I wanted to share a few thoughts on the mounting atmosphere of crisis between the US and North Korea. This is really an extreme fast-forward and stupider version of what we saw in the 2001-03 era under George W. Bush.
Simply put, President Trump came into office asserting that he’d stop North Korea’s missile program in its tracks through some mix of will and threat.
North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2017
But that hasn’t worked. Trump has tried threats. He tried enlisting China. None of that has worked. He said so today with what amounted to a shrug. And now the North Koreans have launched a missile which still only could theoretically deliver a warhead to parts of Alaska but shows the North Koreans to be well on their way to creating a serious nuclear deterrent against the United States. Trump had virtually no understanding of the North Korea issue, thought he did, and has now been exposed as having no policy at all. Even worse, he’s shown himself on the international stage to be someone who casually issues threats he almost never follows through on. In other words, he’s a paper tiger, a fact that further devalues the generalized deterrent threat the US always carried with it virtually everywhere in the world.
But there’s another layer of this – what I referred to earlier as the fast-forward version of the 2001-03 era. In the Post’s Daily 202 morning newsletter we find this paragraph as part of the explanation of Trump’s naivete.
The past three presidents have tried to negotiate, only to learn that Pyongyang can never be trusted. Reflecting the hubris of someone who believes he alone can fix things, Trump’s “it will not happen” tweet came two months after Barack Obama warned him privately that North Korea would likely be the single most urgent problem he confronted as president. Several aides from the last administration also told their incoming counterparts that the missile program should be their top national security priority.
The first sentence is a major distortion of the the last two-decades-plus of history. The last three administrations are Clinton, Bush and Obama. The current situation dates back to the 1993-94 North Korean nuclear crisis under President Clinton which eventually led to something called the ‘Agreed Framework‘. I am glossing over a vast amount of detail but that agreement and its elaborations over the 1990s amounted to the US and its allies providing technology and various forms of aid to North Korea in exchange for freezing its nuclear programs. The American right viewed the deal as “appeasement” and an example of perceived American weakness abroad. North Korea was neither a normal state or a very trustworthy one (true enough). The US, most Republicans argued, shouldn’t be in the business of essentially paying the North Koreans protection money as a reward for their aggressive behavior.
This was the essence of the debate through much of the late 1990s. President Bush ran on ending the deal and bringing the North Koreans to heel. Then in late 2002, a US delegation went to Pyongyang to confront the North Koreans with what the US claimed was evidence of cheating on the deal by creating a uranium enrichment program. (The original deal had dealt with the North Koreans’ plutonium cycle.) The quality of that intelligence has always been controversial. But that doesn’t mean it was wrong. One Clinton era State Department official later said that the Clinton administration had had at least suspicions about a uranium program as far back as 1998.
This gets us back into the highly complicated and messy history of the Agreed Framework. By the late 1990s, the North Koreans complained the US had not followed through on a promised normalization of relations between the two countries. They also claimed the US hadn’t delivered all the promised aid. At least some of this was the case since the Republican Congress worked to scuttle the deal via its control of the appropriations process. Basically, they wouldn’t make the money available.
For more details than this, you have to read up on the history and make your own judgments. It was messy. There was plenty of evidence to suggest North Korean bad faith or at least failure to live up to agreements. There was also a good bit of evidence that the US didn’t live up to its agreements, in part because the US government was divided. It also quite possible, even likely that the North Koreans did start a uranium enrichment program. In my mind, looking back on it, it’s not like retrospective arguments about whether Israel or the Palestinians killed the ‘peace process’. Both sides have at least plausible narratives arguing that the other side operated in bad faith and/or did not live up to their side of the bargain.
But the key is this. As of 2002, the North Koreans had no active nuclear weapons program. The Bush administration used the intelligence about a uranium enrichment program as a confirmation of its doubts about the Agreed Framework and proceeded to scuttle the deal over the course of 2003. In 2006, North Korea detonated its first nuclear weapon.
My take on this history is that the Bush administration, not without some reason, said you don’t reward aggressive behavior. We’re going to get tough with North Korea and stop paying protection money. And they did get tough – to the extent that getting tough means saying mean things and showing resolve. But the Bush folks eventually came to grips with the reality the Clinton team had confronted which was that the US had no military options it deemed viable. Could the US invade and overthrow the North Korean government? Sure. But only at the cost of probably hundreds of thousands of lives, the risk of a conflict with China and a lot else. So the Clinton administration had a messy and unlovely ‘deal’ with the North Koreans that kept North Korea non-nuclear through the 1990s. The Bush team “got tough” and the outcome was a North Korea with substantial nuclear arsenal and a expanding missile program. Beyond the ego gratification of ‘being tough’ and ‘showing resolve’ it is difficult to imagine any policy producing worse results than what the Bush policy produced. One can debate how much better the Clinton administration results were. But you simply can’t argue with the fact that they were better than what happened under Bush. Again, North Korea not having nuclear weapons versus having them. There’s just no getting around that.
The US options were quite a bit more limited during the Obama era. North Korea was already a nuclear weapons power, with all the obvious deterrence that goes along with it. But as I said at the top, Trump policy is really just a fast forward and much clumsier and stupider version of the Bush policy. To be clear, our options were already quite poor at the end of President Obama’s tenure. But President Trump reverted to the same approach. I’ll get tough and make North Korea behave. The Trump administration’s rhetoric of strength and resolve was comical even by Bush era standards. Back in April Vice President Pence made the traditional presidential and vice presidential visit to the demilitarized zone. According to the Post, Pence actually was not scheduled to walk outside at ‘Freedom House’ on the South Korean side of the border. But he made an impromptu decision to go outside because he thought it was important that the North Koreans see US ‘resolve’ in his face. I’m not kidding. He really said this. “I thought it was important that we went outside. I thought it was important that people on the other side of the DMZ see our resolve in my face.”
Here’s an actual picture of Pence showing the North Korean’s his face resolve on the visit in question.
Our best approach to North Korea is not clear to me. What is clear to me and I think seems demonstrably the case is that if you say you’re going to “get tough” or that the “era of strategic patience is over,” you need to have some plan for what you’re actually going to do. It is quite clear the Trump team had zero idea what to do. When they realized that, they happened upon the idea of outsourcing the job to China, what all three past administrations tried with very limited success. The President now says that didn’t work either. In fact he’s almost comically blase about the collapse of his entire policy.
Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter. So much for China working with us – but we had to give it a try!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 5, 2017
If you threaten, have a plan. Because otherwise you end up with a worse situation and you look stupid and powerless. Which is precisely where we are now.