What Should Obama Do When Kim Jong Il is Not “Kim Jong Well”?


kim-jong-il.jpgMost national security analysts see the provocative second nuclear test by North Korea as a direct “poke” at Barack Obama — testing his resolve in a high stakes international stand-off and demanding senior level US attention.
These analysts are partly correct, but the other part of the equation is that North Korea’s nuclear gaming and short range missile launches today are embarrassing for the leadership in Beijing. According to one Chinese international security expert once affiliated with Peking University’s International Studies Institute, China’s tools for influencing North Korea are pretty minimal — and the illusion of that influence just collapsed in front of the entire world.
According to another high level former Chinese government official, after North Korea’s March 2009 missile launch, China President Hu Jintao conveyed in “the strongest personal terms” his frustration and anger about North Korea’s recent saber-rattling behavior. Both China and Russia have been counseling America to be patient with North Korea for the time being and to continue to work towards a return to the Six Party Talks, which the Chinese felt the North Koreans would eventually accept again.
But a nuclear test and missile launches are obvious escalations of North Korean trouble-making, and the question today is whether there is a “patience 2.0” option available — or whether Barack Obama and the US have to find a way to harshly ‘punish’ North Korea or face a credibility collapse at home.
One can already imagine a spate of articles coming from the pens of John Bolton, Charles Krauthammer, former Vice President Cheney, and others that Barack Obama should he fail to ratchet up the Pacific-based war machine is really just an “appeaser in chief.”
The fact is that the Chinese and Russians are mostly right about the need for more patience and are calling on the White House privately not to get in a tit-for-tat escalation with North Koreans — particularly when there may be a serious leadership crisis underway to succeed the ailing Kim Jong Il.
China, Russia, and South Korea (even the conservative-led government in South Korea) have a primary interest in “stability” in addition to blocking potential North Korean proliferation of WMD technology and materials.
Japan, because of the emotionally sensitive “abductee issue“, has morphed its animus against North Korea about a unique national grievance with a more legitimate national security concern about the missiles and nukes North Korea is brandishing. Regrettably, Japan has been too immature in the Six Party Talks and has allowed an understandable (on one level) but lower-order emotional obsession to derail strategic rationality.
Americans are schizophrenic on North Korea. During the end of Clinton II, there was an enormous amount of attention focused on North Korea — capped off by a visit by then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and had Monica Lewinsky not appeared on Bill Clinton’s docket, many believe that Bill Clinton would have gone to North Korea before the end of his term.
Colin Powell tried to engineer continuity between Clinton and the first George W. Bush term but was quickly mugged by President Bush who wanted to derail the course US-North Korea relations were on. North Korea envoy Jack Pritchard and then Under Secretary of State John Bolton engaged in a highly public feud over North Korea policy — though both worked, theoretically, for the same Secretary of State.
The anti-progress hawks won the day until the second George W. Bush term when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill brought the worsening North Korean situation around to something with new, constructive possibilities and made the Six Party Talks something serious.
Now Barack Obama’s plate is full with Iran, the AfPak mess, Israel/Palestine, Russia, the domestic and international economic crises, Cuba, Somali pirates and more — and while not wanting to overreact to North Korea, Obama has also probably been underreacting to them as well.
The North Koreans want to know they matter to the new President of the United States — and they are wreaking havoc in the international system until they get that attention.
But actually, attention is a pretty cheap commodity and doesn’t necessarily mean that North Korea’s extortionist demands for resources should be met. Giving North Korea the kind of attention that Christopher Hill managed to do on behalf of Rice and Bush is one of the things that the Obama White House should be doing.
North Korea may simply be unstable while uncertainties about political succession stew in the muck of Pyongyang’s opaque political scene, but at the same time — America does not have a “Chris Hill” in Christopher Hill’s old position.
Waiting patiently and quietly in line is the highly capable Kurt Campbell who should be on this problem now — but he has not been confirmed, and the Obama team needs to fix this — and needed to yesterday.
North Korea’s provocations are reckless but while going higher up the ladder of naughtiness, they do not meet the standard for invasion or attack — and a tougher “sanctions regime” may give the bad guys in North Korea’s unstable political order exactly what they want.
America cannot do nothing. Obama can’t be a sitting duck for the attack that will predictably come from John Bolton and fellow travelers. But there are simply few real options.
Making patience look like the smart strategy, even the tough strategy, would be wise. A meeting between the foreign ministers of Russia, China and the US (I’d leave South Korea and Japan home for this one — hate mail already piling up. . .) for non-public discussions on North Korea scenarios would also be optically tough-looking.
And then there is always the possibility of an out-of-the-box play by Barack Obama that he always seem to deploy so skilfully in unbalancing the Republican Party. I’m not sure exactly how he’d do it — but to co-opt North Korea in some way, some gesture that is not the expected hostile or angry move — something similar in a North Korea context to getting Republican Governor and possible presidential candidate Jon Huntsman to be Obama’s Ambassador to China — might be the kind of move that gives Kim Jong Il the attention and respect he craves and at the same time stabilize things. . .at least for a while.
Alternatively, perhaps Hillary Clinton or Bob Gates or someone closer to Obama like Mark Lippert or Denis McDonough could accidentally bump into key North Korean officials around the world and engage in some stress-relieving “chats”, or something more creative than I can imagine at the moment.
What needs to be avoided is a hot escalation of words and deeds during a probable leadership crisis. America needs to do all it can to avoid an attack on the Korean peninsula that will not only be devastating for all parties in the region but do incalculable damage to the highly important US-China relationship.
Obama needs to make patience look like the right, and the tough, course — and he needs to find a way to co-opt the North Koreans into a new dance.
President Obama needs to give this some personal time — and he needs Kurt Campbell as the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia on the job NOW.
— Steve Clemons


