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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Condoleeza Rice on North Korea: The First Administration

by | March 22nd, 2012 | 07:00 am
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There is an old Marxist adage that the future is certain but the past is constantly changing. We continue to reconstruct what happened under the Bush administration for work we are doing on sanctions and engagement; a first pass is a short monograph on economic statecraft.

In deconstructing this period, we read Condoleeza Rice’s memoir, No Higher Honor. For students of American foreign policy, Rice remains somewhat of an enigma. Sharp and detail-oriented, her memoir is by far the most substantive and thoughtful of those we have reviewed (Cheney here and here, Rumsfeld, on which more later, Bolton, and  W himself). Although offering a spirited defense of the administration, she is also much more willing to entertain doubts. But as others have noted (for example Glenn Kessler’s The Confidante) Rice–and the country—may have paid a price for the fact that she didn’t voice some of those doubts more forcefully. Given the fact that she had the president’s confidence, could she have done more to stave off some of the disasters, and around Iraq in particular? Given the president’s priors, it is far from clear.

In the North Korea case, though, Rice ends up anchoring the strategy of re-engagement during President Bush’s second term. However we judge that period, it would not and could not have happened without her.

But let’s back up and walk through it in chronological order, beginning with the first term when Rice was the president’s national security advisor.

  • Most observers thought that the early Bush-Kim Dae Jung summit was a disaster; naturally, the administration tried to spin it at the time. Rice does not sugarcoat it. Although chiding Kim Dae Jung for his naivite, she rightly notes the very different interests the two countries had with respect to the North. She admits that “the visit ended sourly with a split between the United States and one of its closest Asian allies” (27).
  • Rice admits she was surprised by the reaction to the Axis of Evil speech. But she also admits that the administration brought the problem on itself (“…the harsh language suggested that negotiation was impossible. How could you negotiate with members of an “axis of evil”? The phrase helped brand the Bush administration as radical and bellicose, given to hot rhetoric and a preference for military force.” 151)
  • Unfortunately, this was not simply a matter of perception. As Rice notes, the divisions with respect to the Agreed Framework were deep, not only between State, Defense and the Office of the Vice President, but within State itself. “John [Bolton] had been Colin’s “neocon hire,” in deference to the President’s desire to have his administration reflect the full range of options within the Republic party. But John was loyal to his ideological soul mates, not to the secretary of state, and was a constant source of trouble for Colin.”  She goes on to defend diplomacy, noting that “one can hardly negotiate successfully with a regime if one is publicly committed to its destruction.” (159)
  • However, she is also very clear that President Bush was “squarely on the hawks’ side of the fence.” In one of the more perceptive passages on North Korea, she notes two problems with the approach: they are worth quoting in full (159):
    • “First, back in 1994, some people in the Clinton administration  had reasoned that the North Korean regime might collapse before the United States actualy had to deliver the benefits of the Agreed  Framework. It didn’t and was as diabolically resistant as ever. If Kim Jong-il had to freezehis people to death in the face of a cutoff of fuel assistance, his view was “So be it.” North Korea had plenty of wyas to buy, steal and smuggle what it needed to ensure the relative comfort of the regime and its military. The malnourished, oppressed, and isolated population was unlikely to rise up against the “Dear Leader.”
    • Second a  U.S. policy of complete isolation of North Korean in the service of regime  change was not, in the long term, one that others in the region, particularly China and South Korea, would likely abide. In that policy they would see only U.S. intransigence, and puruing the strategy would create tension with those states. Though they might have feared that the United States would use military force, they needn’t have worried: the Pentagon wanted no part of armed conflict on the Korean peninsula. We were without a workable policy.”
    • The foregoing is pretty much what all critics of the Bush administration have said, both at the time and since.
    • Rice goes on to detail the fights within the administration over how to respond to the revelation on HEU. Powell had supported an engagement approach, but as is always the case with the North Koreans the HEU revelation completely undercut a more forthcoming position. Rice urged Bush to allow the Kelly visit to go forward. But as is now well-known he was so tightly-scripted as to make the trip counterproductive. Rice is completely clear on this point and is again worth quoting at length:
      • “Because his instructions were so constraining, Jim couldn’t fully explore whatmight have been an opening to put the program on the table. He sent a cable to Washington describing the events. It soon leaked. It’s clear to me that the hard-liners had leaked the cable to snuff out any hope of further negotiations. They succeeded because the North backpedaled furiously.”
      • Rice—and the US—are in effect boxed in by the weird alliance between the North Koreans and the neocons. Rice believed that the US had to respond forcefully, but she admits at length that she did not think that the policy of cutting off heavy fuel oil shipments and scrapping the Agreed Framework would work (162-3).
      • Rice provides a bit more detail on an interesting tidbit we extracted from the Bush memoir: a veiled threat to use force in a conversation with Chinese president Ziang Jemin in 2003. As Rice rightly notes, “we’ll probably never know what role that conversation—or the action in Iraq—played in the obvious redirection of Chinese strategy toward the North Korean nuclear problem. But by the summer Beijing had agreed to the establishment of the Six Party Talks.” (148)

Next time: Rice as Secretary.