Obama Administration’s N. Korea policy evolves from the 90s to the 60s.

Not surprisingly, North Korea’s missile test is bringing out a lot of criticism of President Obama’s North Korea policy, but sometimes, that criticism writes itself.  Writing at The Cable, Josh Rogin tells us that just as Kim Jong Un was counting down the launch sequence between drags on a smuggled Marlboro, Wendy Sherman and the State Department’s crack team of Asia experts were relaxing at a cocktail party in honor of — smack your forehead now — the Emperor of Japan, while silently thanking Kim Jong Un for not ruining their holidays:

But several attendees at the Japanese emperor’s birthday celebration told The Cable that the fact so many Asia officials were not at their desks illustrated how surprised the administration was about the timing of the launch.

“Everybody stood down. Nobody thought they were going to do it this week. It was a real head fake by the North Koreans,” another top Asia expert and party attendee said. “DOD, State, and the White House were just stunned by it. They were shocked.”

There were varying explanations as to why the Obama administration was caught off guard. North Korea said Dec. 10 said that “technical issues” were forcing it to push back the launch window. Previously, North Korea had said the launch would come by Dec. 22, and the new window was supposed to end Dec. 29. News reports Dec. 9 and 10 also said the missile was being removed from the launch pad. Those reports turned out to be wrong.

It may be that Sherman and the East Asia Bureau types took too much comfort in Joel Wit’s widely circulated — and spectacularly ill-timed — prediction that snow would delay the launch.  Wit may be the most chronic schlimazel of all North Korea watchers who is still taken seriously by most people, but I think Rogin’s post was a little too unkind to him.  Satellite imagery is subject to different interpretations, and I’ve probably made my own share of wrong guesses.  It’s when Wit stubbornly ignores the evidence that is there that he really invites mockery.  Among other treats, Wit insists that North Korea really does abide by its agreements, it really is reforming and opening its economy, and really isn’t to blame for this launch (South Korea’s decision to extend the range of its own missile gave the North no choice). Off-hand, I can think of roughly three people in Washington who still believe this since the D.C.’s Finest cleaned out the Occupy camp.  So the next time Wit tugs at your heart strings to advocate unmonitored food aid, just remember:
Based on the North Korean government’s own calculation of daily need, the money spent on yesterday’s launch could buy 5.8 million tons of corn, enough to feed a population of 20 million for 19 months.  [Daily NK]
Some of the criticism is what you’d expect from people with partisan and ideological reasons to oppose this president, but I’ve tried to pick out the more serious and credible examples.  John Bolton, for example, became a fierce critic of the Republican president who appointed him, and isn’t an inflexible critic of his Democratic successor:

John Bolton:  In 2009, the Obama administration’s approach to Pyongyang appeared unexpectedly realistic. The White House initially seemed to abandon the Clinton-Bush obsession with making deals involving tangible economic and political concessions to North Korea in exchange for yet more promises to terminate its nuclear weapons program. Mr. Obama rightly believed that avidly pursuing such negotiations, offering one “compromise” after another, simply reinforced the North’s craving for attention without producing results.  [….]

But Mr. Obama’s reluctance to engage the North, simply abandoning the misguided Clinton-Bush diplomacy, is nothing to write home about. Not making unforced concessions that have the political or economic effect of propping up the regime, which repeatedly promises to give up its nuclear program but never does, avoids one erroneous path but follows another. In fact, administration passivity simply permitted the North to proceed essentially unimpeded.

The problem, in other words, is that our policy hasn’t caught up with the long-overdue consensus that North Korea isn’t going to disarm or cease to be a menace for any price, and won’t allow us to just ignore it.  Talks have failed, deterrence is failing, and trying to wait North Korea out has failed because China keeps it afloat no matter what it does.  North Korea is forcing a confrontation.  We’ll eventually have to face that, but it’s also important to make China pay for the behavior it enables.

Stephen Yates:  China should be named and shamed for its role in enabling North Korea to remain and grow as a threat. North Korea is one of the most sanctioned countries on the planet, but Beijing (with only brief exceptions) has effectively watered down and otherwise dulled the impact of international sanctions on North Korean “stability.”

Beijing no doubt would be horrified by the prospect of an international review of the many ways North Korea’s illicit activities involve Chinese institutions, territory, and personnel, but such a comprehensive audit would be entirely appropriate.