21 comments on “What Should Obama Do When Kim Jong Il is Not “Kim Jong Well”?

  1. Clay Thorp says:

    Definately agree with you about Kurt Campbell.
    But I have to give you some grief about what seems like your grappling with what you think Obama’s course of action should be.
    Doing nothing (waiting patiently) or doing something (sanctions, military action…yea right) seems like an easy choice to me.
    Even if acting against North Korea had all the political gain Obama could possibly dream of, waiting to take advantage of Kim Jong’s health and the possibillity of a new successor (and America’s possible relationship with that new successor) is probably the right choice.
    Who knows? Once the apple falls from the tree, sometimes it grows legs and walks away.
    Making the ‘patience’ decision look good, however, is something I’m curious to see put into action.
    How can he really make that decision look good?


  2. erichwwk says:

    From the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:
    The North Korean nuclear test: What the seismic data says. By Jeffrey Park | 26 May 2009
    Because the expected Hiroshima-style explosion didn’t occur, there are four options as to what did happen during the test:
    * the device failed to detonate properly;
    * the device was a higher-tech device designed for smaller yield with less fissile matter (e.g., missile warheads or briefcase bombs);
    * the North Koreans faked a nuclear explosion with conventional explosives;
    * or the North Koreans detonated a larger device in a large cavity to muffle its yield.


  3. jonst says:

    Mel wrote:
    “So, in the end, if Kim Jong Il or the next Saddam or whoever, doesn’t attack us and is guilty merely of building large weapons and issuing empty threats against neighbors richer than themselves whose only weakness is that they forgot to build armies because they assumed they could use ours for free, I say let’s stay out of it.”
    And, these ‘rich neighbors’ lectured us, at times, about how we were an aggressive nation. Which, may be true enough, in one sense. But coming from them?
    I’m with Mel. I don’t care what happens over there. Except American troops are there as a trip wire. Instantly MAKING us rightly care about what happens on the peninsula.


  4. Hiroshi Burnette says:

    I think Mel C. Thompson forgot about the fact that our gasoline is super cheap… subsidized by US military presence in shipping lanes. Who’s gettin’ the free ride? Them 3rd world throwbacks? Us? Neither. US corporations are.
    Thank Halliburton Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld. Our troops died for Corporate America. Civilians around the world die for Corporate America… and Corporate America is still shouting about paying too much in taxes. Freeloaders!
    Yay socialism!


  5. john says:

    I am confused. Does he take this picture often.
    Check out this link.


