For years, friends have asked me why the Obama Administration hasn’t made a serious effort to enforce sanctions against North Korea when we know they’ve worked before. I’ve resisted most temptations to psychoanalyze or speculate, but when pressed, I’ve supposed that the administration might have thought that a deal was still possible, however long the odds against it. With this revelation, however, everything suddenly makes sense.
Days before North Korea’s latest nuclear-bomb test, the Obama administration secretly agreed to talks to try to formally end the Korean War, dropping a longstanding condition that Pyongyang first take steps to curtail its nuclear arsenal.
Instead the U.S. called for North Korea’s atomic-weapons program to be simply part of the talks. Pyongyang declined the counter-proposal, according to U.S. officials familiar with the events. Its nuclear test on Jan. 6 ended the diplomatic gambit.
The episode, in an exchange at the United Nations, was one of several unsuccessful attempts that American officials say they made to discuss denuclearization with North Korea during President Barack Obama’s second term while also negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program. [Wall Street Journal, Alastair Gale & Carol E. Lee]
Despite an uninterrupted series of North Korean outrages, the administration held off because it really believed that appeasement was possible, right up to the end, when Kim Jong-un pushed the plunger. Reuters puts a slightly different spin on the story …
The United States rejected a North Korean proposal to discuss a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War because it did not address denuclearization on the peninsula, the State Department said on Sunday. [Reuters]
… but it really amounts to the same thing.
“We carefully considered their proposal, and made clear that denuclearization had to be part of any such discussion. The North rejected our response,” he said. “Our response to the NK proposal was consistent with our longstanding focus on denuclearization.”
That is, the White House and Foggy Bottom were ready to enter into talks with Pyongyang with or without any “precondition that North Korea” — which has cheated on multiple deals with past Presidents of both parties — “first take steps that show a willingness to give up its nuclear program.”
In a sense, this isn’t anything new; we saw another report similar to this one two years ago. But it should still shock us — first, because those 2014 reports didn’t shock us enough; second, because of all that has happened since then; and third, because the talks came amid reports of a nuclear test, which suggests that our diplomats offered Kim Jong-un nuclear blackmail to buy him out of the headlines.
In practice, that would have meant giving Pyongyang valuable concessions before Pyongyang took a single step toward disarming. Those concessions might not have been written — the State Department has learned not to reduce its deals with North Korea to writing in any detail. The concessions might not even have been expressed. But whether there was a stated promise or not, to keep the deal from blowing up as it packed its boxes, the administration would have gone soft on sanctions, on calls for accountability over human rights, and on accountability for its cyberattacks and terrorism. Indeed, it’s almost certain that the North Koreans won valuable sanctions relief simply by a combination of threats and talks, by giving our diplomats the false hope that if we appeased them a little longer, there might be peace in our time.
Is our State Department really that gullible? Does it really believe that a regime that can’t abide by an Armistice, five U.N. Security Council Resolutions, two agreed frameworks, a Leap Day deal, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would abide by yet another piece of paper, assuming one were ever signed? For that matter, who believes that this administration could have concluded a peace treaty in its remaining months in office? Not all Korea watchers seem fully capable of believing that, and several alternative theories have emerged.
1. We talk to the North Koreans all the time. This is no big deal.
2. The State Department outsourced its North Korea policy to a noisy little cabal of rabid North Korean sympathizers, fringe kooks from Oakland, and Code Pink, who are almost the only Americans who are calling for a peace treaty with North Korea (I said “almost”). But who would give them the time of day or entertain their views?
Christine Ahn is in the center, the white-haired man to her right is KANCC President Yoon Kil-Sang, and the man at the head of the table is Robert King, your Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea. Of course, “meeting” and “influencing” are two different things, but who would have thought that a man in King’s position would meet with two leading North Korean human rights denialists? Still, as disgraceful as this is, it seems to be a partial explanation at best.
3. David Maxwell hypothesizes that the State Department (despite all outward appearances) is deviously clever and made this offer to discredit calls for a peace treaty. If so, mission accomplished, although it seems like a big political risk to take to appease a few fringe kooks during an election year, despite the lack of support for such an endeavor within the U.S. political mainstream, among our allies, or in Congress. After all, any fool knows that North Korea can’t survive in a state of peace with American and South Korea, right? Could our State Department really be so ignorant about North Korea? Well, just watch their A-team at work before a congressional subcommittee before you answer that.
4. My favorite theory is that President Obama wanted a deal to cover his exit, just like George W. Bush did before him. As these talks were happening, there were already published rumors of a nuke test. Japan and South Korea also seem to have expected a test. This was the administration’s last-gasp offer of concessions to prevent an election-year test and the utter collapse of its North Korea policy, whatever that policy was. In retrospect, what it really looks like is an offer to pay nuclear blackmail.
Kim Jong-un was a fool to walk away from State’s offer. His father made and broke agreements to denuclearize for years, reaping valuable concessions from lame duck administrations in exchange for lies and empty gestures. Inevitably, and as long as the “peace process” survived, Pyongyang could have secured our silence and abstention on its crimes against humanity, the cancelation of military exercises, lax sanctions enforcement, and discussions about the withdrawal of U.S. forces. IAEA inspectors would have come and gone with Kim Jong-un’s mood swings, but there had never been real progress toward disarmament before. What person of any common sense or judgment thinks things would have ended any differently this time?