Well, yeah, except that everyone who doesn’t already know what China’s game is, is simply denying the overwhelming evidence of its deliberate bad faith.  It’s a small beginning that Susan Rice, who has taken herself out of the running for Secretary of State, is at least trying to be our U.N. Ambassador by pushing her Chinese counterpart past the limits of polite decorum.  Good luck getting her government to reign Kim Jong Un in unless we do things to make him China’s problem, too.  Like sanctioning the Chinese banks and mining companies that finance Kim Jong Un, and threatening to seed the Tumen River valley with more guns per square meter than Waziristan.

Ed Royce:  “I’ve been calling for a North Korea policy with energy, creativity and focus. Instead, the Obama Administration’s approach continues to be unimaginative and moribund. We can either take a different approach, or watch as the North Korean threat to the region and the U.S. grows.”

Royce, who had advocated the global pursuit and freezing of North Korean assets by the Treasury Department, beyond the constraints of a moribund U.N. Sanctions Committee, knows that this strategy worked with devastating effect in 2005 and 2006.  To be fair, the administration has dropped a few hints that it’s considering this:

Even if the Security Council fails to pass sanctions, the United States and other nations could impose unilateral measures, as they have with Iran, the senior administration officials said.  [CNN]

But my guess is they’re more serious when they also say they’ll ask the U.N. for a new (unenforced) resolution, send a few ships to do port calls in Chinhae and Incheon, and stop the long-overdue removal of U.S. ground forces from Korea.

Beijing’s biggest fear has always been destabilizing North Korea, and setting off a collapse that could put South Korean forces, and perhaps their American allies, on China’s border.  [N.Y. Times, David E. Sanger and William J. Broad]

Yeah.  It sure is too bad we have no conceivable means of pressuring China whatsoever.  Any ideas?  Nothing?  In that case, what do you suppose McNamara and Rusk would have done?

But the essence of the American strategy, as described Wednesday by administration officials, was to force the Chinese into an uncomfortable choice.

“The kinds of things we would do to enhance the region’s security against a North Korean nuclear missile capability,” one senior administration official said in an interview, “are indistinguishable from the things the Chinese would view as a containment strategy” aimed at Beijing.

They would include increased patrols in waters the Chinese are trying to claim as part of their exclusive zone, along with military exercises with allies in the region. “It’s the right approach, but whether it works is another matter,” said Christopher R. Hill, who was the chief negotiator with North Korea during President George W. Bush’s second term, and is now dean of the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, on Wednesday. “The approach of thickening up the antimissile effort is something that would get China’s attention.”

Notwithstanding the poor credibility of the Times’s source, I agree that there are some good ideas here, including a regional anti-missile shield, an East Asian analogue of NATO, and an open effort to contain a China whose belligerent territorial claims have scared the bejeezus out of Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines, and have even given rise to a budding alliance with Vietnam.  This much is to our strategic benefit.  It concerns me that we won’t really go through with this, but it concerns me more that we’ll “send American boys 9 or 10 thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”  Increased U.S. involvement should focus on command, control, intelligence, and diplomatic relationships, and controlled sales of the best defensive weapons systems.  It should not focus on putting a heavier U.S. footprint in the region.

I’m sure plenty of Japanese and Koreans sleep more soundly knowing that every Saturday, Itaewon and Pyongtaek are filled with Americans — the likely majority of them civilians — shopping for mink blankets and soju kettles.  They might even feel safe enough to vote for imperialist-America-bashing candidates who promise to cut defense spending and send the difference to Kim Jong Un.  Of course, those soldiers didn’t stop North Korea from sinking the Cheonan, shelling Yeongpyeong, or kidnapping God-knows-how-many Japanese.  In fact, they probably gave the Pentagon enough leverage to prevent South Korea from taking out the North Korean units responsible for the 2010 attacks.  I wonder if any North Korean soldiers know enough to thank Kim Il Sung’s eternal spirit that American G.I.’s keep them safe and well-fed.


  1. I think China is a lot more worried about Waziristan on the Tumen. I’m dead-set against any post-reunification occupation of northern Korea by any outside power, and given the power of Korean nationalism, ROK forces are the only ones that could stabilize northern Korea, and only if no foreign troops go in.


