Communist regime shares with a prosperous and democratic republic in the south. Previous administrations have repeatedly fallen for what former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called Pyongyang’s tactic of selling the West “the same horse twice.” The spectacle of President Obama buying into Russia’s offers to deal with Syria’s chemical weapons may certainly encourage the North to think they should at least try to blackmail an American president who shows a clear aversion to confrontation.

But though this administration has so far refused to play along with that game, the assumption that the North Koreans are all talk when it comes to threats may be proved wrong if an insecure dictator thinks the U.S. is weak. Should he draw the conclusion that an Obama who is unable to get Congress or public opinion behind a limited strike on Syria would be similarly impotent should Korea blow up, the consequences could be catastrophic.

As much as the president and his supporters are trying to spin the Syria fiasco as a limited event that won’t impact his ability to govern, this sort of weakness can’t be contained to one country or even one region. We’ve already seen Russia moving to try to fill the vacuum Obama has created in the Middle East. Don’t be surprised if the maniacal North Korean regime thinks it can play the same game with potentially awful consequences for its neighbors and the world.

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Lessons From Korea

This past Saturday marked the 60th anniversary of the armistice which ended the Korean War. The day passed quietly in South Korea, where I am spending some time–marked by a few fly-bys of South Korean F-16K jets and a low-key ceremony at the War Memorial in Seoul where President Park Geun-hye expressed her hope for lasting peace on the peninsula. It was a different story in Pyongyang where the Communist regime marked “Victory Day,” its self-serving label for the armistice, with a grandiose parade of military hardware including what were, in all probability, phony ICBMs and suitcase nukes adorned with ostentatious radioactive warning symbols. 

It’s hard to more accurately symbolize the divide between South and North–between, respectively, a peaceful, prosperous and democratic government and one that is militaristic, impoverished, and repressive. If the years since the Korean War and in particular the years since the demise of South Korea’s Sunshine Policy (1998-2008) should have us taught anything, it is that outreach from Seoul and Washington does nothing to melt the icy hostility of the North, which must preserve a continuing state of tensions to justify the despotic rule of the Kim dynasty. Providing subsidies or diplomatic recognition to North Korea in response to its threats and provocations only brings more of the same. Yet somehow the urge to placate the North proves irresistible. 

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This past Saturday marked the 60th anniversary of the armistice which ended the Korean War. The day passed quietly in South Korea, where I am spending some time–marked by a few fly-bys of South Korean F-16K jets and a low-key ceremony at the War Memorial in Seoul where President Park Geun-hye expressed her hope for lasting peace on the peninsula. It was a different story in Pyongyang where the Communist regime marked “Victory Day,” its self-serving label for the armistice, with a grandiose parade of military hardware including what were, in all probability, phony ICBMs and suitcase nukes adorned with ostentatious radioactive warning symbols. 

It’s hard to more accurately symbolize the divide between South and North–between, respectively, a peaceful, prosperous and democratic government and one that is militaristic, impoverished, and repressive. If the years since the Korean War and in particular the years since the demise of South Korea’s Sunshine Policy (1998-2008) should have us taught anything, it is that outreach from Seoul and Washington does nothing to melt the icy hostility of the North, which must preserve a continuing state of tensions to justify the despotic rule of the Kim dynasty. Providing subsidies or diplomatic recognition to North Korea in response to its threats and provocations only brings more of the same. Yet somehow the urge to placate the North proves irresistible. 

President Park is now offering the North a $7.3 million bribe–excuse me, humanitarian aid–to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which the North closed in April during a round of saber rattling. The industrial complex consists of South Korean owned-and-operated factories in North Korea, just north of the DMZ (from where it is visible), which employs more than 50,000 North Korean workers and generates at least $90 million in hard currency for the North. The whole thing is a giant boondoggle, run by the South as a sop to the North. Why Seoul is trying to reopen it is a mystery: if Pyongyang wants to close it and lose the benefits it derives from Kaesong, why is the South standing in the way and, in essence, demanding the right to continue subsidizing the North Korean regime?

This is to, put it mildly, counterproductive. The same might be said about Jimmy Carter’s umpteenth trip to North Korea, now being planned to free Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American tour operator and missionary who was arrested in the North and sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor. This is part of a long-standing pattern with the North, which likes to lock up Westerners to entice high-profile figures such as Bill Richardson, Bill Clinton, or Jimmy Carter to visit. Those visits, in turn, are presented to the North Korean population as if these leading Americans are paying obeisance to the Kims–which in some respects they are, albeit unintentionally. If Carter succeeds in freeing Bae it will be a good deed, but also one that will ensure more such kidnappings in the future.

It’s well past time for South Korea and the rest of the West to stop kidding themselves about the North Korean regime. It is not going to moderate itself. The only way the situation will improve is if the North Korean regime peacefully collapses–and providing any support or outreach to the unrepentant Stalinists of the North in the meantime is counterproductive.

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