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. Burma has MUCH more in the way of sanctions and challenges associated with interactions. And I do think if we faced a set of further challenges with respect to North Korea, it would be possible for us to put more financial pressure on North Korea.
And I think we need to let our Chinese friends know and understand that some of the things that have been contemplated by the new regime, if followed through on, would entail and involve a reaction that is much more strenuous than [what] we’ve seen in the past. And I think that element of our diplomacy is likely to be necessary as we go forward. [Kurt Campbell, Speech at CSIS, Sept. 5, 2014]
Hallelujah: someone actually read the sanctions regulations for once. From this day forward, you’ll no longer have to take my word for that, either. Campbell may not know that Treasury recently relaxed Burma sanctions regulations, but his point stands — until quite recently, Burma sanctions were comprehensive, reached all kinds of trade and investment that used the dollar-based system, and included strong financial sanctions. Unlike North Korea, Burma is listed as a primary money laundering concern. Unlike North Korea, Burma’s human rights violators were specifically targeted.
Thus, contrary to a widespread misconception, our North Korea sanctions are not maxed out; in fact, they are relatively weak. Those of you in the news business owe it to your readers to challenge that assumption before you print it. Start by asking the “expert” who repeats it whether he’s actually read the sanctions laws or regulations. Factual ignorance is not entitled to a place of equivalence in any policy debate.
It gets worse. Yonhap did quote another part of Campbell’s speech, in which he described how “many U.S. government officials handling North Korea are suffering from ‘fatigue and a sense of exhaustion’ in terms of strategies, after various tools, including pressure, have failed to make progress.” That’s interesting, but without the other part of his quote for context, it could leave you thinking that sanctions have failed as an instrument of policy. What Campbell really said is that we’ve never fully harnessed their potential.
Campbell also said, “We are in a set of circumstances now where it’s not clear fundamentally the way forward.” He observed that Kim Jong Il’s playbook, and the State Department playbook for responding to it, really aren’t working anymore, and that many of the North Koreans we used to talk to aren’t around any more, for various reasons. Efforts by a generation of policymakers to effect changes, including domestic reforms in North Korea, haven’t worked. As a result, sentiment here and in Northeast Asia has shifted, and people in the U.S. and other countries have migrated to the view that reunification, not continued separation, is in the best strategic interests of most of the major players in Northeast Asia. He called for more subversive information operations, including broadcasting, and for stronger diplomatic efforts with China, and especially with South Korea, to pave the way for reunification.
At which point, a gargantuan white mustache sprang from Campbell’s upper lip.
Yes, I’m aware that other former State Department types, specifically Robert Gallucci and Stephen Bosworth, are out there saying very different things. Yet despite the relative recency of Campbell’s tenure and his relatively higher place in State’s hierarchy, the press largely ignored the key part of Campbell’s remarks, but covered Gallucci and Bosworth’s widely.
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I have to think that if the Obama Administration disagreed with Campbell’s assessment, it wouldn’t have just transfused its North Korea team so thoroughly that the reader benefits from a diagram. Notably, Chief Negotiator Glyn Davies will move along to an ambassadorship elsewhere (possibly Thailand), Syd Seiler has moved from the White House National Security Staff to replace Davies, Allison Hooker will move from State to the NSS to replace Seiler, and Sung Kim will be a “special representative,” whatever that means.
The first thing Seiler did was to do no harm, by making it clear that the U.S. would not, contrary to rumors, hints, and China’s increasingly noisy demands, lower the bar on North Korea’s denuclearization to resume six-party talks, something that would effectively recognize North Korea as a nuclear state.
“We are not ideologically opposed to dialogue with North Korea, nor have we placed insurmountable obstacles to negotiations in our insisting that North Korea simply demonstrate it will live up to international obligations and abide by international norms and behavior,” he said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The bar has not been set too high by insisting that denuclearization talks be about denuclearization,” he said. [Yonhap]
That’s a lovely sentence for its elegance and clarity, and under the same circumstances, I probably wouldn’t have put it any differently. Seiler then summarized by saying that, “clearly, the ball is in Pyongyang’s court.” See also.
OFK regulars know that I haven’t been fond of Glyn Davies since this episode several years ago, and that the OFK archives have an elephantine memory. Josh Rogin described Davies as “a nuclear technology and Europe expert, having most recently served as the U.S. permanent representative to the IAEA in Vienna.” By contrast, Seiler has a very deep background in Korea. He’s a graduate of Yonsei University, has a Korean wife, and had nearly three decades of Korea experience at CIA and DNI before he went to the National Security staff. You’d expect such a man to know what a mackerel should cost, and how to haggle for a fair price. It helps that Seiler is no fool, either:
Like his predecessor, he agrees with the South Korean government’s North Korea policy and believes that the North should not be allowed to stall for time or be rewarded simply for talking.
