In 2009, the Democrats came to the White House with high hopes that they could win North Korea’s trust and sign Agreed Framework III. Those hopes didn’t last. In May, North Korea nuked off for the second time. In 2010, it attacked the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island. The quick collapse of the Leap Day Agreement in 2012 killed off any hopes of a deal for good. For most of this period, Hillary Clinton didn’t really know what to do but couldn’t admit that, so she invented “strategic patience,” a name that makes doing nothing sound like a policy.
“Strategic patience” rested on the assumption that North Korea, the world’s most sanctioned country, would eventually come to its senses. Mrs. Clinton ought to have consulted with better lawyers. The claim was nonsense, the sanctions were mostly thin air, and after the 2013 nuke test, even the State Department began backing away from “strategic patience.”
Meanwhile, the Republicans in Congress were quietly seizing the agenda. Ed Royce reached out to both Republicans and Democrats to gain their support for a more hawkish policy. The fourth nuke test in 2016 broke the dam that held Royce and allies back. Democrats fled en masse from “strategic patience” — or whatever had replaced it — and joined Republicans to pass new sanctions legislation, not only by a veto-proof majority but almost unanimously (only two out of 535 members of Congress, the Republican isolationists Justin Amash and Thomas Massie, voted against it). The legislation, in turn, influenced the U.N. resolution that followed, and thus, the policies of U.N. member states everywhere. A shift in the congressional consensus also shifted the global consensus.
President Obama’s foreign policy, which is broadly perceived as too passive, has become an election-year albatross to the Democrats. They could not afford to find themselves on the wrong side of this consensus on North Korea, Americans’ least-favorite country. The lopsided vote on the sanctions law may have exaggerated the magnitude of the shift in Democrats’ private sentiments, but it probably reflects the shift in the political mainstream.
What’s most remarkable about the 2016 Democrats is just how far they’ve shifted from the 2008 Democrats on North Korea policy. Andrei Lankov, no less, says he’s never seen such unanimity in Washington about the need for tougher sanctions, at least for now. (Andrei’s informal survey probably focused heavily on think tanks, whose scholars are often the last to emerge from their island hideouts.)
Democrats may not share the Republicans’ enthusiasm for a harder line, and there are still pockets of dissent among left-of-center academics who don’t have to run for office, but elected Democrats and aspiring policymakers have come around to the futility of engaging Kim Jong-un. Top officials in the Obama Administration, like Samantha Power and Tom Malinowski, have emerged as strong and effective critics of Pyongyang on human rights. For now, the clear consensus among Democrats supports tougher sanctions and more pressure on human rights.
Fortunately for Democrats, Donald Trump has given them cover to evolve by doing what he does best — saying stupid things, in this case, about Kim Jong-un. For weeks, I’ve collected hints that the Democrats will try to outflank Trump on the right, using his incoherent statements about talks with Kim Jong-un as a foil. They’re assembling a stable and centrist policy team, or at least a team that pretends to be, although the pro-appeasement holdouts are still represented by Philip Yun of the Ploughshares Fund. The Democrats’ draft platform adds more evidence of this evolution.
North Korea is perhaps the most repressive regime on the planet, run by a sadistic dictator. It has conducted several nuclear tests and is attempting to develop the capability to put a nuclear warhead on a long-range missile that could directly threaten the United States. Yet Donald Trump praises North Korea’s dictator, threatens to abandon our treaty allies, Japan and South Korea, and encourages the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region. This approach is incoherent and rather than solving a global crisis, would create a new one. Democrats will protect America and our allies, press China to restrain North Korea, and sharpen the choices for Pyongyang to compel it to abandon its illegal nuclear and missile programs. [Draft Democratic Platform]
Gone are the days when calling North Korean dictators disparaging names was unstatesmanlike and unseemly. What’s missing from the draft is almost as significant — any discussion of engagement or diplomacy. A fair reading of what the Democrats say is that their preferred end game is still a diplomatic agreement, but under strict preconditions, with full disarmament as the goal, and obtained through financial and diplomatic coercion if necessary. They may harbor other ideas privately, but they aren’t talking about them in front of me.
North Korea makes two other appearances in the draft platform. In a paragraph on Russia, it says, “We will make it clear to Putin that we are prepared to cooperate with him when it is in our interest — as we did on reducing nuclear stockpiles, dismantling Iran’s nuclear program, sanctioning North Korea, and resupplying our troops in Afghanistan — but we will not hesitate to stand up to Russian aggression.” Putin, cooperating on North Korea sanctions? That seems a tad optimistic, but OK, fine.
