It was too good to last.
For the last few weeks, the Obama administration has been showing more fortitude in confronting a belligerent North Korea than either the Bush or Clinton administrations had done. But last week, as I previously noted, there was a worrisome leak in the New York Times which quoted administration officials as saying that any response to a North Korean attack would be strictly proportional—which can only encourage Kim Jong-un to act, safe in the knowledge that the U.S. and South Korea will not “over-react” and bring down his criminal regime in response. Now Secretary of State John Kerry, while visiting East Asia, has announced that the U.S. would be willing to reopen negotiations with the North—and cancel the deployment of U.S. ballistic-missile defenses to the region–as long as Kim Jong-un ratchets down the current crisis and takes some steps toward nuclear disarmament.
Does Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s untested new dictator, want a war? He certainly sounds like it with his constant stream of threats against South Korea and the United States. His mouthpiece has even been warning foreign embassies to evacuate Seoul because a “thermonuclear war” is supposedly about to break out. But Kim is not crazy and he is certainly not suicidal. He must know that an all-out war would end in the destruction of his regime and his likely death. No more watching basketball with Dennis Rodman, if that were to happen.
So while he may launch some missiles toward open waters or undertake other provocative acts against South Korea, he is unlikely to restart an all-out Korean war. Following the playbook written by his father, Kim Jong-il, he simply wants to pressure South Korea and the U.S. into making concessions that will enhance his regime–and he believes the more blood-curdling his threats, the greater likelihood there is that the West will cave in.
So far the Obama administration has hung commendably tough in its response to North Korean saber rattling. Unlike his predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, President Obama has resisted the urge to make concessions to North Korea to stop their warmongering. Instead, he has deployed military assets to the region to make clear that any North Korean attack will be met with an overwhelming response.
But that hard-line stance may be starting to waver under the continuing pressure being applied by young dictator Kim Jong-un, who appears eager to prove that, like his old man (departed Dear Leader Kim Jong-il), he too can extract concessions from Washington and win a propaganda victory. His latest move is to close down the Kaesong industrial complex where some 50,000 North Koreans are employed by South Korean firms. This is a vital source of hard currency for the North, so this cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face maneuver indicates just how far Kim is willing to go.
While writing my book chapter on the history of U.S. diplomacy with North Korea and while preparing for a trip to South Korea to conduct interviews a couple years back, I had to get smart on Korea quickly, and hit the books. There is no shortage of books out there: Don Oberdorfer, The Two Koreas; Narushige Michishita’s North Korea’s Military-Diplomatic Campaigns; Joel S. Wit, Daniel B. Poneman, and Robert L. Gallucci’s Going Critical; Leon Sigal’s Disarming Strangers, and Bradley Martin’s Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, among others. One stood out, however: Chuck Downs’ Over the Line. Downs, a former Pentagon official, traces North Korean negotiating behavior from the Armistice through the 1990s. He emphasizes the importance of negotiating strategy:
How this small, relatively powerless nation uses negotiation to advance domestic oppression and foreign intimidation deserves careful scrutiny. Although North Korea brings very little to the negotiating table, it has consistently won benefits that strengthen the regime’s political control and improve its military capabilities… Were it not for the regime’s careful and clever management of the process of negotiation, few people outside the Korean peninsula would have had any real reason to concern themselves with North Korea. The negotiating process, and North Korea’s manipulation of it, is what makes North Korea matter at all.
From day one of his first term, President Obama has made outreach to Iran a central pillar of his foreign policy. He spoke of reconciliation in his first inaugural address and, a week later, he told Al-Arabiya in his first television interview, “If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.” Both Obama’s supporters and the Iranian government embraced his willingness to talk: Diplomats and partisans sharply juxtaposed Obama’s posture with that of President George W. Bush, never mind that Bush won repeated unanimous UN Security Council resolutions and so achieved the same thing that Obama had—multilateral diplomatic blessing—only with greater frequency. What Bush did not do was stop Iran’s nuclear progress. But neither has Obama. The Iran failure has truly been bipartisan.
Obama has fumbled additional opportunities, however. When Iranians rose up in 2009, he remained aloof and indifferent until it was too late. At the very least, he might have used his bully pulpit to offer moral support to the Iranian people. Now, if reports are to be believed, Obama once again seeks to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by justifying silence on Syria—Iran’s most important client state—in order to keep the door to negotiations open. Chuck Hagel, too, has dedicated much of his Senate and post-Senate career to outreach to Iran’s ayatollahs.
The latest crisis emanating from Pyongyang is almost enough to make you nostalgic for Kim Jong-il who died at the end of 2011. Sure, he may have been a murderous tyrant who lived the high life while his people literally starved—but at least he was predictable and conservative in his actions. Not so his callow son and successor Kim Jong-un, who appears bent on escalating tensions with South Korea, the United States, and Japan so as to consolidate his shaky legitimacy to rule the North.
Young Kim’s regime has already said it will no longer abide by the Korean War armistice and that a “state of war” now exists on the peninsula. He has tested nuclear and ballistic weapons. He has cut off the redline telephones that maintained communications with the U.S. and South Korea. He has threatened to attack not only South Korea but the U.S.—in fact displaying supposed war plans toward that end in a doctored photo. He is also widely suspected of launching a cyber attack on South Korea.
This week National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper delivered the 2013 “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The document reflects the latest chapter in the cautionary tale about American intelligence and diplomatic failures on the North Korean nuclear weapons program.
In the 2011 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the intelligence community told Congress “we do not know whether [North Korea] has produced nuclear weapons, but we assess it has the capability to do so.” In the 2012 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the assessment was “North Korea has produced nuclear weapons.” In the 2013 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the assessment now is that “North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs pose a serious threat to the United States.” In other words, in the last two years North Korea has gone from (a) having only a nuclear weapons “capability,” to (b) having nuclear weapons, to (c) having nuclear weapons and missile programs that “pose a serious threat” to the United States.
The New York Times had a fascinating article on the latest Korean crisis the other day which noted that two-thirds of South Koreans now support developing their own nuclear deterrent–a radical idea for a nation that has been such a close American ally for decades but one that is gaining strength among some foreign policy elites. Significantly, it is not just the increasingly shrill line from Pyongyang which is causing alarm in the South. There are also doubts about the reliability of the U.S. as a protector. The Times notes
Beyond the immediate fear of a military provocation, analysts say deeper anxieties are also at work in the South. One of the biggest is the creeping resurgence of old fears about the reliability of this nation’s longtime protector, the United States. Experts say the talk of South Korea’s acquiring nuclear weapons is an oblique way to voice the concerns of a small but growing number of South Koreans that the United States, either because of budget cuts or a lack of will, may one day no longer act as the South’s ultimate insurance policy.
Give credit where it’s due: the Obama administration deserves praise for pursuing a hardline policy against North Korea–in fact a harder line than the Bush administration policy, at least in Bush’s second term.
In 2008, recall, the Bush administration–thanks to the misguided efforts of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and negotiator Chris Hill–announced an accord to lift some economic sanctions on North Korea and remove it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in return for unbelievable, and quickly abandoned, promises from Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program. This was widely seen as a bid–similar to the ill-advised Annapolis conference she convened in an attempt to achieve a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations–by Rice to land herself a Nobel Prize, or at least rack up some notable achievement, before she left office.
The United Nations responded today to North Korea’s threats to launch pre-emptive nuclear strikes on both the United States and South Korea with a new round of even harsher sanctions on Pyongyang. But it is not likely that these latest measures will have much impact on an already isolated communist regime that has no compunction about starving or imprisoning as many of its own people as it deems necessary. Their nuclear threats may turn out to be empty bluster, but whether they intend to further destabilize the region or not there is little the U.S. or the U.N. can do about it.
One shouldn’t minimize the danger that a nuclear North Korea poses to the shaky peace that has held for nearly 60 years along the 38th parallel as well as to the rest of the Far East. There is no telling what this maniacal government will do, and the expectation in some quarters that the accession of Kim Jong-un to power after the death of his father would calm things down has proven to be mistaken. Kim’s latest gambit seems aimed at testing South Korea’s new leader Park Geunhye, and there is always ground for concern that the North’s provocations could set in motion a train of events with unforeseen consequences.
