An Insider’s Account of Obama’s North Korea Strategy, by Jeffrey A. Bader


[On 8 March 2012 the Brookings Institution held a launch for Jeffrey Bader’s latest book, “Obama and China’s Rise: an Insider’s Account of America’s Asia Strategy”. Bader is currently John C. Whitehead Senior Fellow in International Diplomacy, Foreign Policy at the John L. Thornton China Center in Washington DC. Previously, he was President Obama’s Senior Director for Asia on the National Security Council for the first 3 years. The following is a selection of what the author had to say about US North Korea policy, which figures prominently in the book. This selection is taken from the 9 Mach 2012 edition of The Nelson Report. To hear the entire speech, please click March 8, 2012 book launch at Brookings. –CanKor]

Jeffrey A. Bader

(…) Instead of describing how seamlessly we executed plans drawn up in the first days, let me lay out what we did in reaction to events. As one of my colleagues said to me after a frustrating day dealing with demands for elaboration of a strategy, “there’s no such thing as strategy; there’s only tactics.” An exaggeration, to be sure, sort of like the observation that history is just one damned thing after another. But it frequently feels like the complete truth when you’re in the middle of the fray.

First, North Korea, since that was the issue that posed the most immediate dangers and consumed so much time, effort, and energy.

We came into office on something like automatic pilot, prepared to pick up implementation of Assistant Secretary Chris Hill’s plan for dismantling the Yongbyon plutonium reactor. But North Korea quickly eliminated that option. Intelligence in February 2009 showed North Korean plans to launch an ICBM, later announced to be a satellite launch. We could not proceed with implementation of dismantlement, and further international shipments of heavy fuel oil, under the shadow of an ICBM launch. So it’s fair to say that North Korea’s plan produced a very significant hardening of attitudes in the Obama national security team.

Over the next year and a half, North Korea undertook a series of provocations, and we undertook responses designed to change their calculations:

  • North Korea threw out IAEA inspectors from Yongbyon and shut off the cameras. They launched a long-range ballistic missile, and numerous smaller ones. They conducted a nuclear explosive test in June. They sank the South Korean naval vessel the Cheonan the following year. They shelled Yeonpyeong island in November 2010, killing four. And they announced they had a uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon.
  • In response, we put in place unprecedented sanctions, including a near-total arms embargo and financial sanctions, through a UN Security Council resolution. We promulgated an Executive Order singling out North Korea for further sanctions for the first time. We substantially developed our alliance with South Korea, postponed transfer of operational control over South Korean forces in wartime till 2015, deployed a US aircraft carrier group to the Yellow Sea, conducted a number of joint exercises with the South Koreans along its eastern and western coasts, and supported South Korea as it conducted live fire exercises after the Yeonpyeong island shelling. One of my most vivid memories of my time at the White House was a video conference in the Situation Room in which we and senior DOD officers at the Pentagon tracked the South Korean exercise in the wake of Yeonpyeong and the North Korean response. We actively supported the South Korean show of strength, but also took steps to limit the risks of escalation. President Obama also developed as close a relationship to South Korea’s President as I can recall our two presidents having. President Lee came to the White House twice for high-level visits, hosted President Obama in Seoul twice, and became one of Obama’s favored counterparts. We concluded the US-Korea free trade agreement, and we engineered South Korea’s hosting of the nuclear security summit later this month.
  • We also worked closely and effectively with the Chinese to prevent further North Korean provocations. More on that in a minute.

So, what was the outcome? A few points.

  1. We strengthened our alliance and relationship with ROK.
  2. We communicated effectively to North Korea that provocations and extortion would lead to punitive responses, not rewards and concessions.
  3. We continued to make clear our willingness to talk to the North bilaterally or in 6 Party Talks, but only on basis that it also talk to the South, which it has been doing, that it refrain from further provocations, and that it accept a monitored freeze on its uranium enrichment program.

I’m pleased that within the last 10 days the Administration has announced that North Korea has agreed to invite inspectors to monitor a freeze on the uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon, a moratorium on nuclear tests and ballistic missile tests so long as a constructive process is ongoing, and accepted the armistice and 2005 joint statement as a basis to proceed….

[And from the section on China policy, after noting the shift from 2009 cooperation to 2010 confrontation…]

By the end of the year, the Chinese leadership understood that its “Year of Living Assertively” had not only damaged its relations with the USA, but with all its most important neighbors — Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, India, and Vietnam, to name a few. Arguably, their only improved relations were with Burma and North Korea. This was the setting for an about face.

First State Councilor Dai Bingguo, who oversees China’s foreign policy, wrote a very important article reiterating Beijing’s commitment to Deng Xiaoping’s principles of prudence, patience, and never seeking hegemony. This signaled a definitive end, for now, to an intense official debate on the course of Chinese foreign policy, and demonstrated that at least Dai, and Hu Jintao, understood the costs China had incurred by their maladroit diplomacy.

At around the same time, as tensions in Korea peaked in the wake of Pyongyang’s uranium enrichment program announcement and its shelling of Yeonpyeong island, we coordinated closely with the Chinese to prevent further North Korean provocations in response to South Korean exercises. Led by Dai Bingguo, China communicated clearly to Pyongyang that acts of aggression and armistice violations would not be tolerated. North Korean provocations abated, paving the way 15 months later for the current modest progress. (…)

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