Later, talking about the Asia-Pacific region generally:
From the Asia Pacific to the Indian Ocean, we will deepen our alliances in the region with Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand. Democrats will continue to invest in a long-term strategic partnership with India—the world’s largest democracy, a nation of great diversity, and an important Pacific power. We will work with our allies and partners to fortify regional institutions and norms as well as protect freedom of the seas in the South China Sea. We will push back against North Korean aggression and press China to play by the rules. We will stand up to Beijing on unfair trade practices, currency manipulation, and cyberattacks. And we will promote greater respect for human rights, including the rights of Tibetans. [Dems]
Party platforms are best known for being forgotten by presidents after Election Day, and that’s probably never been more true than this year, when both parties have deep divisions. Now, I don’t know if any of you are old enough to remember the 1990s, but back then, we had a president named “Clinton” who not only said he’d talk to a North Korean dictator, but totally did. This did not end well, although the people who negotiated the deal still deny this with a ferocity unknown to people who actually believe themselves. Those 1990s-era Clinton types are still — after all these years — beside themselves that a subsequent president you probably haven’t forgotten quite yet, Barack Obama, didn’t try harder to revive their magnum opus, the 1994 Agreed Framework. Helpfully, David Straub explains why:
In recent years, North Korea has stated repeatedly, both publicly and privately, that it is not willing to negotiate denuclearization except in the context of global denuclearization. In other words, not in our lifetimes. It has said only that it is willing to sit down with the United States to negotiate “mutual arms reduction.” That is code for the United States treating North Korea as a nuclear equal and negotiating the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula. The same can be said of North Korea’s proposal for bilateral peace talks with the United States.
If the U.S. government entered negotiations with North Korea, the talks would be almost certain to fail immediately and spectacularly. Such an outcome would not only embarrass the United States in front of its friends and allies, it would also open up the president to withering criticism from the opposition at home for naiveté and fecklessness. More importantly, it would serve to underline in North Korean leaders’ minds that, if they only hang tough, eventually the United States will accept them as a legitimate nuclear weapons state.
The Obama administration wants only to induce the North Korean leadership to understand that nuclear weapons cost more than they’re worth. As the State Department’s Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Danny Russel, said during a recent lecture here at Shorenstein APARC, “We are not out to bring North Korea’s leaders to their knees. We are trying to bring them to their senses.”
How much pressure and how long will it take? Probably a lot. But the clearer and the more consistent our message is, the sooner it will happen. To believe otherwise comes close to assuming that the North Korean regime and its leaders are somehow unique in human history. [David Straub, NK News]
Alternative explanation: President Obama had enough political capital for two unpopular deals, so he chose to spend that capital on Iran and Cuba instead. In attempting to cast the president’s policy as centrist, Straub aligns it between two extremities. He criticizes “the right” for pushing the president to push Pyongyang too far too fast, risking war and the straining of alliances, but he reserves his strongest criticism for “the left,” by which I can only assume he means the Bob Carlin-Joel Wit wing that can’t get itself unstuck from the 90s.
The left’s second proposal is that the United States focus on getting North Korea to agree to a freeze on its nuclear and missile programs, to prevent a bad situation from getting worse. Now, a freeze itself would be good. But the United States tried this in the Leap Day Deal and it failed spectacularly. The problems today are how to achieve a real freeze and how to ensure that it does not imply acceptance of North Korea as a limited nuclear weapons state. For example, how much and what would the United States have to give the North Koreans for such a freeze? How could we verify that they are not continuing with nuclear and missile development after they receive “payment?” How could we be confident that they would not do as they did after the Leap Day Deal and break the agreement almost immediately? And, most importantly, at the time of making such a deal, what basis would we have to believe that this was a stepping stone on the way to complete denuclearization?
If we didn’t have such a basis, the deal would be regarded universally, including by our South Korean and Japanese allies, as indicating de facto American acquiescence in North Korea being a limited nuclear weapons state. Until questions such as these can be credibly answered, a freeze is more of an aspiration than a potential policy. [David Straub, NK News]
What’s striking about this year is the extent to which each party has abandoned its recent policy consensus. In the case of the Republicans, this was an intellectual collapse into anarchy, like the collapse of a “stable” Middle Eastern autocracy that the CIA never predicted. Republican foreign policy experts’ disgust with Trump is well known — an unprecedented number of them have shunned him or defected to the Democrats. One can only imagine the caliber of talent Trump would recruit if we’re foolish enough to elect him.
With the Democrats, we saw less shedding of people and more shedding of discredited policy. That speaks well of them, but in the end, policies are executed according to the instincts of the policymakers. In the end, I can’t quite make myself believe that the Democrats are prepared to disarm Kim Jong-un the Chicago Way.