U.S. Politics

The Candidates on North Korea (Edwards, Giuliani, McCain, Obama, Richardson)

I have my own biases, of course, but I don’t do endorsements, chiefly because (a) you don’t care,  and (b)  this is single-issue analysis in a multiple-issue campaign.  This is simply a presentation of what the various candidates have said in relation to Korea issues, but mainly North Korea.  If it’s of interest to  you or  helps you make one part of your decision, great. If you can find a more detailed relevant statement by another candidate I wrote about here, please paste a link into the comments and I’ll update as appropriate.

What I’m looking for is, first, understanding of the issues, and second, the judgment to reach appropriate conclusions from the known facts.  If the candidate isn’t keeping up with the issues, is working from outdated facts, missstates the facts, or simply falls back on bland cookie-cutter position statements written by advisors, I infer that the candidate isn’t well informed on the issues, which suggests that he’ll probably let the State Department  bureaucracy  run everything.  If the candidate takes a set of facts that are or reasonably should be known and reaches faulty conclusions, the candidate may lack good judgment.  In that event, our only hope is that the candidate lacks the self confidence to make bad decisions.

This post will link to statements by about half of the viable remaining candidates in alphabetical order.  I’ll try to get to the rest of them in a few days.

John Edwards.   Edwards has never distinguished himself for foreign policy gravitas, and (surprise!) Edwards seems out of his depth on this issue.  Research his positions and you’ll find stock cardboard answers cut out by people using expired patterns:

In North Korea, the recent agreement to shut down the Yongbyon nuclear reactor in exchange for the release of frozen assets is encouraging–though long overdue. It is a sign that the carrots-and-sticks approach can work.

Except that what distinguishes  the current approach  from last year’s is that it has no sticks; consequently, it’s  been  failing just the way the first Agreed Framework did — pretty much since day one.  Now, the mandatory skeptical disclaimer:

Pyongyang’s words, however, are not enough. We must require a commitment to future action. We must engage the North Korean government directly, through the six-party framework, placing economic and political incentives on the table in exchange for the verified, complete elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities.   [JohnEdwards.com]

His support for economic incentives to the North sets him up for an interesting contrast.  Would “incentives” mean aid, trade, or just giving away taxpayer money to buy more barbed wire, aluminum  tubes,  and Hennessey? 

In contrast, Edwards would be a lot more parsimonious  with economic incentives to South Korea.  The only  other time he appears to have mentioned Korea is to express his opposition to the FTA.  My personal sense is that the statement that Edwards opposes it not because of any of its  particular terms, but out of a general, protectionist opposition to free trade.   (I oppose the FTA as negotiated, but would support it on  more balanced  terms; more here.)   To be fair, Edwards does cite specific  and legitimate problems with the FTA’s provisions on U.S. beef and automobiles, but then he gives us this howler:

Workers in South Korea lack many basic rights. “South Korea is a country where hundreds of workers are thrown in jail each year for attempting to exercise basic labor rights,” said Edwards.  [JohnEdwards.com]

This  is absolutely, dangerously detached from reality.   Edwards is talking about a  South Korea  that hasn’t existed for the last decade, and to portray the thuggish, violent, anti-American, pro-North Korean, and government-financed  labor unions of today’s South Korea as victims reminds me of Gerald Ford denying the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.  Worse, he misses the real issue here — the FTA creates a loophole for outright slave labor from North Korea

Rudy Giuliani.   About halfway through this interview with Pajamas Media’s Roger Simon and Claudia Rosett, Giuliani brings up North Korea, attributing “whatever success has so far taken place in North Korea” to the six-party approach, and China in particular.  But with North Korea having missed its deadline for a complete disclosure and China being expressly unhelpful about that, Rudy seems not be keeping up with events. 

Really, when you consider  how dependent  North Korea’s regime has become on Chinese and South Korean aid,  along with  North Korea’s success at refusing to disarm, it’s not possible to accuse either China or South Korea of being helpful.  In China’s case, to do so would go against China’s obvious interest in maintaining North Korea as a distraction for U.S. power in the region, and if it means that a North Korean nuke eventually get planted under an American city, so much the better in Beijing’s eyes.

Bonus points:   Spot the glaring omission when Rudy mentions the six-party concept.   Aigoo!

Off-topic:  The idea of a surge in Afghanistan has been tried … by the Soviet Union.  What worked in Iraq, where the population density is much higher and secular ideas have a much wider reach and appeal isn’t necessarily going to work in Afghanistan.  The success of the surge in Iraq wasn’t simply a matter of filling the country with Americans; it was a matter of using our troops more effectively to provide security for the population, shifting to small-unit tactics,  improved intelligence collection, and Iraqi war-weariness finally bearing fruit in popular support and tribal realignments.  If we were to add a lot of troops to Afghanistan in equally opportunistic circumstances, we could expect as good a result.  In the wrong circumstances, well, just ask Mikhail Gorbachev.

