Playing the Hawk With North Korea

SEOUL – If the Obama administration needed a rogue nation to demonstrate its foreign policy resolve, Central Casting couldn’t have supplied a better candidate than North Korea. The government in Pyongyang routinely promises to unleash destruction of biblical proportions on its enemies. It has pulled out of international agreements, such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It has sentenced two U.S. journalists to 12 years of hard labor on the charge of violating its borders. And after conducting two nuclear tests, it now declares itself a nuclear power.

President Barack Obama — conciliatory in his handshake with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and his messages to the Muslim world — cannot appear too soft in the foreign policy world. Democratic presidents are notoriously susceptible to conservative charges of being weak on defense. North Korea can now function as the “heavy” that brings out the administration’s “tough guy” side.

To demonstrate its hawkish credentials, the administration has corralled the UN Security Council to issue a strong statement in response to North Korea’s April rocket launch and an even stronger resolution condemning the May nuclear test. The U.S. has established a naval interdiction regime around North Korea. It has reaffirmed its promise to South Korea to strike North Korea with nuclear weapons if it attacks the South. It has appointed a new envoy to coordinate financial sanctions against the North and pressure countries to implement them.

These moves are still not enough for congressional hard-liners. “I think that the president comes across as lacking resolve,” says Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas). Even more seasoned foreign policy mandarins, like former defense secretary William Perry, have urged the administration to consider a military response as part of a series of escalations.

In the foreign policy equivalent of the film Groundhog’s Day, the Obama administration is facing the same crisis as its predecessors and making the same mistakes. Like the George W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations, the Obama team came into office unprepared to deal with Pyongyang. North Korea was not a foreign policy priority, and all three administrations acted as if they expected the problem could resolve itself.

Obama, at least, did not start out on a hostile footing.

With a general emphasis on the importance of diplomacy, the new administration appeared willing to talk with North Korea. The relatively speedy appointment of Korean hand Stephen Bosworth as special envoy on North Korea and his offer to go to Pyongyang boded well. It turned out, however, that Bosworth’s offer was conditional: He would go to Pyongyang if it did not go ahead with its April rocket launch.

Iran, which launched a satellite only a few months before, merited no such requirement.

Now, with the Six-Party Talks in a coma and an escalation dynamic in place, the Obama administration is grasping at straws. It is attempting the same containment policy that failed during the Bush and Clinton years: squeezing North Korea through financial sanctions, a military cordon, and political condemnations.

It has been more successful than past administrations in eliciting Chinese support, in part because China’s patience with its erstwhile ally has frayed to the snapping point. But Washington fails to understand that Beijing’s influence over Pyongyang is limited — and this influence declines the more the U.S. pushes it to be openly critical of Pyongyang.

The Obama administration’s hawkish turn is counterproductive. The naval interdiction, particularly if the U.S. decides to attempt to board North Korean ships on the high seas, could lead to open conflict. The financial sanctions will either prove ineffectual — as North Korea buys what it needs from China and elsewhere — or produce unintended consequences as the country steps up its efforts to acquire hard currency through illegal means.

The Obama administration would be wise to review the record of engagement with North Korea quickly and dispassionately. Hard-line policies have only made Pyongyang more intransigent. Diplomacy, on the other hand, has achieved concrete results.

The first nuclear crisis with North Korea ended with the visit of high-level envoy Jimmy Carter to Pyongyang. The Clinton administration was skeptical of the strategy; yet Carter knew that the North Korean leadership would respond to a visit by a former U.S. president. Those discussions produced the 1994 Agreed Framework, which froze North Korea’s plutonium program for eight years.

The second major crisis with North Korea, which culminated with the country’s first nuclear test in 2006, ended with bilateral discussions between top negotiator Chris Hill and his North Korean counterparts — producing the Six-Party Talks agreements of Feb. 13, 2007, which led to dismantling 70-80 percent of the Yongbyon nuclear complex.

Over the last 15 years, North Korea has backtracked on its commitments and hedged its bets. But the U.S., too, has reneged.

We never built the light-water nuclear reactors promised in the Agreed Framework. We removed North Korea formally from the terrorism list, but attached verification requirements that were not part of the original agreement. We promised steps toward diplomatic recognition but have largely failed to take them. Our allies promised heavy fuel oil but did not deliver the full amount.

The Obama administration — and the international community — is understandably appalled at North Korea’s actions. Condemning, sanctioning, and cordoning off the country might be all satisfying and politically expedient tactics. But these responses have not proven effective in the past.

Arms control, on the other hand, has worked with North Korea. To achieve a viable agreement with North Korea, we must negotiate in good faith. And that means being prepared to offer North Korea a political, economic, and security package that we can deliver in exchange for their denuclearization.

Whether North Korea will ever give up its single bargaining chip is unknown. But the world was undeniably a safer place with North Korea negotiating at the table rather than experimenting at the nuclear test site.

The sooner the Obama administration demonstrates its diplomatic resolve — as opposed to its hawkish resolve — the sooner it can extricate itself from both the mistaken policies of its predecessors and the worsening crisis in Northeast Asia.

John Feffer is co-director of the Foreign Policy In Focus project at the Institute for Policy Studies.