  6. Mel C. Thompson says:

    I remember being upset about this North Korea thing. And then I forgot why. I backed up and said: Okay, so what we have here is a nation, North Korea, which has not attacked the US. Additionally, it has not launched an invasion against another nation. True, it is building large bombs, as have we, and the Chinese and the Pakistanis and many other nations, some of which are mad, others less so. And then I thought, “So?”
    Up till now our idea has been to defend South Korea. Okay, but when we first defended them, they were facing all of the Communist world alone, so to speak. Now, it’s not like China or Russia would help invade South Korea. South Korea has infinitely more money than the North. They could simply begin building large bombs and large armies too.
    In other words, while we may be sympathetic with the South, it’s odd that we are bound to support them when they admittedly have ten times the money as their enemies. Again, we may be sympathetic with Israel, but since they have enough nuclear weapons to blow up a good portion of the planet, it’s not like they will crumble unless we march to their defense. Again, lots of bad guys and good guys around the world. Lots of good guys with more money, per-capita and better lifestyles than us, who could have huge armies, except that they like the US to essentially have to do all their diplomatic and military work for them. I mean, I don’t blame them. If some other party would step into my life and spend all of their money and time and life blood to resolve all my problems for me, I’d probably be heavily into the arrangement.
    So, in the end, if Kim Jong Il or the next Saddam or whoever, doesn’t attack us and is guilty merely of building large weapons and issuing empty threats against neighbors richer than themselves whose only weakness is that they forgot to build armies because they assumed they could use ours for free, I say let’s stay out of it.
    This all smacks of codependency. If large, rich nations don’t feel like building armies, they should face the problems inherent in that. If weird poor dictatorships decided to make odd threats while starving their people to death, how are we to control that? Plus, we forget, oppressed people could, for instance, do what our founding fathers did, namely decide to die to liberate their own peoples. Merely waiting for the UN to handle it is not enough. Our founding fathers were willing to die to liberate us from the world’s most massive military power. The North Koreans and the Iranians are perfectly free to rebel and throw off the tyrants who rule then due to their passive resignation. To simply state that rebelling would likely result in deaths and injuries and fearful reprisals is to deny human people’s the dignity of throwing off their own oppressors. Should North Koreans decide that death, injury and discomfort are too great a price to pay for liberty, we should allow them the dignity of their own adult choice.
    Korea and Iran are none of my business, and furthermore, the folks they are threatening could amass far greater forces than we generally acknowledge. Let Germany, Japan and South Korea feel the weight of crushing military expenditures for a while. We have our own starving people to feed and our own sick people with no access to doctors. We cannot police the planet simply because the planet is used to the convenience of us paying for all of their military and diplomatic inconveniences.


  7. söve says:

    North Korea has söve complained that the United States söve has not made good on its promise to remove söve North Korea from a list söve of state sponsors of söve terrorism, as President Bush announced in June that he was söve prepared to do, and instead söve has made new demands. One of those would require North Korea to söve accept a strict and söve intrusive verification system before the United States would söve carry out reciprocal steps


  8. Hiroshi Burnette says:

    Kim Jong Il is all right, man! [You know that South Korea throws away more food every day than North Korea consumes!? If the West took over, the whole damned peninsula would be overrun by humans (i.e. end up like Capitalist China). So maybe mass starvation is a good thing. Maybe the cold war WAS cool.] By the way, where can I get those groovy threads he’s sporting. I especially like the gray jacket Kim usually wears. The NoKo’s might consider exporting fashion; it’ll boost their textile industry, so they won’t need to fire off any more Nodon missiles. Yay Communism! Yay brutal dictatorships (Cappie or Commie, you choose; either way, it’s brutal.)


  9. chaz says:

    Seriously, who gives a flying eff what Bolton, Krauthammer or
    Cheney writes. They are completely discredited figures. When’s
    the last time any one of them got anything right?
    They do not retain their respective media perches through merit.
    They retain them through the mindless beltway momentum. That
    momentum that your blog itself advances by even mentioning
    Perhaps only Cheney has some need to be addressed. And that is
    primarily due to his recent, bizarre, self-serving, “don’t prosecute
    me for deliberately breaking the law” tour.


  10. Mr.Murder says:

    We wanted this, it is part of a triangulation concern vis-a-vis China.
    Japan will want to keep our bases near for deterrence as well.
    We’ve increased the demand for an international police force in Asia by doing this.
    America, the mercenary state.