John McCain.   I’ll admit that I went into this liking McCain, and I like him even  better now (there are other candidates I could also vote for).  I know plenty of  conservatives hate McCain for other reasons, mainly relating to  issues I don’t write about here.  On foreign  policy, however,  he has no equal in this race.   Taking up the  role of mature adult, he  criticizes  other candidates for openly threatening to invade, say, Pakistan,  or telegraphing our punches toward al Qaeda there.  McCain appreciates the irony of  threats like this from candidates who agree with criticisms of our “arrogant” foreign policy.

I criticized a previous  McCain statement on North Korea, but here, at Pajamas Media, he has the opportunity to explain himself at greater length and does it very well, speaking naturally and fluently about the issues. 

[CLAUDIA] ROSETT: On a somewhat related topic, North Korea, would you remove North Korea from the terrorism list?

MCCAIN: I would not. I didn’t believe in the KEDO agreement that President Clinton made, and I don’t believe in this one. I’d like to. I wish that I could, but it’s the old Reagan thing about “Trust, but verify. The North Koreans have a very clear record.

And, look, I’m not on the intelligence committee. I’m not revealing any secret information or anything. But I think we know that that facility that was bombed in Syria by the Israelis, which provoked surprisingly no reaction from Syrians or anybody else, that there are allegations — and I have no proof of it — but there are allegations of North Korean involvement in that. Well, come on, let’s understand.

The other thing that continuously offends me, Claudia, is I’m a big — I’m an idealist. I will admit to being an idealist, okay, whether it be Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia, you know, I’m an idealist. But I also hope it’s tempered by a practical view of things too. But this is the most horrible regime probably on earth – that has got hundreds of thousands of people in the gulag. They’re terrible. So the regime offends me, just in their terrible mistreatment and abuse of their own people.

ROSETT: Just in brief, because we have a lot to cover here.

MCCAIN: Yeah, sure, yeah.

ROSETT: If you become president, you will inherit a situation in which they have at this point been quite well treated by the —


ROSETT: — current administration.


ROSETT: What would you do to turn around their expectations that they can continue this?

MCCAIN: Well, I would say we want to negotiate, we want a verifiable, you know, all of the things we need to do. But, one, China holds really the key to North Korea, as you know. They’re the only real nation with any real influence. And I would try to bring about more pressure on China, not only, by the way, North Korea, but also on Darfur. So I think we ought to understand that the only pressure point is China.

Emphasis mine.  That sounds much better than what I thought I heard before — McCain suggesting that we should  make stronger appeals to China’s good faith and sense of fair play.  There is plenty we should be doing to pressure China in the public conversation and with respect to the banks that funnel both aid and other funds to North Korea.  Also, he said “KEDO” agreement, not “Cato.”  Whew.  And for the second time, McCain, completely on his own, brings up human rights. 

The second thing is that I would be an advocate for human rights. And I’m not telling the North Korean people to rise up and overflow their government….

Reluctantly, I  have to agree.  The North Korean  people aren’t ready for that yet because there’s no organized underground network to harbor or support dissent.  If they did  it now, they’d be slaughtered in even greater numbers. 

But I think it’s important. We’ve had people who’ve escaped from these gulags. Horrible stories. I think that that might get a little more publicity, just because we’re a nation that believes all of us are endowed with certain inalienable rights. Would I go to war with North Korea? No. Would I threaten war with them? No. Please don’t get me wrong. But I think there’s pressures that we can apply.

McCain not only  explains away my criticisms, he said  almost exactly the same things I’d have said.  McCain  is questioned in  the kind of detail other  candidates aren’t, and  knocks it out of the park. 

There’s more here, in a long piece for Foreign Affairs.  McCain understands that our relationship with South Korea is “frayed” and needs to be rebuilt.  On North Korea, he says a bit more:

North Korea’s totalitarian regime and impoverished society buck these trends. It is unclear today whether North Korea is truly committed to verifiable denuclearization and a full accounting of all its nuclear materials and facilities, two steps that are necessary before any lasting diplomatic agreement can be reached. Future talks must take into account North Korea’s ballistic missile programs, its abduction of Japanese citizens, and its support for terrorism and proliferation.  [Foreign Affairs]

But could he gain control of the State Department?  George W. Bush, a reluctant player of the foreign policy game, never could.  McCain, with his much greater interest in the subject matter, raises the hope that he’d conform our policies to more strongly held views.  And at least in the context of the CIA, McCain tells Claudia Rosett and Roger Simon of Pajamas Media that he’s put in people he trusts.  We can hope, and with some justification.

McCain must wish foreign policy was the only issue in this election. I’m also a qualified  fan of his “league of democracies” as a way to cut the U.N. Security Council out of the global security business.  The U.N. is unlikely to ever solve any major security crisis, but that’s especially unlikly with China and Russia holding the veto on any solution.  Which is a good segue to Barack Obama.

Barack Obama.  I started out with an initial reservoir of goodwill toward him, because of this statement and this one, both of which encouraged me on human rights.   But it’s one thing to wish for human rights to improve; another to have the spine and teeth to fight for them.  Does Barack Obama have those qualities?  It sure doesn’t look that way:

Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama said Thursday the United States cannot use its military to solve humanitarian problems and that preventing a potential genocide in Iraq isn’t a good enough reason to keep U.S. forces there.