  2. Glans, China fears irredentism and the trouble that brings [see here].

    Joshua, I agree with you about not having foreign troops in the former DPRK. In my own grand bargain (toward the bottom of the link above), I suggest that even if the US military presence is maintained (as both right and left in the ROK have said they desire, and reportedly even Kim Jong-il himself!), then it should not be in any area formerly part of the DPRK, or at least north of Pyongyang.

    A Chinese-leased outlet to the sea as part of the grand bargain would be the sole exception, and one advantage of that is that it would channel nationalist sentiment toward China instead of the US.


  3. So, if the U.S. goes along with Chinese hegemony over any part of North Korea, don’t you suppose that we’ll be blamed for that? I do. I’d let China know that if the regime falls, we’d support invoking the doctrine of odious debt, the confiscation of all foreign-owned property, and the renegotiation of all leases to non-Korean entities.


  4. Cubans hate having Guantanamo leased to us. The Chinese hated having Hong Kong leased to the Brits. The Koreans would hate having one of their ports leased to the Chinese. The Korean people must have unquestioned sovereignty over the whole peninsula, right up to the two rivers and the mountain. The Koreans north of the peninsula will be a national minority in China.

    When the Chinese and the Koreans understand these points and act on them, they can have good neighborly relations.


  5. Glans, the Kushibo Plan does not call for giving up any port to the Chinese. As I envision it, Rajin-S?nbong would be taken out of Chinese hands because the Chinese would develop their own port on their own actual territory. The Kushibo Plan would merely give them a lease on river access so that the landlocked part of Jilin Province can reach the East Sea. If that seems environmentally unsound, then a short rail corridor and development of a port about six miles west of the mouth of the Tuman River. Neither of these requires Chinese control of North Korea’s Rajin facilities which, I might add, China already occupies.

    Joshua, I do think there will be some blame for the US being involved in such a bargain. So would the ROK government (or the succeeding Republic of Unified Korea government). But guess what? These are elements from a certain portion of political spectrum that would blame the US no matter what, and blame the Seoul government no matter what.

    In a world of bad choices and worse choices, I would take the risk and the resulting trouble of leftist elements in northern Korea blaming the US rather than keeping North Korea under the current regime’s control, which is allowed to continue as long as Beijing allows it to continue.

    Beijing wants a little (access to the East Sea and a buffer against the West) and to get that they take a lot (hegemony over all of the DPRK). Short of the North Korean people rising up on their own and/or a coup of some kind, I don’t see Chinese hegemony over the entirety of North Korea ending, and thus the murderous regime continues.

    Furthermore, there may come a time when things start to go south very soon, and we may be looking at a shooting war between the Chinese on one side and the South Koreans and whoever on the other. Even if the Kushibo Plan is rejected prior to that, it provides a framework where Beijing gets what it wants and needs and thus it becomes a preferred route to a shooting war.

    The land I’m talking about is very small, it’s already on the border, and it’s not a giveaway. In fact, if it gets the Chinese out of Rajin, it’s a net gain.

    It’s certainly worth pursuing.


  6. Joshua wrote:

    I’d let China know that if the regime falls, we’d support invoking the doctrine of odious debt, the confiscation of all foreign-owned property, and the renegotiation of all leases to non-Korean entities.

    Wouldn’t that prompt China to use any means necessary to prop up the regime?


  7. Alec wrote:

    Exciting news! A Young Un’ may be on the way!

    Already on it. I suspect that part of the kinder-and-gentler-regime makeover is to make the Kim Jong-un clan look more like a royal family than a dictatorial cabal.


  8. The Brilliant Spelunker Plan involves an invasion force of Chinese-American SEAL teams from the north wearing PLA uniforms and ROK amphibious assault teams from the south wearing DPRK uniforms. The Norks would never figure out who is who and the ensuing chaos would provoke infighting among North Korean soldiers and their generals as well as further mistrust of Beijing by Pyongyang. After Kim Jong Un’s regime is toppled then the Kushibo plan kicks in.


  9. That detail has been discussed comprehensively in tactical planning and managed technically in this 48 hour operation. The ROK team will be able to coordinate and communicate effectively during the advance and within the range of chosen targets. Civilian casualties are minimized as well. Most of the damage is done in the initial stages without boots on the ground; once a certain objective is reached the rest falls into place rather quickly. All of Pyongyang and people from the DMZ to the Yalu and Tumen river will immediately know a sudden military coup has taken place, it will become apparent that it’s an ROK unification exercise within a few days after national media is secured.