  11. JohnH says:

    “The North Koreans want to know they matter to the new President of the United States — and they are wreaking havoc in the international system until they get that attention.”
    Making the North Koreans sound like two years olds is a dismissive and pejorative charge worthy of the archetypal Ugly American. It shows an utter ignorance and disregard for the significance of legitimate issues that might be riling them.
    Here’s a place to start to peel the Korea onion (from my April 9 post): According to South Korean parliamentary opposition, “the primary cause for inter-Korean relations racing toward crisis lies in the South Korean government’s effective ignorance of agreements made between South and North Korean leaders and the continuation of a policy of antagonism toward the North. (March 16, 2009)”


  12. Matt says:

    Somehow I think the Chinese could take this guy out any time they wanted to. Also, if there was an accident some day, where the North Koreans lobbed a bomb over Japan and some Japanese civilians got killed by accident, I bet the Chinese would be willing to let the Japanese come in and take him out – but only in that type of scenario. I think taking out Kim Jong-il is something that can potentially be done only by China or Japan.


  13. non-hater says:

    “or whether Barack Obama and the US have to find a way to harshly ‘punish’ North Korea or face a credibility collapse at home.”
    In the end, the only country that has leverage on NK is CN – especially if the US has been as counter-productive as Bacon’s quotes assert. So what can we give CN to exert pressure on NK? A promise not to send troops across the DMZ after unification? Better guarantees on Treasury debt? Or do we have nothing to give?
    It would be nice if the US could stand down from being the leader on this particular bit of geopolitics, but domestic politics won’t allow it.


  14. Don Bacon says:

    kotzabasis: “. . .the recalcitrant N. Koreans, that have already repudiated the previous agreements they had compacted with the previous administration, . . .”
    I don’t think that mixing up the Clinton and Bush administrations is particularly helpful.
    The Agreed Framework between the United States of America and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was signed on October 21, 1994 between North Korea (DPRK) and the United States. The objective of the agreement was the freezing and replacement of North Korea’s indigenous nuclear power plant program with more nuclear proliferation resistant light water reactor power plants, and the step-by-step normalization of relations between the U.S. and the DPRK. Implementation of the agreement was troubled from the start, but its key elements were being implemented until it effectively broke down in 2003.–Wiki
    from Moon of Alabama:
    “The oil shipments were late, the replacement reactor the U.S. had promised was never build and trade sanctions that should have been lifted were kept in place. As the U.S. showed no intention to seriously stick to the deal, North Korea walked away from it.
    “Five rounds of talks from 2003 to 2007 produced little net progress until the third phase of the fifth round of talks, when North Korea agreed to shut down its nuclear facilities in exchange for fuel aid and steps towards the normalization of relations with the United States and Japan.
    “Steps towards normalization by the U.S. were not taken. The fuel aid was stopped in December 2008 as ‘response’ by the U.S. to North Korea not accepting additional conditions the U.S. tried to add unilaterally:
    “North Korea has complained that the United States has not made good on its promise to remove North Korea from a list of state sponsors of terrorism, as President Bush announced in June that he was prepared to do, and instead has made new demands. One of those would require North Korea to accept a strict and intrusive verification system before the United States would carry out reciprocal steps.”
    So the “credibility collapse” was entirely on the US side. Hopefully with the new administration the US has forsaken its mindless, non-patient and deal-breaking Republican policies.


  15. Dan Kervick says:

    I’m always skeptical of claims by Americans that because we find some overseas action provocative, the point of the action was to provoke us; or that because we find that some overseas action attracts our attention, then the point must have been to get our attention. These kinds of inferences are suspiciously self-centered.
    I have read several analyzes of the test over the past few days, and my sense is that a good proportion of the North Korea expert community thinks the main target audience for the test was the North Korean public, not Barack Obama.


  16. kotzabasis says:

    For Obama to “co-opt” the N. Koreans into a “new dance” in which America’s skirts will be flying up in the air, like Marilyn Monroe’s, one would need modicum imagination to see what the short build but sharply sighted North Koreans would d o to the long legged Americans.
    More seriously, the U.S. of course cannot invade or take any military action against N. Korea. But it can take hard economic sanctions presently and in the near future even place a naval embargo on N. Korea and prevent the latter from exporting its nuclear technology to other rogue states. And thus by “harshly” punishing N. Korea President Obama will avoid the punishment of “a credibility collapse at home.”
    While Clemons by implication accepts that a credibility collapse will damage the standing of the president, especially when it will also have international dimensions, he nevertheless weirdly suggests “patience” toward the recalcitrant N. Koreans, that have already repudiated the previous agreements they had compacted with the previous administration, as a “wise” measure, and indeed, as a “tough strategy”. The question that Clemons has to answer is what kind of “patience” ever prevented a “credibility collapse?” But apparently for Clemons doing nothing or doing something that lacks strategic substance is a “tough strategy.”
    The great danger is however that the N. Korean defiance has opened the bottle releasing the ‘meme’ that other rogue states such as Iran will adopt and replicate against the U.S. And one can only second- guess what the Mullahs will do to Obama’s diplomatic skirts.
    P.S. Sorry my first post went to the wrong thread.


