Commentary

The U.S. and North Korea: The Need for an About Face

By Melvin A. Goodman

The current drift in U.S. policy toward North Korea is exposing the weakness of President Obama’s foreign policy team, specifically the absence of both a lead strategic voice and an advisor with North Korean expertise.

North Korea has been a nagging problem for over 50 years. We know very little about the country and have few intelligence resources on it. Unfortunately, we sent our leading emissary on North Korea, Christopher Hill, to Iraq as ambassador.

Now may be the time to resort to traditional bilateral diplomacy. Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard M. Nixon found that the best way to deal with outstanding differences with such key nations as the Soviet Union and China was to break the mold of non-recognition and pursue an exchange of diplomatic relations.

Roosevelt had to ignore his key foreign policy advisers, including his secretary of state, to achieve success. And Nixon relied on secrecy and the creativity of Henry Kissinger to open the door to China. Since we know nothing about the pre-succession crisis that is underway in North Korea and have no effective response to North Korea’s military actions, perhaps it is time for bold action-the opening of a serious diplomatic dialogue with the Pyongyang regime.

Unfortunately, Obama is receiving some bad advice from his own advisers as well as from various foreign policy pundits who dominate the editorial pages. There seems to be a consensus within the administration that this is not the time for diplomacy and the use of soft power, and that we should continue to rely on the feckless six-power talks (the United States, China, Russia, Japan, North Korea, and South Korea) to moderate Pyongyang’s policies.

Such Clintonites as William Perry and Ashton Carter believe that the United States may have to use military power against North Korea’s nuclear program. Op-ed writers in the Washington Post and the Financial Times believe that North Korea is a puppet state and that China, the puppeteer, wants Pyongyang to increase its war rhetoric and its war preparations. In fact, China’s leverage over North Korea is quite limited.

Advocates of the six-power process falsely claim that four-power talks solved the German problem twenty years ago. In fact, the four-power talks achieved very little. The real breakthrough occurred only when the West German and Soviet governments pursued face-to-face talks at the highest level.

It is quite possible that the United States and North Korea could achieve a similar breakthrough, if not a complete solution, with high-level talks. Pyongyang is nervous about its long-term security, particularly at a time of great internal political and economic weakness.

The North Koreans are particularly vulnerable at this point in time because of the serious illness of their current leader and the beginning of a succession crisis that will bring his youngest son to the top. Its geopolitical mindset is based on its colonial experience; the partition of the nation; the Korean War; and the Cold War. North Korea believes that only the United States can guarantee its security.

Ironically, the fact that two U.S. journalists are currently sitting in a North Korea prison, facing a ten-year sentence in a labor camp, provides an opportunity for an American about face, but that will require the kind of bold step that Roosevelt took in 1933 with Russia or Nixon orchestrated with China in 1971 and 1972. One thing is certain: we have not seriously tried high-level face-to-face talks; there is no reason to believe they would not work.

President Obama’s foray into the Middle East this week has demonstrated the power of diplomacy and the forcefulness of new directions. He traveled to Egypt to acknowledge the pain of colonialism in the Middle East; the suffering of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation; and the illegality of Israeli settlements on the West Bank.

There is some reason to believe that he could similarly acknowledge North Korea’s experience with Japanese colonialism; the partition of a nation; the impact of the Korean War; and the Cold War. In view of the overwhelming military power arrayed against North Korea, there is no reason whatsoever that Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programs should be a game-changer for Northeast Asian security concerns.

Since Kim Jong Il has emphasized that he will “never” go back to the six-party talks, then perhaps it is time for two-party summitry, which is what the other members of the six-party forum have urged in recent years.

The weakness of Obama’s foreign policy team, which represents conventional thinking on most sensitive foreign policy issues, dictates that the president will have to take matters into his own hands. His team has certainly given too little attention to a problem that will complicate U.S. relations with China, Japan, and South Korea. 

Most strikingly, Obama’s special representative for the Korean peninsula has retained his job as a university administrator. Obama’s national security advisor, retired Marine general Jim Jones, has little substantive experience in key foreign policy issues and sees himself as a manager of the process and not a spokesman for new directions.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has very little hands-on experience and her role has been compromised with the appointment of key players (George Mitchell, Richard Holbrooke, and Dennis Ross) for such regional concerns as the Middle East, Southwest Asia, and the Persian Gulf.

The fact that these players were appointed from outside the Department of State is an indicator of the gradual demise of the department over the past two decades. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has an extensive background on intelligence issues, but lacks the policy and political experience to manage an issue as delicate as the North Korean problem. His recent hard-line message to Pyongyang, delivered from an underground missile silo in Alaska, set just the wrong tone, implying that the United States would rely on an untested national missile defense to deal with North Korea.          

Most presidents have had strong national security advisors to guide the way on national security issues.  President Richard Nixon had Henry Kissinger; President George H.W. Bush had Brent Scowcroft; and President Bill Clinton had Sandy Berger. General Jones is not capable of performing in this way and, as a result, there is no primary sherpa to guide the national security policies of the United States.

The Obama team has made important steps toward Cuba, Russia, and the Muslim world, but there appears to be no consensus for bold initiatives that are required to reverse the militarization of U.S. foreign policy established under the stewardship of George Bush and Dick Cheney. The advice to Obama on major issues, particularly North Korea, appears limited and constricted, relying on conventional wisdom and not out-of-box thinking.

Since President Obama is already the dominant player on the international scene and has the unusual diplomatic and rhetorical skills needed to seize the middle ground and find common ground, it is particularly puzzling that he has been hesitant to develop a strong foreign policy team and to break new ground in the international arena.

Instead of tackling the militarization of American foreign policy, he has relied on retired military officers to serve as national security adviser, director of national intelligence, and ambassador to Afghanistan.

Instead of a strategic review of the failure of U.S. policy in Southwest Asia, he has relied on a doubling of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, which has been known as the “graveyard of empires” throughout its history. The U.S. president faces vexing problems in North Korea and Iran, but he shouldn’t rule out bold diplomatic strokes to deal with each long-term impasse.

Melvin A. Goodman is senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor of government at the Johns Hopkins University. He spent 24 years as an intelligence analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency and 18 years as professor of international security at the National War College. His latest book is Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA.

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