But there is a lesson here that goes beyond our justified concerns about the Korean peninsula. North Korea can defy the world with impunity because it flouted every diplomatic agreement it signed about its nuclear program and wound up with a bomb that forever changed the strategic equation between it and the U.S. The progress of Pyongyang’s Iranian ally toward the same goal and the willingness of the West to engage in exactly the same sort of diplomatic minuet puts the world’s current dilemma in Korea in a sobering light.
The New Criterion and PJ Media might have to retire their Walter Duranty Prize named after the infamous New York Times correspondent who whitewashed Joseph Stalin’s crimes during the 1930s. I think Dennis Rodman has earned a lifetime achievement award in this category, as Bethany’s post makes clear. It is hard, certainly, to top his fawning tribute to the current and past dictators of North Korea. As the AP reported:
Ending his unexpected round of basketball diplomacy in North Korea on Friday, ex-N.B.A. star Dennis Rodman called leader Kim Jong-un an “awesome guy” and said his father and grandfather were “great leaders.”….
“He’s proud, his country likes him — not like him, love him, love him,” Rodman said of Kim Jong-un. “Guess what, I love him. The guy’s really awesome.”
Those words are accompanied by pictures of Rodman yukking it up with Kim Jong-un at a basketball game involving North Koreans and some Harlem Globetrotters that ended in an improbable 110-110 tie.
I am guessing Rodman missed this Human Rights Watch report, which notes:
For the first time in at least a decade, the world is talking about former basketball star Dennis Rodman. The former Chicago Bull, known for his “quirky” behavior while winning championships with the likes of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, made news this week with a short trip to North Korea with members of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team.
The news out of North Korea, both this month and in general, often revolves around its nuclear program and bellicose threats of violence against its neighbors and the United States. Rodman’s visit has stirred outrage thanks to his outspoken support of the country and its dictator Kim Jong-un. Upon leaving the country, Rodman promised that Kim would have a “friend for life” and declared that Kim Jong-un was an “awesome guy” and that his father and grandfather, other homicidal leaders of the country, were “great leaders.”
Iran and the West are participating in a new round of talks this week in Kazakhstan over Iran’s nuclear program. The odds of a breakthrough? Close to zero, for reasons that Iranian-American scholar Hussein Banai ably explains in this Los Angeles Times op-ed. He writes of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that
he is increasingly paranoid about the implications of a “grand bargain” with the United States for his privileged position as the chief interpreter of the ideals of the Islamic Republic.
Simply put, normalization of relations between Iran and the United States would deprive Khamenei and the deeply invested cohort of radical ideologues around him of a powerful justification for their arbitrary rule.
Continued enmity with the United States has time and again proved to be a convenient excuse for silencing the reformist opposition (as in the case of the 2009 Iranian presidential election, which has simply become known as “the sedition”) and managing the increasingly fragmented conservative establishment.
It didn’t take long for the optimistic story about Iran’s nuclear program in yesterday’s New York Times to turn sour. The paper reported on Wednesday that talks were resuming between the International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran about resuming inspections of the Islamist regime’s nuclear facilities had resumed. It also noted the report in an Iranian news agency about Tehran diverting its efforts from a bomb to research, a development that might cause the West to treat the issue with less urgency. But, less than 24 hours later, the IAEA announced the talks with Iran had failed and that the United Nations watchdog was still unable to inspect the Parchin site where it suspects military applications of the project including nuclear triggers are being constructed. That means the Iranians are free to go on pushing toward their goal without any annoying inspectors forcing them to hide their work.
This is the sort of development that should cause the Obama administration to drop the air of complacency about the other nuclear talks being held with Iran by the P5+1 group whose goal is to talk the regime out of its nuclear weapons dream. The Iranians have already used those talks to stall the West for over a year and there is nothing to indicate that they view the next round of discussions as anything but another opportunity to buy more time until their bomb is ready.
If that isn’t scary enough, as Lee Smith writes today in Tablet, there is yet another reason to believe that the belated sanctions imposed by the West won’t be enough to stop Iran: North Korea.
