Obama: Bush Wimped Out on Kim Jong Il

Just how weak does your diplomacy have to be for Barack Obama, recipient of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, to call you out for it? I do not mean to imply that the answer to this question is an obvious one. I ask it because of this statement by President Obama, at a joint news conference with President Lee Myung Bak, after this Veterans’ Day speech at my former duty station:

After delivering his remarks, Obama met with South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak. Appearing at a joint press conference with the South Korean leader, Obama said that the six-party talks, which were first launched in 2003 to address North Korea’s nuclear program, had degenerated in 2005 when they became “talk for the sake of talking.” Obama did not appear eager to restart the talks under the current circumstances.

“President Lee and I have discussed this extensively and our belief is that there will be an appropriate time and place to re-enter into six-party talks,” Obama said. “But we have to see a seriousness of purpose by the North Koreans in order to spend the extraordinary time and energy that’s involved in these talks. We’re not interested in just going through the motions with the same result.” [Real Clear Politics, Scott Conroy]

My, my, how times have changed. President Obama’s reversal on North Korea has to be the most amazing policy shift since . . . President Bush’s reversal on North Korea. No regular reader here will be surprised that I agree with the President’s criticism, but I think we all share some astonishment at the source.

George W. Bush’s North Korea legacy is to leave the Republicans outflanked on North Korea, where President Obama’s policy is, on paper, far tougher than Bush’s, even if it’s still insufficient in many important ways. The new House Republicans now find themselves in a place where they first have to repudiate President Bush’s weakness before they can criticize some of President Obama’s legitimate shortcomings on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, on human rights, and on the administration’s displays of weakness toward China, which have only aroused China’s predatory nature. One way the House Republicans are likely to do this is to move to have North Korea put back on the terror-sponsor list, though they realize that their bill will die on John Kerry’s desk. Another rumor on Capitol Hill has it that when Ileana Ros-Lehtinen becomes Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Chris Hill will be called before the Congress to explain his broken promises to, deceptions of, and withholding of critical information from those in attendance. But of course, Chris Hill wasn’t the President. In the end, the President is responsible for letting Chris Hill do what comes naturally to Chris Hill.

Some Republican-leaning snarks have even begun asking, while referring to President Bush, “Miss me yet?” You can put me down for “not yet.” I didn’t care for the overheated, conspiratorial fulminations against President Bush either the far left or the far right. I don’t care for its polar opposite against President Obama. I believe that Bush and Obama both make their decisions with a higher ratio of good faith to self-interest than, say, Clinton or Nixon might have. Rather than seeing Obama as inflexibly ideological, I see him as a typically pliable politician who is moving away from his left-leaning origins, because he sees those origins for what they are — an obstacle to his re-election. In doing so, he has redeemed many of President Bush’s most controversial decisions on national security, including many he criticized as a candidate. I suspect that this part of Bush’s legacy is already shifting in the public consciousness.

This doesn’t mean most people will soon consider Bush a successful president. Bush probably did the best job he could with the intellect and charisma God gave him. But it was his stubbornness in sticking with his decisions that made the most outsized mark on his legacy, with mixed results. Bush tended to select mediocre people — Powell, Rice, Hill, Harriet Miers, and many of his top generals during the first years in Iraq — and would stick with them even after they performed poorly. But at one exceptionally consequential moment, that stubbornness was redeemed when Bush ignored the collective advice of our vastly overrated foreign policy brain trust and implemented The Surge.


  1. Mr. Stanton, I know you are an American and write from an American-centric perspective as to be expected. But in all your castigations of the Bush NK policy (most of it well-deserved) you frequently frame the issue as though Seoul had no influence on the situation.

    This is well beneath your usual erudition and penchant for cutting to the heart of things. Your readers will do well to remind themselves of the disastrous appeasements rendered under Kim Dae Jung and Roh Myoo Hyun’s Sunshine Policy. G. W. Bush could not unilaterally affect much of anything in the DPRK without the full support of the ROK government which from 1998-2008 was being led by leftist presidents willing to prop up KJI and the Juche religion with South Korean won (estimates run as high as $7 billion USD value).

    I won’t defend anything that the Bush administration policies did to bring down Pyongyang (for me, that is the only acceptable policy position as the US also adopted a regime change policy towards Iraq under Clinton in 1998), but please put things in their proper context for your readers, especially neophytes to the K-blogs. Our foreign policy towards Korea is shaped primarily by our alliance with the ROK and it’s policies towards the most heavily armed religious cult on earth.

    History will probably be kinder towards G.W. Bush in his dealings with the kingdom of Juche than it will towards Kim Dae Jung and Roh Myoo Hyun who sold out their own constituents for what? Where are the big ‘wins’ sunshinism can point to? KDJ and RMH helped buy enough time for the decrepit regime to accomplish the successful transfer of power to another heir of Kim Il Sung so we can deal with the fanatics north of the 38th parallel for another 40 years. We can’t lay that at the feet of G.W. Bush.


  2. G. W. Bush could not unilaterally affect much of anything in the DPRK without the full support of the ROK government which from 1998-2008 was being led by leftist presidents willing to prop up KJI and the Juche religion with South Korean won (estimates run as high as $7 billion USD value).

    And all that while, who was in charge of the government that was propping up that South Korean leftist government through billions in defense subsidies, while it was propping up North Korea? Bush effectively allowed U.S. taxpayer funds to support Kim Jong Il’s WMD development and human rights atrocities. Try not to think too hard about this.


  3. KCJ writes:

    Where are the big ‘wins’ sunshinism can point to?

    It’s right there in the corner, next to the four decades of big wins in dealing with North Korea by Kim Daejung’s predecessors.

    I loathed Roh Moohyun for taking out any semblance of stick to the carrot-and-stick approach, but I think Kim Daejung wasn’t off the mark for at least trying to work with the North Koreans.

    But let’s not kid ourselves, with or without any assistance from South Korea, Pyongyang would continue to be propped up by China.