Category Archives: Washington Views

Sen. Cory Gardner just gave as good a speech about North Korea policy as I’ve ever seen

Senator Cory Gardner* of Colorado is the new Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy. When I first heard that a freshman Senator had been picked to lead such an important subcommittee, it concerned me. Delving into Gardner’s background, however, it became clear that he’s highly intelligent — he graduated from college summa cum laude, and (at least according to his Wikipedia page) speaks fluent German. He has graduated from law school (never a bad thing for a lawmaker) and served as Legislative Director for Sen. Wayne Allard (ditto). He’s also a relative moderate in a party whose image has been dominated by the likes of Rand Paul and Ted Cruz recently. So why not? An ounce of judgment is worth a pound of seniority. But then, a friend directed me to this:

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Aside from the fact that it was a torpedo, not a missile, that sank the Cheonan, that was just about pitch-perfect. It’s about as good a speech as I’ve seen any politician deliver about North Korea, and quite possibly the best articulation I’ve seen of what a better North Korea policy would be. The confidence of the Senate leaders in Senator Gardner certainly exceeds his seniority.

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Last year’s analysis proves that this year’s analysis of N. Korea’s New Year speech will also be crap

The worst news of the day is that KCNA is working again. That means that as you read this, somewhere in northwest D.C., America’s best-credentialed astrologers are sifting through a desert of despotism for grains of glasnost.

In line with the requirements of the prevailing situation, the officers and men of the Korean People’s Internal Security Forces should sharpen the sword for defending the leader, system and people, and members of the Worker-Peasant Red Guards and the Young Red Guards should conduct combat and political training in a real-war atmosphere, thereby beefing up their combat efficiency and getting fully prepared for an all-people resistance so that they can defend their own provinces, counties and villages by themselves.

By carrying out the Party’s line of promoting the two fronts simultaneously, the defence industry sector should step up the efforts to make the munitions production Juche-oriented, modern and scientific and proactively develop and perfect powerful cutting-edge military hardware of our own style.

I have no analysis to offer of the speech itself. To the extent it means anything at all, it looks like a lot of the same old garbage to me — calls for boosting the military, sciences, and agricultural and coal production. Instead, I offer analysis of the analysis, for which last year’s effort is pretty much evergreen, and even includes some examples of past analyses that haven’t held up especially well.

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In 2006, Ashton Carter called for blowing up a N. Korean missile on the launch pad

At the time, I wasn’t especially enthusiastic about the idea, and I’m still not enthusiastic about it today, but had I known then that George W. Bush and Barack Obama would let things get to where they’ve gotten today, I might have agreed with the idea of an aerial intercept.

One thing we know about Ashton Carter is that he talks a good game.

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On Think Tanks, Propaganda, the Foreign Agents’ Registration Act, and Korea

Washington is a marvelous city for someone like me. Where else could a foreigner, an outsider like myself, do the things I was able to do?

                                          – Tongsun Park, to the House Ethics Committee, April 1978

A detailed story in The New York Times, examining grants and gifts by foreign governments to U.S. think tanks — and how those gifts influence scholars (and through them), voters, policymakers, and Congress — has caused much controversy and discussion in Washington this week. South Korea is not mentioned in the story, but it does feature prominently in this companion graphic tracking think tank contributions.

The Times also suggests that some of the strings attached to those gifts, whether expressed or (more often) implied, could violate the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which is a thing people can actually go to jail for, but as we’ll see below, seldom do.

In a Washington Post op-ed, David Post calls the story “rather nasty” and wonders what the big deal is. The Brookings Institution, one of the think tanks discussed in the story, responds that the reporter’s “characterization of a few issues is inaccurate,” but promises to “continue to review our internal policies and procedures … to make sure that we are setting the standard for think tank integrity.” A “deeply concerned” Congressman Frank Wolf also wrote to Brookings.