“Well, look, if that’s the criteria by which we are making decisions on the deployment of U.S. forces, then by that argument you would have 300,000 troops in the Congo right now — where millions have been slaughtered as a consequence of ethnic strife — which we haven’t done,” Obama said in an interview with The Associated Press.  “We would be deploying unilaterally and occupying the Sudan, which we haven’t done. Those of us who care about Darfur don’t think it would be a good idea,” he said.  Obama, a first-term senator from Illinois, said it’s likely there would be increased bloodshed if U.S. forces left Iraq.  [AP]

It gets much worse.  That was just one of a series of blunders Obama made on foreign policy by a candidate who has marketed himself as a global ambassador for America.  In practice, his public diplomacy record has been less successful.  Obama has claimed at various times  that he’d meet any foreign dictator without preconditions, criticized America for the arrogance of its foreign policy, and threatened to invade Pakistan.  The latter statement triggered flag-burning  demonstrations, something I don’t believe even candidate Bush managed to do.  This invasion, one presumes, would come just as we were withdrawing from Iraq and every TV screen on earth would be  filled with images of a  genocide Obama says he wouldn’t act to  stop.  Such a catastrophe would undermine America’s position on every foreign policy issue for decades.  If Obama can’t see either that or the clumsiness of his own statements, he’s not ready for the presidency.

More directly on point, Obama supported our current carrots-only policy even after the Syria revelations.  His standard policy statements have been appropriately skeptical, of course.  And some of what Obama proposed might just work brilliantly if done by the right president.

It’s time for America to lead. When I’m President, we’ll strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty so that nations that don’t comply will automatically face strong international sanctions. [Barack Obama.com]

How, one wonders, would Obama obtain Russian and Chinese votes for this in the U.N. Security Council? 

This will require a new era of American diplomacy. To signal the dawn of that era, we need a President who is willing to talk to all nations, friend and foe. I’m not afraid that America will lose a propaganda battle with a petty tyrant – we need to go before the world and win those battles.

So is Barack Obama the man to do it?  In foreign policy, nothing  is quite so dangerous as believing too much  in your own power to schmooze anyone.  It’s a belief that’s understandable; Obama may be the single most likeable candidate in this election, which means that barring  an effective character assassination by  the Clinton machine or more major missteps,  he’s likely to win. 

But candidates who do well at schmoozing at campaign events, community activism, or Congress arrive woefully unprepared to sit across the table from the North Koreans or Iranians.  Candidates tend not to campaign in maximum security prisons, or they’d know that some people are beyond schmoozing.  It can’t be overstated:  diplomacy can’t modify the behavior of the unwilling unless one negotiates from strength.

If we take the attitude that the President just parachutes in for a photo-op after an agreement has already been reached, then we’re only going to reach agreements with our friends. That’s not the way to protect the American people. That’s not the way to advance our interests.

Just look at our history. Kennedy had a direct line to Khrushchev. Nixon met with Mao. Carter did the hard work of negotiating the Camp David Accords. Reagan was negotiating arms agreements with Gorbachev even as he called on him to “tear down this wall.” It’s time to make diplomacy a top priority. Instead of shuttering consulates, we need to open them in the tough and hopeless corners of the world. Instead of having more Americans serving in military bands than the diplomatic corps, we need to grow our foreign service. Instead of retreating from the world, I will personally lead a new chapter of American engagement.

What boldness.  What vision.  What sweeping optimism.   The North Koreans would eat him for breakfast and wash him down with shots of 10 a.m. soju.

(Bonus:  an interesting  Korean-language link)

Bill Richardson.   Long-time readers are familiar with what I think about Bill Richardson.  Should you care anyway?  Yes, because he’s always been running for Secretary of State, and if he succeeds, it would be an unmitigated disaster.  Richardson is one candidate who has no excuse to claim not to understand the extent of North Korea’s human rights atrocities, since he has made his friendship with the North Korean regime a centerpiece of his foreign policy credentials.  He even made a dubious claim of credit for the failing Agreed Framework 2.0.

Richardson has repeatedly refused to confront the issue of those atrocities.  I contacted his press secretary asking if he has ever  brought up  North Korea’s concentration camps — specifically,  Camp 22 — during any of his multiple contacts with the North Koreans in Pyongyang or elsewhere.  I received no response.  When I raised the question at the “unofficial” fan site AmericaforRichardson, my comments and those of several other readers were deleted.  Later, the embarrassed site admins restored the comments and promised to contact Richardson’s campaign for answers to our questions.  And guess what?  No answers ever came.  It’s hard to even find pro-forma statement by Richarsdon on human rights, beyond passing references.  It suggests a lack of concern, at best.

Richardson has adopted North Korea as his pet foreign policy project, so he’s chargeable with knowing the ground truth there.  This goes beyond bad judgment.  It indicates a willingness to do whatever it takes to advance his own career, including holding hands with genocide.


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