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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Robert Gates on the Koreas

by | February 3rd, 2014 | 07:00 am
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Chapter Two of Robert Gates’ Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, is called “Iraq, Iraq, Iraq” and it is a fitting summary of the book. The effort to both win and disengage in Iraq and Afghanistan absorbed virtually all of Gates’ efforts; everything else appears almost like a sideshow. That alone is interesting. Although the book covers a tumultuous time on the Korean peninsula—2006-2011—Gates viewed it as a minor, if recurrent, irritant rather than a problem that needed sustained attention.

The book’s first mention of North Korea (p. 99) makes a passing reference to the fact that Gates was more pessimistic about the prospects for negotiations that resumed in 2007 than Condeleeza Rice. But he saw no harm in trying, “unlike the vice president, who opposed any talks.”

The discussions about what to do about the Syrian reactor, by contrast, receive a thorough airing (pp. 171-177). Debate on the reactor was ongoing over the summer of 2007. Gates pulled no punches in opposing both Cheney’s suggestion that it be bombed and Olmert’s promise to do so. Gates’ calculations make scant mention of the North Korean angle; his concerns were on the effects a strike might have on US objectives in the Middle East.

The book contains brief treatments of the response to the sinking of the Cheonan—which happened to coincide with a scheduled “two plus two” meeting—and the shelling of Yeonpyeong-do (pp. 418, 497).

More interesting is Gates’ reporting on a dinner with General Xu Caihou, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission. Gates tried to engage Xu on the issue of joint contingency planning—or at least an airing of expectations—with respect to a North Korean collapse. Xu was completely unresponsive. Gates portrays then Vice President Xi Jinping as showing more candor on North Korea (p. 526). But throughout the book, Gates’s concerns with respect to China are largely elsewhere, and particularly on the frustration at Chinese unwillingness to resume sustained mil-mil contacts.

Perhaps the most interesting discussion in the book of relevance to North Korea is a long and thoughtful treatment of the debate over missile defenses (pp. 398-404). The discussion focuses largely on Iran, including the politics of stationing radar and interceptors in Eastern Europe. But Gates is blunt in his belief that ground-based interceptors—let alone more fanciful projects such as the airborne laser and kinetic energy interceptor—were a waste of resources. Gates believed that limitations on Iranian—and by extension North Korean—capabilities as well as advances in Standard Missile 3s (SM-3) and sensor technology permitted a greater focus on regional deterrence rather than homeland defenses. We could not agree more.

Finally, we cannot resist reporting two swipes that Gates takes. The Secretary’s observations about Roh Moo Hyun have gotten play, but deserve quoting in full:

“I really liked Lee [Myung Bak]; he was tough-minded, realistic,and very pro-American. (All in contrast to his predecessor Roh Moo-hyun, whom I had met with Seoul in November 2007 and decided was anti-American and probably a little crazy. He had told me that the biggest security threats in Asia were the United States and Japan).”

Finally, the detention of Laura Ling and Euna Lee broke around the same time as three American hikers crossed into Iran from Iraq, and got an appropriate reaction from Gates. “I had no patience with any of them; no sentient person goes tooling anywhere near either the North Korean or Iranian border.” But he also showed impatience with others within the administration who worried about the domestic fallout of not doing enough. Gates strongly opposed sending a former president to do the job, and particularly Carter, whom he viewed as a loose cannon.

We read them so you don’t have to. Other memoirs we have covered:

  1. George W. Bush, Decision Points
  2. Donald Rumsfeld Known and Unknown and related papers: review by Noland; review by Haggard.
  3. John Bolton Surrender is Not an Option; plus a debate with Josh Stanton on Bolton and the neo-cons.
  4. Cheney, In My Time, Part 1; Part 2.
  5. Condoleeza Rice, No Higher Honor, the first Bush administration; the second Bush administration.
  6. Jeffrey Bader, Obama and China’s Rise.