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Former Obama Admin. official: Our N. Korea sanctions are weak and our policy is stuck

The Obama Administration’s North Korea team is stuck. Its thirst for fresh blood is so dire that it recently asked Keith Richards whether he still has the number of that secret clinic in Switzerland.* Don’t take my word for it. Last Friday, former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell spoke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as a friend and spy of mine was sitting in the audience (thank you). Campbell’s remarks are worth listening to in full, but the money quote — which went unreported in the press despite its significance, and despite the fact that Campbell emphasized it and closed with it — starts at 20:19:

And I must say — I’ll just conclude with this — when we think about our overall tool kit, there is one element of our strategy that I don’t think people fully appreciate. We often think of North Korea — I certainly did — as one of the most sanctioned countries in the world, with almost impossible objective … obstacles for people wanting to travel, invest, or the like.

It turns out, when I was at the State Department, working on Myanmar, or Burma, comparing Burma to North Korea is night and day.

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Americans hate foreign policy, and also, the lack of one

One lovely April morning, the world awakened to find that its greatest power has fallen under the control of a cabal of perky Starbucks baristas. As it turns out, I am not alone in ridiculing the weaponization of tweets and hashtags as a substitute for tough and substantive national security policymaking as the world’s predators seize the day.

Conspiratorial minds will suppose that this is all somehow coordinated, and maybe some of it is, but I assure you that I’ve been excluded. This snub stings all the more, given that the illuminati’s standards of membership are permissive enough to include liberals (James Carville, Fred Hiatt), self-described “realists” (Richard Haass, see also), whatever you call David Brooks, and conservatives like Jonah Goldberg, whose criticism (unsurprisingly, to many of you) looks spot-on to me:

Step 1: Be Barack Obama (and not George W. Bush).

Step 2: ????

Step 3: World peace!

(With apologies to South Park.)

As a candidate, Obama held a huge campaign rally in, of all places, Berlin, touting his bona fides as a citizen of the world. The crowd went wild, as he talked at length about a world without walls (you had to be there).

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Rep. Albio Sires and Rabbi Abraham Cooper on Human Rights in North Korea

I’ll begin a gradual return from my hiatus by linking to this excellent op-ed by Rep. Albio Sires, Democrat from New Jersey, on the imperative of addressing North Korea’s human rights abuses. It’s a welcome sign that this isn’t a partisan issue.

This op-ed, by Rabbi Abraham Cooper, follows it logically and compares North Korea’s abuses to some of those that occurred during the Holocaust.

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Last week’s Senate hearings on N. Korea marked by skepticism and ambivalence

Last Thursday, two days after the  hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee also held a hearing (on video here).  This time, consensus was much less evident than ambivalence, and the views of the State Department were much more in evidence.  Most of the oxygen was consumed by the first witness, Special Envoy Glyn Davies.

Our Special Envoy’s testimony, by the way, was sponsored by Deer Park Bottled Water (written statement here).

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Chairman Bob Menendez (opening statement here) and Ranking Member Bob Corker* seem to agree that past policies, whatever you may think of them, have failed. (* Yes, Corker, not McCain. Noted.).  You may also be interested in what Menendez had to say in Foreign Policy.  On the Senate side, it’s just as clear that the current policy direction is considered a failure; it’s less clear what the Senators think a better policy would be, and the State Department’s traditional influence was much more evident in the selection of witnesses.

Say what you will about Davies, but the man certainly knows how to follow a script. Listening to him talk about North Korea’s “deplorable” human rights conditions, or its starvation of its people while it pours money into WMD programs, you wouldn’t think that this was the same guy who once asked a State Department colleague to Trotsky the naughty bits out of a human rights report on North Korea, during the heyday of Agreed Framework II.

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Rumors Hint at Policy Shifts in U.S. and South Korea

From Engagement to Reunification?

So says the Chosun Ilbo, in describing what would be a major policy shift for South Korea. From 2008 until now, the policy would best be described as reluctant engagement, which brought out North Korea’s violent and extortionate streak. Now, according to unnamed sources in the Unification Ministry, the administration seems to be looking for ways to prepare for and even accelerate reunification:

The government is shifting the emphasis of North Korea policy from exchanges and cooperation to fully fledged preparations for reunification beginning in 2011. “Next year, we intend to concentrate our efforts on strengthening our reunification capabilities rather than on dialogue with the North,” a Unification Ministry official said. It is apparently looking to influence ordinary North Koreans to bring about changes in the Stalinist country. “We must free ourselves from the perception that reunification by absorption is unfeasible,” he added.

