This essay is adapted from remarks Dr. Ford made in an interview on January 26, 2012, with journalists from Lignet.com.
For Western observers following the ongoing North Korean nuclear problem, it’s certainly been an eventful few months – though also a very confusing time. As you won’t have missed from newspaper headlines, the big news at the end of 2011 was the demise of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il. Reports had been circulating for the last several years about his failing health, but in December, he cleared up any uncertainty on this point by suddenly dropping dead of a heart attack.
One of his sons, Kim Jong-un – a pudgy youngster of about 28 who isn’t long out of a posh Swiss boarding school but who was proclaimed a four-star general and made chairman of the Central Military Commission not long before his father’s death – has now been proclaimed the successor. And, of course, legions of foreign observers are scurrying around trying to figure out what this all means, for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) itself, for the region, and for the long-discussed but so far always elusive U.S. and allied foreign policy goal of DPRK denuclearization.
One problem with trying to assess things now, of course, is that it’s not really clear whether Kim Jong-un is actually in charge, or whether he is some kind of a figurehead run by shadowy regents behind the throne. Nor is it clear how loyal all elements of the North Korean system really are to the government that rules in his name. (In such regimes, effusive propagandistic proclamations of ironclad and universal loyalty can bespeak “doth protest too much” insecurity as easily as they do real control.) Trying to make sense from outside the DPRK of goings-on within its notoriously secretive, paranoid, and repressive government is a vexing challenge on a good day, but it is perhaps harder than ever now.
Most observers seem to expect a period of uncertainty and unpredictability as leadership succession issues sort themselves out, one way or the other. Some outside observers have speculated about the likelihood of regime collapse, but no one really has much of a window into the opaque world of Pyongyang.
There are many reasons to be concerned about the future of things in the DPRK, of course. For nuclear policy wonks like myself, a particularly fascinating question is what, if anything, these events mean for the ongoing North Korean nuclear crisis. As the reader may recall, the Six-Party Talks on North Korean denuclearization that were begun by the George W. Bush Administration – negotiations between the DPRK and the United States, China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea, the Pacific Rim powers most interested in and affected by the nuclear situation – have been in abeyance since 2008.
The Obama Administration, however, engaged in tentative new talks with representatives of the Kim family satrapy in October 2011, in Geneva. (This meeting apparently followed up on a July conversation at the United Nations in New York.) In December, in fact, it was reported by some media outlets that a tentative agreement had been reached that would involve the U.S. provision of hundreds of thousands of tons of food assistance to Pyongyang, in return for which North Korea would return to the Six-Party Talks. After Kim Jong-il’s death last month, a North Korean statement reportedly also claimed that the government was still open to some such arrangement. It suggested that in return for food aid and a lifting of international sanctions, Pyongyang might be willing to freeze its uranium enrichment work.
It’s not clear what to make of all this. Before the talks in Geneva in October, U.S. officials seemed notably ambivalent about their own negotiating effort. Some media leaks quoted American officials to the effect that they really just wanted to keep talking to North Korea in order to prevent “miscalculations.” It was also announced just before the Geneva meeting that the lead U.S. nuclear negotiator would be resigning just after it. (It’s not quite clear what this was – though some observers describe it merely as a way of passing the negotiating baton from departing envoy Stephen Bosworth to his successor Glyn Davies – but it didn’t precisely look like a vote of confidence in the talks’ likely success.) Just after the quiet discussions in Geneva concluded, moreover, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta publicly declared in Seoul that the Obama Administration did not know “where those talks are headed at this point,” and urged observers to treat them with “‘skepticism.’”
As for the December reports of a tentative deal, they came out on the very day that Kim Jong-il apparently died – which naturally tended to dampen what enthusiasm there might have been by highlighting the swirling uncertainty that surrounds the future of the Kim regime. The abovementioned DPRK announcement after Kim’s death may have been meant to rekindle Western hopes of some kind of back-to-the-table arrangement, but on its face it was not hugely encouraging, for it seems to have predicated new discussions and a uranium enrichment freeze not just upon food aid but upon lifting or at least suspending sanctions against the country. (This sounds to me like a non-starter even if one felt the negotiations had anywhere to go. Why abandon one’s only leverage against North Korea merely in order to get them to start talking?)
To my eye, however, the most important point to remember in trying to assess all of this is that there remains little prospect of the talks producing results in the first place. North Korea has a long history of dangling the possibility of denuclearization in front of us in return for economic assistance, relief from sanctions, and so forth – but so far it has always managed to avoid actually having to denuclearize.