Decades after the construction of city-sized gulags, it appears that the world’s attention may finally be focusing on human rights abuses in North Korea. Predictably, after North Korea’s latest statements on the probability of a nuclear test in the near future, the spotlight is back on the regime. In the past, boisterous proclamations about their nuclear program elicited attention solely on the program. This time, however, “citizen journalists” and Google Maps contributors have shifted the focus to the fate of citizens of North Korea, not just their government, becoming the latest push to expose the country’s miserable human rights record.
Yesterday the New York Times published an op-ed advocating for increased engagement with North Korea over its human rights abuses:
Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracy and an expert on the confluence of money laundering and terrorism, drew my attention to an important story getting lost in the shuffle of confirmation hearing and more violent stories from the Middle East:
The Turkish parliament is scrambling to avert action by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international body meant to combat money laundering and terror financing, which would place Turkey on its blacklist if it does not adopt legislation preventing terror finance within a month.
Earlier today North Korea released a barrage of unprovoked and unexpected insults toward the United States, declaring that the U.S. is the “archenemy of the Korean people.’’ The LA Times reports on the bellicose language used by the North Korean government meant to strike fear into the hearts of Americans:
“We are not disguising the fact that the various satellites and long-range rockets that we will fire and the high-level nuclear test we will carry out are targeted at the United States,” North Korea’s National Defense Commission said in a statement released by the official news service.
“Settling accounts with the U.S. needs to be done with force, not with words,” it said.
[Updated 10:46 a.m. Jan. 24: In Washington, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney called North Korea’s statement “needlessly provocative,” adding that a test would be a “significant violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions.”
Quietly today, another story emerged from North Korea that is in all probability related to these threats. RealClearWorld reported on the latest deadly “man-made” famine gripping the reclusive nation:
There’s something about North Korea that gives liberal idealists amnesia. They’re quick to believe that change is afoot, too willing to overlook the evidence that plainly shows that the regime is evil, beyond a shadow of a doubt. In the last week, there have been two instances of this amnesia, and unfortunately for those suffering under the regime, there’s no sign they will be the last.
After North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un gave his New Year’s address a week ago today, Western outlets described his remarks as an “olive branch to the South.” The New York Times said, “The most significant feature of Kim Jong-un’s speech was its marked departure of tone regarding South Korea.” I spoke with the Heritage Foundation’s senior research fellow for Northeast Asia Bruce Klingner on Friday about the address and his response was less than enthusiastic about this supposed “about face.”
Remember the “Axis of Evil,” George W. Bush’s much-mocked phrase to refer to Iran, North Korea, and Iraq? Admittedly it was a bit of a stretch to suggest that all three nations were cooperating. But there is a new axis which is, alas, much more grounded in reality: Syria, Iran, and North Korea. Their cooperation has already borne fruit in one dangerous area: the development of ballistic missiles.
In recent weeks North Korea has tested a missile and Syria has fired Scud missiles at its own people. The two missile programs are closely related, largely through Iranian intermediaries. Indeed, there are reports of Iranian experts being on hand to help the North Koreans with their missile launch. In the past there has been credible evidence of North Korea exporting missiles to Iran and Syria. Now, at least in the case of Iran, the help seems to be going the other way.
On Monday, North Korean authorities announced that their military would require more preparation time in order to send a long-range rocket, due to technical difficulties. Only two days later, the North Koreans fired the missile to the world’s surprise and, soon, condemnation. This is a familiar dance between the North Koreans and the international community, and one that has played out for three generations of Kims in power in the reclusive totalitarian state. In this month’s issue of COMMENTARY, Jay P. Lefkowitz discussed the phenomenon:
The Six Party Talks have fostered a dynamic whereby every time the regime needs foreign assistance, it engages in a provocative action, whether of a military or diplomatic nature, that is seen as a threat to the stability of the region. The international community then condemns the action and threatens, or imposes, new sanctions. The North Koreans promise to be on better behavior and are rewarded with an infusion of hard currency or food aid. Soon, North Korea flexes its muscles again and the cycle of aggression, reaction, and reward begins afresh.