With Joe Biden headed to the White House, North Korea watchers are speculating how the incoming administration will deal with this long-standing foreign policy irritant. One place to look for cues: how Obama’s first year with Kim Jong Il panned out. In doing so, we now have the advantage of several new memoirs—from Susan Rice, Ben Rhodes and from President Barack Obama himself—in addition to others, such as those by Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and Jeff Bader that came out earlier. Memoirs—like journalism—are first drafts of history, capturing how the principles viewed the problem. Equally if not more interesting are their silences: the way other issues seemed in retrospect more pressing and consequential, particularly for the president. Obama’s account of his first year in office, for example, gives little attention to North Korea after the satellite launch in April. Today, I start with the administration’s initial approach and how it was dashed by that test.
In a controversial CNN/YouTube debate in July 2007, Barack Obama said he would be willing to meet “separately, without preconditions, in the first year of [his] administration with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea.” That position was modified out of political necessity, but the administration signaled a general willingness to build on the engagement strategy that the Bush administration had pursued in its second term through the Six Party Talks mechanism. According to Stephen Bosworth, the President’s North Korean envoy whom we lost in 2016, this commitment was not only made through public statements but was communicated directly to North Korea in the President’s first few days in office.
The stated willingness to talk did not imply the extension of concessions in advance; in the words of Jeff Bader (senior director for Asia at the NSC) in his 2012 Obama and China’s Rise, policy required “breaking the cycle of North Korean provocation, extortion and accommodation (by China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States), and reward.” In Hillary Clinton’s memoir (Hard Choices, 2014), she outlines the deal she proposed on her first foreign trip to Asia in February, which included a stop in South Korea. Clinton proposed that if the North Koreans would completely and verifiably eliminate their nuclear weapons program, the U.S. would normalize relations, negotiate a peace regime and assist in meeting the country’s energy needs as well as providing economic and humanitarian support. If not, “the country’s isolation would continue.” As Robert Gates put it succinctly in his account of the February trip in Exercise of Power (2020), “Kim Jong Il wasn’t buying this any more than his father had.”
But Clinton was hardly looking at this offer through rose-colored glasses; to the contrary she was skeptical if not cynical about the likely North Korean response. Her rationale is worth quoting at length:
It was an opening gambit in a drama I was sure would continue for our entire term, as it had for decades before, and not one that I thought likely to succeed. But as with Iran, another regime with nuclear ambitions, we started off with the offer of engagement hoping it would succeed and knowing that it would easier to get other nations to pressure North Korea if and when the offer was rejected. It was particularly important for China, a longtime patron and protector of the regime in Pyongyang, to be part of a united international front.
Yet we now know with the benefit of hindsight that there was a larger reason to expect little from the North Koreans. In a highly personalist system such as North Korea, Kim Jong Il’s stroke in August 2008 undoubtedly had thrown the regime in a panic. The succession would have to be accelerated, and transition could not be seen as a moment of weakness.
The Timing of the April Test
As Clinton notes, “it didn’t take long to get an answer” to her proposal. At a track two meeting in Pyongyang in January, Stephen Bosworth—later to be appointed as point person on North Korea—had already gotten wind of North Korea’s intention to undertake a satellite launch. The administration’s concerns with North Korea heightened over the course of February, as intelligence confirmed the likelihood of the satellite test. That launch ultimately took place on April 5. The memoirs by both Ben Rhodes (The World As It Is, 2018) and President Obama (A Promised Land, 2020) remind us of North Koreans’ skill at using the timing of tests to maximize their political impact. The launch occurred the day before Obama’s planned Prague speech outlining the administration’s ambitious agenda for drawing down nuclear weapons.
Reference to the timing of the launch is literally the only mention of North Korea that Obama makes of his first year in office in A Promised Land. But Rhodes suggests that the President wasn’t amused, detailing how he and Rhodes had been woken up in the middle of the night in Prague to get a full briefing at a secure site. As Obama heads back to bed, he tells Rhodes he “better add something on this.”
Obama argues that he wanted to ramp up pressure on North Korea and–as Clinton had maintained–“this would be a whole lot easier to accomplish if I could show that the United States was interested in not just restarting global momentum on disarmament but also actively reducing its own nuclear stockpile.” I have never found this argument convincing: that either North Korea or other potential American partners would be affected by the U.S. declaring an ambition of getting to nuclear zero or even drawing down warheads. But the important point was that Rhodes’ additions to the Prague speech with respect to North Korea were far from trivial or in passing:
Just this morning, we were reminded again of why we need a new and more rigorous approach to address this threat. North Korea broke the rules once again by testing a rocket that could be used for long range missiles. This provocation underscores the need for action –- not just this afternoon at the U.N. Security Council, but in our determination to prevent the spread of these weapons.
Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something. The world must stand together to prevent the spread of these weapons. Now is the time for a strong international response (applause), and North Korea must know that the path to security and respect will never come through threats and illegal weapons. All nations must come together to build a stronger, global regime. And that’s why we must stand shoulder to shoulder to pressure the North Koreans to change course.”
Obama’s discussion of Iran in Prague was a lot more welcoming than the passage on North Korea, making reference to engagement, dialogue and even support for its peaceful use of nuclear energy. Would the message to North Korea have been less forward had Pyongyang chosen not to test or had the Clinton offer already spoiled the waters? Or—equally plausible—had North Korea already set its own porcupine-like course in the wake of Kim Jong Il’s stroke in August 2008?
Whatever the answer to these questions, less than four months into the Obama administration, the strategic dynamic between the two countries had already been set in important ways. Could it have gone a different way? North Korea viewed Clinton’s offer as unserious—a step back from the Six Party Talks process—and it responded furiously in a series of counter-proposals that were non-starters. However, it is not clear that any proposal would have gotten sustained attention from North Korea at this point given the context of the accelerated succession. The North Korean decision to test in such dramatic fashion left Obama with few palatable choices.
In the next installation: how the satellite launch and second nuclear test on May 25 set in train the now-familiar dance with China and Russia at the United Nations and a brief word on the sideshow of captured journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling.
Stephan Haggard is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute and the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies, Director of the Korea-Pacific Program and distinguished professor of political science at the School of Global Policy and Strategy University of California San Diego.
Photo from Emilio Bellu’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.