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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Senator Kerry on Engagement with North Korea

by | January 4th, 2013 | 07:00 am
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Now that President Obama has nominated John Kerry to replace Hillary Clinton at the State, analysts are reading past tea leaves on the new Secretary’s approach to various international issues. An interesting nugget: an op-ed penned by the Senator in June 2011 for the LA Times.

Recall the context. At the time, US policy was hostage to the events of 2010: the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong-do. Even members of  LMB’s own party were raising the question of an “exit strategy” from the even harder line the administration had taken in the wake of the Cheonan incident. In a sweeping set of new sanctions introduced in May 2010, virtually all South Korean trade with the North outside of Kaesong had been blocked.

Senator Kerry’s editorial ran through the options: return to the Six Party Talks would be blocked by South Korea and China was unlikely to exercise its leverage.

The solution: engage North Korea directly. Kerry recognized that denuclearization was a long game, but he proposed several steps designed to reduce risks:

  • Start by opening talks with the North Korean military on recovering remains of American servicemen, operation suspended by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in 2005.
  • Negotiate “an end to the North’s enrichment of uranium, a moratorium on nuclear weapons and missile testing, the removal of fresh fuel rods capable of producing fissile material and the final dismantlement of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor.”
  • These steps would set the stage for the ultimate goal of denuclearization, which would require bargaining over inventories of weapons and fissile material.

The editorial built on hearings that Kerry had convened as Chair of Senate Foreign Relations in March (at which my colleague Marc Noland testified; testimony can be downloaded here and still bears reading).  The hearings were seen at the time as a challenge to the administration’s long-standing—or long-suffering—“strategic patience” approach, identified with Kurt Campbell.

Entitled “Breaking the Cycle of North Korean Provocations,” Kerry introduced the hearings by calling for a new approach:

“We have to get beyond the political talking point that engaging North Korea is somehow ‘‘rewarding bad behavior.’’ After all these years, that seems to be an extraordinary canard. It is not rewarding bad behavior. We set the time. We set the place. We can negotiate in good faith. We determine what we’re negotiating for. And we never have to say yes to anything that we don’t want to. But, if you don’t engage in that effort, you have no chance of changing the current dynamic; you actually invite greater instability and greater potential for confrontation.”

Yet Kerry also seemed to grasp intuitively that the North Koreans to a significant extent follow their own internal dynamic, and it is not obvious how one actually induces them to engage.  In an exchange with the second panel (pages 55-56 of the hearing transcript, a few pages later in pdf pagination) he repeatedly asks where is the leverage which would induce the North Koreans to enter into negotiations.

Senator Kerry also had some slightly confusing things to say about food aid, starting with the claim that politics and humanitarian assistance should be separated and closing by saying that linkage could be useful; the second of Kerry’s two approaches was closer to what we ended up trying with the Leap Year deal. My colleague Marc Noland had plenty to say about “food for talks,” and in fact coined the expression. His post updates a table he did for Avoiding the Apocalypse and we extended in Famine in North Korea. Kerry’s remarks on food aid:

“So, finally, I just want to say a quick word about our compelling humanitarian concerns in North Korea. I’m glad that Ambassador Bob King, our special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, could be in the hearing room this morning. Our country has long and wisely separated humanitarian concerns from politics. Consistent with that tradition, we should consider additional food aid to the North. But, that aid needs to be based on a demonstrated need and our ability to verify that food will actually reach the intended recipients. In fact, a broader humanitarian engagement might hold the most long-term promise of unlocking the other puzzles, the nuclear puzzle, enhancing regional peace and security.”

Senator Kerry has been pretty scathing in his comments with respect to the two satellite launches of 2012. His statement on the most recent launch referred to Groundhog Day, and we couldn’t agree more. We suspect that return to the engagement approach is not likely to take the same form. But the 2011 debate provided some insight into Senator Kerry’s inclinations to experiment.