To be sure, in return for concessions from the Bush Administration, Pyongyang was willing to freeze and then start to dismantle some parts of its plutonium weapons program, but only while secretly pursuing a uranium enrichment campaign in parallel to this plutonium effort. (Though some Western arms controllers had long mocked those who suspected just such a parallel uranium program, this indeed now appears to have been precisely what was happening – a fact the DPRK obligingly revealed in 2010, by showing a large and apparently sophisticated uranium enrichment facility to a visiting American scientific delegation.) According to some reports, moreover, Pyongyang began to rebuild some of the dismantled elements of the plutonium program, and announced itself to be reprocessing plutonium again.
Today, the DPRK is said to be wiling to consider the possibility of a freeze on uranium work, but only after revealing enough of this parallel program in 2010 to make it clear that it must have a more substantial infrastructure than has hitherto been disclosed. Needless to say, we apparently don’t know where that is. (This is a program, remember, that there is reason to believe began in the mid-1990s, with some assistance from Pakistani experts who had by that point already mastered uranium enrichment. It has now been more than ten years, in fact, since the DPRK allegedly had enough uranium centrifuge feedstock to be willing to provide surplus material to Libya in a deal arranged by the A.Q. Khan proliferation network.)
Pyongyang has also long ruled out any discussion of its plutonium weapons and weaponization capabilities, and also of its onward proliferation activities to countries apparently including Assad’s Syria and Qaddafi’s Libya. Nor has the DPRK been at all willing to consider any sort of verification regime actually capable of demonstrating that a denuclearization accord had in fact been successful. The last time U.S. officials presented a verification plan to North Korea, in fact – in 2008 – indignant DPRK officials immediately expelled IAEA inspectors and announced the resumption of weapons work, and that was well before Pyongyang had publicly revealed the uranium enrichment program U.S. officials had long accused it of concealing. (Recall, also, that American verification planning for North Korea had been systematically toned down by senior U.S. officials since 2004, at which point Secretary of State Colin Powell rejected proposals drawn up by his own verification experts in favor of a more DPRK-friendly approach drafted by others.)
More importantly, in the last handful of years, North Korea has also made it increasingly clear that it hasn’t the faintest interest in really getting rid of its nuclear weapons and their associated programs in the first place. It is now a staple of DPRK pronouncements that it is a nuclear weapons state, and that this status is essential to its security. Nuclear weapons development is lauded as one of Kim Jong-il’s greatest achievements – and the DPRK’s creepily sinister family dynasty personality cult is not a framework conducive to backtracking on the highest policy priorities of one’s semi-deified forbears.
When DPRK officials do deign to discuss the theoretical possibility of real denuclearization, in fact, they give as preconditions a fantastical list of things that are obviously designed to be poison pills. (The United States, for instance, would have to essentially end its military relationships with Japan and South Korea, and permit North Koreans unfettered access to U.S. nuclear weapons facilities and planning in order to ensure that no American systems were targeted on North Korea.) Today, officials in Pyongyang also explicitly frame talk of their own denuclearization in the context of total global nuclear disarmament. They’ll get rid of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, in other words, when everyone else gets rid of theirs too. Such disarmament, it should be added, is reputed to have been one of the “dying wishes” of the regime’s founder – the late Kim Jong-il’s father, Kim Il-sung – though most news accounts play down this aspect, recounting this “dying wish” only in connection with denuclearizing the “whole” Korean Peninsula.
Indeed, even as it dangles the possibility of a uranium enrichment “freeze” in order to elicit food assistance and undercut sanctions, North Korea is also now apparently building a new power-generation reactor. This reactor project, reportedly involving the construction of a unit five to six times the power of the Yongbyon reactor from which the DPRK’s weapons plutonium has hitherto come, is clearly intended to provide not just a continuing potential source of plutonium but also a rationale for the permanent retention and use of Pyongyang’s uranium enrichment capability.
In sum, there seems to be zero North Korean interest in the very thing the Six-Party Talks are supposed to discuss: denuclearization. So why all the talk of new talks now?
From a North Korean perspective, I’d imagine it’s advantageous to buy some time while the Kim Jong-un regime, such as it is, consolidates power. If offering to return to fruitless denuclearization talks preoccupies outsiders during this period of internal consolidation, potential weakness, and instability, so much the better for Pyongyang – particularly if such a mere talking about talks can undermine sanctions and elicit food handouts for the DPRK’s starving and abused population. North Korea, after all, has a long tradition of dangling the hope of a negotiated solution in front of foreign interlocutors on what amounts to a fee-for-service basis. Nothing surprising here.