More on that here. The problem with stories like this, of course, is that they name only anonymous officials, and therefore, we really don’t know whether we’re hearing the views of a junior official with rogue views, someone who represents a faction within the Ministry, or someone who is intentionally disinforming the Chosun Ilbo to scare the North Koreans.

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I wonder if China is pleased with Japan’s new plans to expand defense spending, deploy more PAC-3 Patriot missile batteries, build more submarines to patrol disputed waters, and arm more Aegis cruisers with Standard-3 missiles. Again, there is even talk of acquiring nuclear weapons. China has only its own reckless backing of North Korea to blame for this. Me, I’d be happier if we sold the same types of gear to Taiwan, which as I take delight in repeating, happens to have China’s only legitimate government anyway. But any step toward an integrated alliance of stronger Asian democracies is a step in the right direction. Key to this is that Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan must not give in to the temptation of excessive dependence on a fickle and debt-laden America, and they must be able to survive a first strike well enough to give America a viable option of coming to their assistance. Chinese and North Korean behavior this year has tilted Asian voters sharply in the direction of demanding more defense spending and closer relations with the United States.


In the Washington Post, Victor Cha argues against what he describes as five myths about North Korea.

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Huzzah, I’m finally a moderate!

Not being a frequent reader of Foreign Policy, I don’t know much about the leanings of the particular bloggers there, although most would call that publication a stalwart of the “realist” view that had so recently become fashionable in Washington, before Al Qaeda in Iraq was squeezed down to a small nub of its former self, and before it became evident that North Korea, Iran, and China weren’t prospective negotiating partners after all. This week, we read one FP contributor calling for us to give up on the six-party talks, and another, Will Inboden, coming to the realization that we need leverage against North Korea to have any prospect of productive negotiations:

In the case of North Korea, the lead officials in the Obama administration realize that they have little leverage, in part as a result of the concessions made in the last two years of the Bush administration (such as removal of the DPRK from the state sponsor of terror list, and lifting of the Banco Delta Asia sanction along with returning Kim Jong Il’s $25 million of ill-gotten gains) that failed to secure a meaningful improvement in North Korea’s behavior. Refusing to negotiate from the current posture is a good starting point and helps turn North Korea’s (possible) desire for talks into a source of some small leverage.

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Throw the Book at Him

So I will assume that Stephen Kim, the Korean-American State Department contractor who is now being prosecuted for leaking top secret / sensitive compartmentalized information was neither employed by, nor sympathetic to, North Korea given his choice of Fox News as a recipient for his leak of information that might have revealed U.S. intelligence sources in North Korea. And having said that, I really don’t care what Kim’s specific views were, I just want to know if any foreign government put him up to this. Regardless of Kim’s views, the administration is right to throw the book at those who illegally leak classified information.

One of the most inviolable rules any civil servant, contractor, or employee must respect is that confidential or classified information must never leave the office. That’s why you’ve never seen me talk about my work, and you seldom even see me allude to it. There are exceptions, recognized by law, for revealing abuse of authority or a violation of law by colleagues, but the appropriate vehicle for those reports is to report that information to the Inspector General, not Fox News or Wikileaks.

I already regret making the comparison to Robert Kim, because I only draw it because of Stephen Kim’s ancestry, which shouldn’t matter.

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The New Conventional Wisdom: We Have No Idea

I don’t recall ever seeing Victor Cha offer a view that was particularly original, imaginative, or likely to end in a successful result, but he is a reliable indicator of Washington conventional wisdom about North Korea, which in turn is heavily influenced by Seoul’s views about the North. And here is the new conventional wisdom: we have no idea what to do now. In Cha’s own words:

North Korean behavior has gotten so bad, according to East-West Center Visiting Fellow Victor Cha, that foreign policy experts are really at a loss about what to do.

“You do want to have some sort of diplomacy or engagement, but what do you do if a country just refuses to engage, and in the meantime it continues to build nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles?” Cha said during an interview at the EWC’s recent 50th Anniversary International Conference. “It’s a real dilemma. This is really a case of a country that is operating outside the normal bounds of international relations. And when use of force is really difficult to contemplate as an option, what are you supposed to do?” [East-West Center]

For years, the conventional wisdom has been based on mirror-imaged rationalizations of North Korean motives, rationalizations that failed to understand its irrational (to us) pathology.