A diplomat who has known Seiler for more than 10 years said, “He knows how the North cheated the U.S. and South Korea in the process of nuclear development.”
A Foreign Ministry official said, “If Russell, an expert on Japan, takes charge of Chinese and Japanese affairs as senior advisor at the NSC, Seiler will have enormous influence in Korean affairs.” [Chosun Ilbo]
If personnel is policy, then, the replacement of Davies by Seiler could herald modestly better policy. (If only we could have Kurt Campbell back….) At State, Seiler joins Danny Russel, his former White House colleague, who is now Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian affairs. The White House says that this shake-up doesn’t foreshadow a change in its North Korea policy, but that’s standard White House talk; the consequence of any other response would be a year of briefings, hearings, interviews, listening tours, and op-ed wars.
Seiler said the U.S. policy on North Korea is composed of three key elements — diplomacy, pressure and deterrence, and that Washington will continue to seek robust implementation of U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions and its own sanctions on Pyongyang.
But he also held out the prospect of easing sanctions.
“If DPRK makes the right choice, returns to the negotiating table and embarks on a credible path of irreversible denuclearization and begins to comply with its international obligations and commitments, the appropriateness of sanctions will of course be reviewed,” he said. [Yonhap]
There’s little good that I could say about the robustness of that enforcement so far, or the quality of the diplomacy that’s been trying to hold our regional coalition together, but one can always hope. And not without some basis:
Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, also said that the United States is unlikely to lower the bar for restarting the nuclear talks. Reported personnel changes in the U.S. government rather point to the opposite, he said.
“Overall there is nothing that I can see that suggests the U.S. government is even considering softening its stance on the many issues between Washington and Pyongyang. The new U.S. personnel changes suggest, in fact, the opposite,” he said. [....]
“Neither can be viewed as soft toward the North,” the expert said of Seiler and Kim.
Paal also said that the “secret trip” that American officials reportedly made to North Korea, even if it is true, must have focused only on the three American citizens detained in the North. The three men’s appearance before CNN cameras a week later reinforces this suspicion, he said. [Yonhap]
If Russel, Kim, and Seiler have similar views and work well together, they have the potential to make significant policy changes while a politically weakened administration is otherwise distracted by crises in the Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Gaza. That almost mirrors the situation of Chris Hill in 2006, when he ran away with a politically weakened Bush Administration’s North Korea policy while Bush was distracted by Iraq, Iraq, Iraq, and Afghanistan. And as I’ve noted, there are some signs that the administration could be laying the groundwork for a harder line, although I doubt that it will be more than incrementally harder.
There are alternative theories, too. One that seems plausible to me is that “Washington’s tactic of strategic patience, the trend of ‘not doing anything,’ has not changed.” That’s likely because doing nothing is what governments usually do when no single view prevails. And I’m far from certain that any single view prevails.
The Hankyoreh‘s analysis isn’t as plausible, but it’s much richer in amusement. It begins with rumors of another secret diplomatic trip to North Korea and runs feral with them. Although the administration would neither confirm nor deny the rumors, they probably have some basis in fact. Even so, they almost certainly do not mean “that the US will make an effort before the mid-term elections to improve relations with North Korea in order to manage the situation on the Korean peninsula” and ransom out Kim Jong Un’s new hostages. According to what insider or authority, you ask? “[S]ome predict,” says the Hanky, after a three-block sprint from the pojangmacha behind the bus station, gochujjang-stained notepad in hand.
Maybe I shouldn’t be too dismissive of something that’s been tried before, but in light of today’s political environment and North Korea’s conduct since 2012, this is so delusional that it’s adorable. The Hanky really seems to believe that a significant number of Americans (a) cares about North Korea at all, (b) wants better relations with North Korea, and (c) would be more likely to vote for the President’s party if its cuts a pre-election deal with North Korea, rather than much, much less likely. That the President’s pollsters have identified Peace Studies grad students as a decisive voting bloc in Arkansas, Louisiana, West Virginia, Alaska, and North Carolina. That, after the Bo Bergdahl ransom, the President basked in the gratitude of a grateful nation.
I don’t have any special insider knowledge here, but I’ll go out on a limb and express my doubt that the White House would want that experience again between now and November 4th, especially for the likes of a doofus like Matthew Todd Miller, or anyone else who’d be dumb enough to visit North Korea of his own diminished volition. I’d be surprised if there’s a deal at all, and I’d be astonished if its terms are made public before the election, including the Louisiana runoff, is safely in the rear-view mirror.
* Or so I’ve heard somewhere. It may have been Alex Jones. I lost the link.