But what about Washington? Why do we seem so willing to pay the fee for this kind of tease? It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that President Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said some commendably strong things together about the importance of breaking the pattern of North Korean manipulation, a cycle wherein DPRK misbehavior is rewarded by concessions while no real progress is made toward our own fundamental goal of denuclearization. And Leon Panetta said as much, again, last autumn in Seoul.
So what happened to Obama’s purported resolve? To my eye, it sounds like the White House just wants to kick the can down the road a bit more, using the illusion of possible denuclearization progress in order to avoid election-year difficulties. This, for instance, might help explain the leaked Obama Administration references to avoiding North Korean “miscalculations.” Traditionally, Pyongyang frequently likes to foment trouble as a way of shocking foreign interlocutors into making concessions. President Obama presumably doesn’t want any of this happening, especially while he’s fighting for his political life as the general election approaches.
(Remember Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign advertisement needling then-candidate Obama for not being the kind of leader you’d want to have answering the White House phone at 3:00 a.m. in a major national security crisis? Even three years into his presidency, such criticisms still have the potential to wound. Obama relishes the image of national security muscularity as long as any use of force can be wrapped up quickly and/or painlessly – e.g., with a special forces team, with unmanned aircraft controlled from thousands of miles away, or “led from behind” as European pilots do most of the bombing – but when it comes even to the Afghan military campaign he proclaimed a “war of necessity ... of fundamental importance to the defense of our people,” it is essential that the additional troops he reluctantly committed come home before election day 2012. A confrontation with North Korea across the 38th Parallel is unlikely to be the kind of thing one can handle surgically and antiseptically; it must terrify him.)
But let’s explore this more deeply. I do not mean that it would necessarily hurt Obama to have a chance to seem tough on a rogue regime, especially where his hated predecessor’s second term was marked by its notable willingness to compromise with that particular dictatorship. The problem for Obama, I would argue, is more subtle than that.
America’s North Korea policy seems to be at a crossroads. We are at the point when it is becoming increasingly clear to all concerned that negotiated denuclearization is not possible, but we haven’t gotten beyond the traditional diplomatic reflex of desperately hoping – and perhaps being willing to pay – for yet more talks on the subject.
Facing the “what do we do now” dilemma that really confronts our policy is difficult and frightening – or at least it would be, if Washington actually were willing to face it. The facts of the case suggest that we confront an increasingly stark choice between an ever more assertive anti-DPRK policy of containment and perhaps regime change, and some kind of quasi-acquiescence to Pyongyang’s soi-disant status as a nuclear weapons power. Whatever the political merits or demerits of being vaguely “tough” on a rogue regime in an election year, the Obama Administration does not want to confront this choice, and especially not now.
To admit facing this choice, after all, would suggest the intellectual bankruptcy of the Obama foreign policy meta-narrative of how a more “soft power” U.S. approach to global affairs, and more diplomatic engagement with foreign troublemakers, can solve our national security challenges without the distasteful necessity of thinking in more traditional “hard power” terms. Admitting the existence of this emerging dilemma would suggest that perhaps we cannot solve all our foreign policy problems with “outstretched hands” and apologetic and self-abnegating rhetoric – and that we cannot meet all our national security needs simply through the “smarter” use of U.S. muscle while military expenditures start to collapse under the weight of ruinous non-discretionary entitlement spending and unprecedentedly extravagant federal budget deficits.
Admitting that we are coming to face such a choice in North Korea policy would also tend to call into question the seriousness of the Obama Administration’s much-vaunted so-called “pivot to Asia,” at least to the extent that the White House pretends that a stronger U.S. posture more reassuring to our regional allies can be had while simultaneously drawing down our conventional military budgets and further reducing the role that nuclear deterrence plays in our security strategy. Whether we accept the DPRK as a de facto permanent nuclear weapons possessor or instead steel ourselves for a more confrontational approach, it is unlikely we’ll be able to have these cakes and eat them all at the same time. Barack Obama loves the rhetorical device of the “false choice,” but sometimes the claim of a false choice is itself false. Statecraft is about making real choices, not wishing them away.
What may be happening with the recent pseudo-talks, therefore, is that Washington and Pyongyang have come to what is, in effect, an agreement that it is more useful to take up time pretending to talk about denuclearization than it is to face real policy dilemmas. It is easier to stick to the time-tried tropes of how “we really need more engagement” than it would be to confront the growing need to think about developing a new, post-negotiation approach to the DPRK nuclear crisis. And so it may be that we see a weird kind of consensus in the North Korean negotiations – though, alas, only about the need to avoid genuinely trying to resolve the crisis.
That may be good election year politics in Washington, or it may not. It is, however, clearly not good policy.
-- Christopher Ford