With the world erupting in the greatest cascade of escalating conflicts since 1975 and President Obama’s approval rating on foreign policy at negative 21.2% — 11% lower than his overall (dis)approval rating — John Kerry eked out some time over the weekend to tempt fate with a dubious boast:
I just came back from China, where we are engaged with the Chinese in dealing with North Korea. And you will notice, since the visit last year, North Korea has been quieter. We haven’t done what we want to do yet with respect to the de-nuclearization. But we are working on that and moving forward. [John Kerry, Meet the Press, July 20, 2014]
If you’re in Seoul or certain parts of Washington, that clapping sound isn’t applause; it’s the smack of palms against foreheads. Kerry’s observation rubs a lamp that wiser men do not touch for fear of the genies they would rather not summon. One may as well compliment a politician’s moderate views during primary season, or announce one’s arrival in the cellblock by telling the gang leader that he seems a decent enough fellow. As if on cue, yesterday, North Korea threatened South Korea and the United States with “practical retaliatory actions of justice.”
As South Koreans are keenly aware, North Korea has not been quiet. Under the direct supervision of His Porcine Majesty, it has been testing SCUDs in violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions, along with massive barrages of artillery rockets. The U.S. and U.N. responses to this have been negligible.
At best, Kerry’s comment suggests poor coordination with one of our most important allies that still hasn’t been attacked this year. At worst, it suggests dangerously wishful and complacent thinking. It clearly means that Kerry neither knows nor cares much about North Korea. Such revelations cause unease among our allies, which is why the State Department had to “clarify” Kerry’s remarks yesterday:
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is clearly concerned about North Korea’s provocative actions and did not mean to downplay the seriousness of the issue when he said Pyongyang is “quieter” than before, a government official said Monday.
“The secretary and we all have been very clear in condemning North Korea’s aggressive actions when they occur. We’ve talked recently about the ballistic missiles and how those were in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said at a regular press briefing.
“So I think the secretary has been very clear about our concern with North Korea’s activity,” she said in response to a question whether Kerry’s statement is a correct assessment of the situation. “He wasn’t trying to convey something different than we’ve conveyed in the past.” [Yonhap]
Concern, however, is no substitute for a coherence in matters of policy. Under Kerry’s tenure, the Obama Administration has shown a lack of seriousness about enforcing existing U.N. Security Council sanctions, even after North Korea was caught in flagrante delicto. It has imposed targeted financial sanctions on Zimbabwe, Russia, and Belarus — and grudgingly enforced tough financial sanctions against Iran — while its tepid trade sanctions against North Korea are stuck in the 1970s. Treasury has sanctioned and blocked the assets of the top leaders of these nations, but none of the top leaders of North Korea.
Our government has designated Burma and Iran to be primary money laundering concerns, a potentially devastating measure that is the financial industry’s equivalent of a sex offender registration, isolating them from a community where reputation means everything. It has made no such designation with respect to North Korea, the world’s most prolific state sponsor of money laundering, counterfeiting, drug dealing, and illegal proliferation.
Most unforgivably, it has offered no policy response whatsoever to a U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s finding that Kim Jong Un’s regime is committing crimes against humanity. Kerry is as deaf to the cries of the North Korean people as he is to roar of Kim Jong Un’s rockets. That is why North Korea continues to defy the Commission of Inquiry and all those who support its recommendations.
It’s as if this administration has no North Korea policy at all.
Meanwhile, as gravity of the threat from North Korea builds, President Park is so convinced that a North Korean provocation is imminent that she has directed her military commanders to return fire immediately if fired on by North Korea. This puts us one ill-advised temptation away from the miscalculation that could start Korean War II.
But perhaps, Koreans wonder, this isn’t what Kerry meant:
[C]ritics said [Kerry’s] assessment is far from reality.
While characterizing the North as “quieter,” Kerry might have referred to the fact that the provocative nation has not carried out a nuclear test or a long-range rocket launch — the two main types of provocations Pyongyang has used to rattle the world.
Even without such major provocations, however, the North has continued to rattle its saber in recent months, firing a number of rockets, missiles and artillery rounds off its coast with some launches in violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Last week, the council issued a statement condemning the North’s ballistic missile launches. [Yonhap]
To claim success for Kim Jong Un’s failure to nuke off is to confuse coincidence with causation. There is no evidence that Kerry’s diplomacy has resulted in serious movement toward disarming North Korea. There is more evidence that the Obama Administration itself is moving away from denuclearization as an objective.
One could just as well claim that the House’s introduction last April of tough financial sanctions targeted at Kim Jong Un’s financial jugular may be deterring him from a nuclear test. Or, it could simply be that North Korea’s nuclear tests will conform to their previous interval of three to four years. A test of something louder would at least get the attention of everyone else in Washington who would otherwise forget that North Korea exists. One can hope that this time, Congress might just respond with more credible policy options than John Kerry has to offer.