  17. erichwwk says:

    For those that prefer their info in cartoon form:
    The Kim Jong-il fart, from the UK Guardian via above blog:


  18. erichwwk says:

    “All he wants is attention. Give it to him. ”
    A perspective of the nuclear gaming test:


  19. Linda says:

    I have never claimed to have any depth of knowledge in foreign relations. But I am very serious in suggesting another approach to
    1.) Buy time for softer diplomacy rather than sanctions that would only hurt the North Korean people and add to instability there.
    2.) To best illustrate to the North Korean people and its leader what is best about the U.S.
    3.) Represent as many other Six party countries as possible
    I don’t even know the title of the assistant secretary at State who is responsible for cultural exchanges, but I’d have that person’s staff on the phone calling a lot of American icons for availability dates for the rest of the year and would be preparing to have Obama personally call the Fearless leader to arrange a
    series of concerts in North Korea and perhaps cultural exchanges with musicians from North Korea coming to perform at Kennedy Center like:
    1.) Yo-Yo Ma (Chinese-American) and his Silk Road Ensemble
    2.) Korean-American violinist Sarah Chang and perhaps the LA Philharmonic with Dudamel (from Venzuela) conducting
    3.)Hiroshima for jazz, and that was the name these third-generation Japanese-Americans chose 20 or 30 year ago for their group. They are wonderful, highly respected, and this past Sunday night were the closing main act at the Atlanta Jazz Festival. The only reason I didn’t go hear them is that they were performing during a thunderstorm.
    And then I’d also be arranging a trip for Obama to North Korea for 2010 or invite Kim Jong Il to US, but he won’t come because he is afraid of flying.
    All he wants is attention. Give it to him.


  20. Don Bacon says:

    SC: “Most national security analysts see the provocative second nuclear test by North Korea as a direct “poke” at Barack Obama — testing his resolve in a high stakes international stand-off and demanding senior level US attention.”
    Gosh, could most so-called national security analysts be wrong? I, for one, wasn’t even asked and I imagine that other TWN posters who analyze national security weren’t either.
    The geographical position of North Korea, halfway around the world and snuggled up to Japan, Russia and China, mean that this country, strategically, is not in an area of vital interest to the United States. However, the US has made North Korea significant because of its failure to promote the unification of Korea (indeed, stifling unification) and its retention of US military forces in South Korea. In fact Robert Gates, on his own, decided last summer to make South Korea an accompanied military tour, which has brought contracts for the construction of high-rise apartment buildings, schools and recreation facilities for US military families. In South Korea, which (like Germany) is one of the strongest and richest counties in the world!
    What is needed is new thinking: A regional effort to unify Korea coupled with the removal of US military forces, allowing Korea to become a peaceful member of its region.
    Oooops — this sounds like change.


  21. Josh Meah says:

    Hmm…crippling sanctions?
    Why would that cause the regime any trouble?
    The country is already in a famine, and more famine seems to make the nation only more loyal to the regime.
    Maybe removing sanctions and bringing NK more directly onto the international scene would push the country further and further toward effective internationalization?
    Fareed Zakaria wrote this great piece awhile ago about the Georgian conflict that talked about how the use of sticks against Russia would only further alienate a country that was already ostensibly “rogue” — so to speak. Enough purposeful mutual alienation between nations just leaves them constantly on the brink of war.
    by comparison, finding ways to integrate NK into the international system — esp on trade terms and whatever else is possible — might serve to help loosen the grip the government has on the people.
    More sanctions are just functional silence in the mind of a North Korean — I’d imagine. And deafening silence only increases the volume of the government propaganda.
    Maybe a clandestine effort, jointly agreed to by Russia, China, and the U.S. in private, to penetrate the message control of the regime might achieve the desired ends?
    The answer to my suggestion is probably that destabilizing the regime only risks further proliferation; however, in preemptive response, I’m not sure how much more bellicose a nation can get other than testing a nuclear missile.


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