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Back to Gridlock?

Secretary of State Clinton will travel to Asia, including South Korea, next week. In announcing the visit, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell gave this July 15th on-the-record briefing. In contrast to the Bush Administration’s anytime, anywhere approach to the six-party talks, you can sense a subtle shift in tone:

Let me say that the United States and South Korea have always maintained, and our position is clear, that we are prepared under the right circumstances to sit down in a dialogue with North Korea. But as President Lee Myung-bak has said on numerous occasions, we do not want to talk for talking’s sake; there has to be a clear determination that North Korea rejects its provocative ways and embraces a path towards denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.

I get a growing sense of polarization in the Obama Administration. On the one hand, they seem to have figured out that diplomacy is going nowhere, and accordingly, they’re backing away for the Bush Administration’s desperate pursuit of it. On the other hand, they seem to have found neither the will nor the means to punish, deter, or change to the behavior of the North Korean regime.

All of which sounds very much like the polarization that beset the Bush Administration, almost from the very beginning.

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Washington’s “Conventional Wisdom” About North Korea Is an Oxymoron

Professor Sung Yoon Lee, writing in the Asia Times, says:

[T]he North Korean regime is in the midst of the most serious internal political challenge in nearly 20 years. Facing severe economic stresses, increasing infiltration of information into North Korea, ever more North Koreans attempting to defect to the South, and the challenge of handing over power to an unproven son only in his twenties, the allegedly ailing North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, must wrestle with profound questions of regime preservation as time runs out.

Here lies a rare opportunity for policymakers in Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo to accelerate and effect positive changes in the North Korean regime. Engaging the North Korean people rather than the regime through information operations and facilitating defection, while constricting Pyongyang’s cash flow, is the best means to that end. It’s also important for Washington to hold quiet consultations with Beijing to envision and prepare jointly for a unified Korea under Seoul’s initiative, a new polity that will necessarily remain free, peaceful, capitalist, pro-US and pro-China.

Bingo. And what better window of opportunity will we have than the nepotist succession of a 27 year-old kid in a society that reveres age and battle experience, and which at least purports to be different from its feudal predecessors?

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Friends With Benefits: Another Silly, Tired “Engagement” Debate

My general impression of the new North Korea blog 38 North is that it’s mostly the same old crap from the same old people who’ve been proposing the same demonstrably failed approaches to North Korea for the last 20 years. They’ve finally published one thing of interest to me, however, a response to John Feffer by Roberta Cohen of the liberal Brookings Institute. If anyone can show me that anyone to the right of Cohen has ever been published on 38 North, I’ll buy you a cookie. Nor would I call 38 North a true blog with regards to format or style — it’s more of an online op-ed page, only with a smaller audience. This general lack of balance and originality is especially unfortunate because there are some smart, sensible, and not-necessarily left-of-center people at SAIS’s U.S.-Korea Institute, which puts out 38 North. Perhaps more broadly, the real failure of originality is with the Foreign Policy Industry itself, for which we should be thankful that John Feffer at least breaks up the soccer-like scoreless ennui.

Cohen’s arguments against Feffer won’t be unfamiliar to OFK regulars, and certainly on the specific questions of North Korea’s willful disregard for the welfare of its people, Cohen argues the points well enough with the wealth of evidence available to her.

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Rep. Ros-Lehtinen Pays Respects to Cheonan Victims

cheonan.JPGFrom Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s staff:

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, had flowers placed on her behalf at South Korea ‘s Daejeon National Cemetery in honor and memory of those lost on the Republic of Korea naval ship Cheonan. Statement by Ros-Lehtinen:

“As we conclude Memorial Day observances in the U.S. and South Korea and honor the sacrifices of our military personnel, I would like to take the opportunity to, once again, express my most profound sadness for the tragic loss of 46 South Korean sailors aboard the Cheonan in March.

“The vital alliance between the governments of the United States and South Korea and the unbreakable bond between the people of both nations are as strong now as ever.

“We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the people of South Korea during this trying time.

Ros-Lehtinen is the Ranking (Republican) Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

In related news, SecDef Gates says that the Pentagon isn’t in any hurry to hold naval exercises off the coast of Korea, and South Korea has referred North Korea to the U.N. Security Council.

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