Quite frequently there are calls from Americans for their government to “engage” with North Korea. Such exhortations naturally are more frequent around anniversaries, such as that of the signing of the Korean War Armistice Agreement, or after nuclear tests, but there are sufficient numbers of Americans concerned about the dangers of war on the Korean peninsula, or more commonly a perceived threat to the U.S., for the topic never to fall off the radar. The underlying issue of the U.S.-DPRK relationship may continue to fester, the appeals for a negotiated resolution may persist, but administration policy shows no signs of changing.
The reasons for that lie in the wider geopolitical environment, particularly the containment of China. However, there are aspects of this which go beyond North Korea – the U.S. has traditionally been loath to accept a normal diplomatic relationship with adversaries. It refused to have much to do with China for a quarter century after 1949 and today, according to the New York Times, the administration has “written off” Russia and President Obama has decided that “he will never have a constructive relationship with Mr. Putin.” When things really need to be talked about, the U.S. so often retreats into splendid isolation. The old ditty about the reluctance of the Boston Brahmins to talk to the lower orders (which presumably included loathsome foreigners) perhaps has a contemporary and continuing relevance:
And this is good old Boston,
Those who advocate abandoning “strategic patience” come from a number of quarters. They include former officials who were involved in the Korea relationship in the past (e.g. Joel Wit, Donald Gregg, Jack Pritchard), journalists, academics, think tank “experts” of various persuasions (Leon Sigal, Robert Carlin, John W. Lewis, John Feffer, Mike Chinoy, Jeffrey Lewis) and peace activists, often Korean-Americans (Christine Hong, Paul Liem). Many move between these occupations. Retired officials join think tanks or websites; Joel Wit, for instance, was the Coordinator for Implementation of the U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework 1995-2001, and subsequently went on to found the 38 North website at the U.S.-Korea Institute, John Hopkins University. Officials, of course, have a certain vested interest in advocating diplomatic engagement; without diplomacy there would be no call for diplomats.
A couple of recent articles provide a good example, though necessarily not a comprehensive overview, of the regrets and arguments. Firstly, an interview with Robert (Bob) Gallucci conducted by Yonhap, carried by the Korea Times on August 11 and entitled “Ex-U.S. nuclear negotiator calls for dialogue with North Korea.” Gallucci is the only American who has negotiated and signed a treaty with North Korea, though since the U.S. does not like the word “treaty,” it was given the rather strange title of “Agreed Framework.” The agreement had a tortured history, its implementation being shackled by Republican control of Congress, before it was torn up by George W. Bush in 2002. Significantly in view of current talks between Japan and North Korea, Jonathan Pollack has argued that it was Koizumi’s impending visit to Pyongyang, with the possibility of a North-Korea rapprochement which triggered the U.S. action. If the United States had implemented the Agreed Framework the two promised Light Waters Reactors would now be generating electricity and normalization of relations should have led to the lifting of sanctions and removal of constraints on North Korea’s foreign trade and inward investment, thus greatly alleviating the economic distress of the North Korean people. The Yongbyon reactor would have been dismantled and taken out of the country, and North Korea would almost certainly not be the nuclear weapons state it is today. It is not plausible to suggest that in an atmosphere of real détente and economic rehabilitation North Korea would have produced a Heavy Enriched Uranium device, even if it had the capacity to do so.
One might imagine that, as negotiator, Gallucci would feel bitter that his work was undone by a subsequent administration primarily for reasons of domestic politics – the ABC or Anything But Clinton policy of George W. Bush – rather than any considered reappraisal of geopolitical strategy. Unfortunately, however, although America has a culture of political debate, limited it is true in the polite circles of mainstream media, but more vigorous in cyberspace, there appears to be a convention that former diplomats do not directly and publically criticize government policy. So Gallucci is limited to “disappointment” and “concern”:
“I did not regard the Agreed Framework as perfect … But it was a very good start so that when the framework fell apart… I was disappointed and concerned that there was nothing in place to constrain the North Koreans…”
Although Bush had destroyed the agreement, the Obama administration has done nothing to reinstall it in some form. Again it is a matter of “regret” rather than anything stronger:
“As we are at the anniversary almost of the Agreed Framework I regret that we do not have a framework or a structure in place to manage the disagreements on the peninsula,” he said, referring to the 20th anniversary of the agreement this year.
Gallucci is very restrained, but the sense of frustration is palpable:
The former negotiator said he has received invitations from the North through nongovernmental organizations to come and visit the country, but didn’t accept the invitations because he did not “want to get in the way.”
Still, Gallucci said he is willing to play a role if his government asks for it:
“If the U.S. government ever said we would like you to do something, I would do it, probably,” he said.
The other top U.S. negotiator with North Korea who was put out to fresh pastures after a change in administration is Christopher Hill. Instead of being kept on dealing with Korean issues by the new administration – which had retained many who had served under Bush, such as Robert Gates – he was sent off to the bemusement of Middle East experts to be ambassador to Iraq, although he had no experience in the region. Moreover, Hill appears to be the professional diplomat par excellence. He father had been a diplomat and he had served under successive presidents, including Bill Clinton. It would be unfair to ascribe too much responsibility for the present debacle in Iraq to Hill because the reasons lie far deeper and an ambassador has limited purchase on events driven by dynamics embedded in history as well as the maelstrom of American domestic politics. The same holds true for his role in the failure to negotiate a resolution with North Korea. Apart from the flagrant attempt by Treasury to derail U.S. (and South Korean) talks with North Korea with the DBA affair (replicated today it seems in respect of Iran) we have a good description of infighting within the Bush administration from the book Meltdown and articles from Mike Chinoy. Where did Christopher Hill stand in all this? Was he an honest negotiator whose best efforts were scuttled by politicking back in Washington, or was he complicit? We might hope that his forthcoming memoirs, scheduled for publication in October, would shed light on these questions. The publisher’s blurb does promise that “Hill writes bluntly about the bureaucratic warfare in D.C. and expresses strong criticism of America’s aggressive interventions and wars of choice.” We shall see.
The second article is less constrained by protocol, being written by Mel Gurtov, a professor emeritus of political science at Portland State University. It is more substantial and prescriptive as its title suggests – “Why the U.S. Should Engage North Korea Right Now.” Professor Gurtov is an academic, so lays out his argument in a structured way. It deserves a more detailed analysis, which will be the subject of the second part of this brief look at the subject of U.S. engagement with North Korea.
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