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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices

by | June 16th, 2014 | 07:03 am

From the perspective of this blog, the most interesting feature of Hillary Clinton’s memoir of her time as Secretary of State is how little it says about North Korea. Clinton had low expectations about North Korea from the outset, but following the second nuclear test of May 2009 she clearly believed that there was not much to be gained from pursuing Pyongyang. While the volume has a lot of material on Asia, it is centered largely on the US relationship with China, efforts to reach out to Southeast Asia, her thinking about a multilateral architecture and ongoing human rights and humanitarian issues.

Following a discussion of the hard-fought campaign and the decision to accept the position, Secretary Clinton begins the book in Part Two (“Across the Pacific”) with a discussion of the pivot. From the start, Clinton believed that Asia should receive more attention and she backed that belief up with more travel to the region than any other Secretary of State I can think of, starting with her first foreign trip as Secretary. While in Seoul on that trip, she extended an invitation to the North Koreans:

“If they would completely and verifiably eliminate their nuclear weapons program, the Obama administration would be willing to normalize relations, replace the peninsula’s long-standing armistice agreement with a permanent peace treaty and assist in meeting the energy and other economic and humanitarian needs of the North Korean people” (53).

For anyone who has followed the Six Party Talks, this formulation was clearly a non-starter: North Korea was never going to give up its weapons first in the hope that the US would reciprocate down the road. But Secretary Clinton hardly had illusions: “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 I thought likely to succeed.” But she did see it as stating a willingness to engage, a claim that is rejected by pro-engagement critics of the Obama administration.

When the missile and nuclear tests of 2009 came—and with them the simultaneous challenge of dealing with Euna Lee and Laura Ling drama, addressed at length—strategy quickly shifted to imposing sanctions. With the sinking of the Cheonan, strategy also necessarily turned to underlining the deterrent (p. 57-58). Although Clinton did not leave office until February 2013, Hard Choices says nothing about the death of Kim Jong-il—except a passing reference to the fact that human rights probably worsened under Kim Jong Un—nor about the gradual process of re-engagement in mid-2011 that lead to the ill-fated Leap Year deal (see our posts here and here). Yet we could easily write that section for her: “In 2011, we tried again, and…”

The remainder of the Asia section of the book provides further insight into how a candidate or president Clinton might approach the region. Although there is ample discussion of strategy toward China, it is telling that she devotes an entire chapter to the extraordinarily complicated diplomacy surrounding the Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng and another detailed chapter on the Burmese transition and Aung San Suu Kyi. The implications of the latter for North Korea are particularly clear: if authoritarian regimes rethink, the US should take risks in supporting even cautious liberalization. Throughout, she also emphasizes the importance of public diplomacy, the use of social media, and the importance of sheer face time in the region.

Hard Choices will no doubt be read as a political document, offering reflections on her Iraq war vote, Benghazi and other hot-button issues. It is not as wonkish as Condoleeza Rice’s memoir, spending more effort on conveying the personal feel—the grueling routine—of being Secretary of State. But these purported defects arise in part because Clinton’s—and Obama’s—foreign policy to the region was not uni-dimensional. Rather, it reflected the complexities of the liberal approach, with many moving parts from balancing Chinese power, to engagement, building regional institutions and human rights.


Witness to Transformation posts on memoirs: