Obama and North Korea

Pyongyang, taking a leaf from Iran’s book (and its detention and subsequent release of American journalist Roxana Siberi) may well have the idea of releasing the two hapless American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee–who were just sentenced to twelve years of hard labor for illegally entering North Korea from China and for alleged “hostile acts”—as a goodwill gesture to the United States.

It will be interesting to see if the Obama administration will consider the journalists’ release as an adequate olive branch for resumption of talks.

In a sense of where the goalposts are set for hostage-journalists, Bill Richardson, go-to guy for North Korean jawboning (unless Al Gore gets into the act) said:“Talk of an envoy is premature because what first has to happen is a framework for negotiations on a potential humanitarian release. What we would try to seek would be some kind of a political pardon.” Hopefully for Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee, the Obama approach to North Korea will gain some traction.

When the old arguments about North Korea resurfaced, I wondered if I could recycle my Korea pieces from the Bush administration under the heading SSDD: Same [Stuff] Different Day.

All the familiar soft-power tropes of the confront-Pyongyang years were there: Security Council resolutions, the Proliferation Security Initiative, financial sanctions against North Korean banks. Even runaway Patriot Act 301 Banco Delta Asia investigation ubermeister Stuart Levey was still there (though the State Department briefing transcripts can’t seem to spell his name properly. Stuart Levy? Hey Stu, don’t stand for that! Freeze their bank accounts till they get it right!).

I wondered if the Obama administration was genuinely or willfully clueless about Kim Jung-Il’s desire for a special relationship with the United States.

The good news, I think, is that the Obama administration has a plan. Not exactly eager engagement, but not just overt hostility or malign neglect, either. In other words, Different Administration Different Day. The New York Times had a useful North Korea backgrounder a.k.a. supervised spin in the anonymous sourcemobile for longtime passenger David Sanger with Obama administration insiders at the wheel.

The White House essentially put North Korea on notice that the previous exercises in negotiation centered on Pyongyang’s nuclear program won’t be repeated, no matter how many devices Kim Jung-Il sets off. Because the current foreign policy team has decided that the current regime will never surrender its nukes:

“While Mr. Obama was in the Middle East and Europe last week, several senior officials said the president’s national security team had all but set aside the central assumption that guided American policy toward North Korea over the past 16 years and two presidencies: that the North would be willing to ultimately abandon its small arsenal of nuclear weapons in return for some combination of oil, nuclear power plants, money, food and guarantees that the United States would not topple its government, the world’s last Stalinesque regime.

“Now, after examining the still-inconclusive evidence about the results of North Korea’s second nuclear test, the administration has come to different conclusions: that Pyonyang’s top priority is to be recognized as a nuclear state, that it is unwilling to bargain away its weapons and that it sees tests as a way to help sell its nuclear technology. ‘This entirely changes the dynamic of how you deal with them,’ a senior national security aide said.”

The unspoken corollary appears to be that, since regime change is also off the table, the United States has decided it can live with a nuclear North Korea—as long as it doesn’t proliferate.

The State Department press briefing on Friday displayed, to my mind, sweet reasonableness and a marked shift from security to economic terms of debate.

Assistant Secretary Philip Crowley resisted the urge to hype the red-meat issue of the trial of Lee and Ling.

He did state the official “ultimate” policy to denuclearize North Korea, but also made the case for engagement by touching on the point frequently harped on by this writer as the proper point of departure for U.S. policy: that North Korea is an Asian economic dragon en ovo:

“We want to get North Korea back into a negotiating process. We want to get them to stop doing things that are destabilizing in the region and start to focus on what it has to do in the future. I mean, if you look at South – at North Korea’s economy, I mean, 30 years ago, it was one of the wealthier countries in the region, and today it is one of the poorest countries on Earth. So I think – and certainly, its neighbors have advanced significantly from an economic standpoint – these facts are known in North Korea. So to the extent that we can find financial levers to put appropriate pressure on North Korea, it’s not – that’s not an end in itself; it is a means to an end.

“What we ultimately want is a denuclearized North Korea. We want a country that is acting constructively, beginning to integrate itself into the larger community, act responsibly with respect to its neighbors. That’s our ultimate objective, and we will continue to use whatever levers that we see available and we think will be effective. But our ultimate objective is to get back to negotiations and to get – and to start to once again make progress on the commitments that North Korea has made previously.…

“I would think that over time, the increase in – the gap between North Korea and the rest of the region is growing larger. Those facts have to be known to the people of North Korea. And they eventually – I mean, this is what’s tragic about this whole situation. North Korea is spending billions of dollars to fire off missiles, conduct nuclear tests, and yet they’re not able to feed their people.”

But even if talks do resume, North Korea will have to deal with the Obama administration’s stated intention not to enable another expensive and unproductive nuclear boondoggle as a precondition for detailed negotiations. As Defense Secretary Gates said, “I’m tired of buying the same horse twice.”

In other words, I see the prospect for some systematic “Nixon Goes to China” diplomatic engagement, rather than another session of ritualized extortion centered on Kim Jung Il’s nuclear program.

We’ll see if the Obama administration can display the requisite ritualized aggression at the UN Security Council needed to deflect Republican charges of capitulation and appeasement.

To set the anchor for negotiation, I think the Obama administration is drawing a PSI red line for North Korea that even China may be able live with—and, more importantly, affirm in a UN Security Council resolution: no exports of missiles or missile technology, let alone nuclear technology or devices. Distinct and reasonable Proliferation Security Initiative guidelines—ones that involve inspections only by host navies in their own territorial waters—will, I believe, be important to China.

Little known fact: China was a conspicuous and helpless victim of a-U.S. directed diversion and inspection in the pre-PSI days:

In the Yin He incident of 1993, the Clinton administration alleged that a Chinese container ship was carrying chemical weapons precursors destined for Iran. Diplomatic pressure by the United States prevented the Yin He from docking at any of its planned ports of call. After futile representations and impotent protests by the Chinese government and 20 days in nautical and diplomatic limbo the unlucky vessel finally proceeded to Saudi Arabia’s Dammam Port for a joint inspection of its 728 containers by the United States, China, and the Saudis—which found nothing.

John Bolton’s subsequent effort to purpose the PSI as the tool for an indiscriminate and destabilizing economic blockade of North Korea for the purpose of regime change did nothing to endear the initiative to China.

With only a minor global naval presence, the Chinese are extremely leery of establishing a precedent for the U.S. and/or its allies to barge aboard other countries’ ships in pursuit of whatever.

China will endorse the exercise of a PSI initiative against North Korea gingerly, if at all.

But if the Obama administration can come up with a sanction that China sincerely supports (as opposed to the sanctions of the Bush administration, which targeted China almost as much as North Korea and were openly opposed by the PRC) while holding out the possibility of diplomatic and economic engagement, we might actually see some movement on North Korea. And Kim Jong Il, eager to secure his son’s succession and a controlled opening to the global economy, might decide that the Obama administration is offering him the best opportunity he can expect from the United States in his dwindling lifetime.

PETER LEE has spent thirty years observing, analyzing, and writing on Asian affairs. Lee can be reached at peterrlee-2000@yahoo.com

Peter Lee is creator of the Patreon Peter Lee’s China Threat Report.