It is now becoming clear that Hillary Clinton will probably be the next president of the United States. Nothing is guaranteed – a week is a long time in politics, as British Prime Minister Harold Wilson said – and the Trump candidacy has the pundits hedging their bets. If she does become president then it seems certain that Wendy Sherman will play an important role in her foreign policy, especially in respect of Korea, and may even become Secretary of State. That makes her speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington on May 3, 2016 something worth careful scrutiny. Scrutiny is the appropriate word. It must be assumed that officials (past and future) in a public forum seldom wholly mean what they say or say what they mean. Speeches need to be decoded and interpreted. In addition, what is left out can be highly significant.
On the face of it, Wendy Sherman is the consummate global official. According to CSIS, at her last official role as Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs she oversaw the bureaus for Africa, East Asia and the Pacific, Europe and Eurasia, the Near East, South and Central Asia, the Western Hemisphere and International Organizations. It is difficult to think what is left; Antarctica perhaps? She has also flipped between government service, in the State Department, where power is exercised and contacts made, and the private sector, where presumably money is made. In this case the private sector being the Albright Stonebridge Group. The “Albright” being Madelaine Albright, former Secretary of State and Sherman’s former boss.
Sherman has had an unusual career trajectory. “… Wendy Sherman’s resume is diverse even by D.C. standards. Trained in social work, devoted early in life to helping battered women and the urban poor, the 50-year-old Baltimore native finds herself talking with North Korean Communists …” enthused the Baltimore Sun in 1999. The connection between the two was Democratic Party politics, where she had long been an activist and through this her relationship with Madelaine Albright whose protégé and confidante she became.
She highlights the differences … her implied conclusion that the U.S. will resort to force in Korea
She enters this story from two directions. One is the Korean. She worked under Albright on Korea policy back in the 1990s. Most recently she led the U.S. negotiations with Iran, signed in Vienna on July 14, 2015. Her speech at CSIS brought these two together. She starts of by discussing what she sees as the similarities and differences in the negotiations with Iran and North Korea, before devoting the final part of her speech to the latter, presumably having in mind her possible involvement under the next administration. She highlights the differences – “each situation is sui generis, and the two countries are different in many important way” – foreshadowing her implied conclusion that the U.S. will resort to force in Korea.
She highlights the role of sanctions. In the case of Iran she argues:
“While it has been subjected to severe U.S. and international sanctions for many years, Iran still had a basically functional economy, maintained significant external trade and investment ties, people-to-people links, and diplomatic relationships with many countries. Iran’s huge oil reserves gave the country a major incentive to seek sanctions relief.”
She contrasts this with North Korea:
“The isolation and economic dysfunction of North Korea also mean that choosing a path of denuclearization in exchange for greater engagement with the global economy is less desirable to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, as compared with Iran’s leadership.”
Interestingly, Sherman’s analysis is in direct contrast with that of the Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz in May 2003, just after the invasion of Iraq. North Korea does have not oil but Iraq, and Iran do.
“Look, the primarily (sic) difference – to put it a little too simply – between North Korea and Iraq is that we had virtually no economic options with Iraq because the country floats on a sea of oil. In the case of North Korea, the country is teetering on the edge of economic collapse and that I believe is a major point of leverage whereas the military picture with North Korea is very different from that with Iraq.”
Sherman correctly identifies a key aspect of Iran which made it more vulnerable to economic pressures:
“Iran still had a significant middle class (which) has become a source of pressure on the regime to improve an economy devastated by sanctions and mismanagement.”
Iran was certainly more susceptible to sanctions, and oil offered an illusion of relief which may be fading as the Iran deal unravels.
However the main difference between the two situations is that there is only one Iran, but there are two Koreas. If the U.S. were to invade Iran it would have to construct a new indigenous administration – nation-building or puppet government, take your pick – and that is no easy task as America’s recent track record in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya demonstrates. In Korea, Seoul claims sovereignty over the whole peninsula, has massive military capability, and President Park gives every indication that she would happy to assume the mantle if the U.S. gives the go ahead. North Korea thus faces a much greater danger, an existential one, than Iran.
Iran did not have a current nuclear weapons program while North Korea has an existing, albeit incipient, nuclear deterrent. It is one thing to forego what you do not have, and quite another to give something up. From the American point of view Iran is a substantial market and the releasing of its oil exports would further drive down oil prices, to the detriment of Russia, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, the relationship with which is rapidly souring.
For these, and other factors, U.S.-North Korea negotiations are much more difficult.
NO CREDIBLE COLLAPSE
It is noticeable that Sherman makes no reference to what North Korea presumably wants
What then, might a Hillary Clinton administration do? It is noticeable that Sherman makes no reference to what North Korea presumably wants – security and the lifting of the military threat, removal of physical and financial sanctions allowing trade and investment. Carrots in the familiar dichotomy. Instead she focuses on resolution by force arising from collapse or coup:
“But, it is becoming increasingly clear that the status quo likely is not sustainable, and unexpected changes – including sudden regime collapse or a coup – cannot be ruled out.
For Song Jiwon writing in NK News this meant that she “spoke in favor of implementing Operation Plan 5029, which … provides concrete actions to take in case of a North Korean emergency, including mass defections, a coup, regime change, a hostage situation and so on.”
Implementation of OPLAN 5029 would not be the end of the matter – rather the first stage in an unfolding catastrophe. The North would retaliate and that would trigger – and provide an excuse for – the long planned U.S.-SK invasion with awesome consequences for the peninsula and beyond.
“Collapsism” has been around for over a quarter century and it is striking that while officials and politicians invoke it – Sherman, Obama, Park Geun-hye – credible observers do not. Aidan Foster-Carter, for one, has called it a “dodgy, discredited bandwagon.”
What does this indicate? Does Sherman et al really believe collapse is imminent, or is it more a matter of wanting us to believe it? Is the collapse/coup scenario promulgated as a pretext for military action, somewhat like the WMD in Iraq in 2003 and the concerns about the “humanitarian crisis” in Libya in 2011? The genocide was bogus and the concerns were fraudulent; it was “Hillary Clinton’s ‘WMD’ moment.” It is generally acknowledged that Obama was reluctant on this and other issues and that the Libyan adventure was very much “Hillary’s War.”
Obama has used the collapse myth as an excuse for inaction – the policy of strategic patience. Might Hillary Clinton use that myth as a pretext for military action? Rationally we might say no. Military outcomes are not affected by the degree to which a humanitarian situation is inflated or misrepresented, but collapse is another thing. Many a war has been started on false expectations of swift and easy victory.
2017 might be a particularly dangerous year. It will be Park Geun-hye’s last full year in office. Her successor may not be willing to take such risks for the unification jackpot. It might be Hillary Clinton’s first year and she will be keen to differentiate herself from her predecessor. It also, as Stratfor has pointed out, falls within a period of enhanced but diminishing vulnerability for North Korea as it rushes to develop an effective nuclear deterrent which would make an invasion too costly for the U.S. – the “last chance to stop the country from becoming a nuclear weapons state.”
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Featured Image: Under Secretary Wendy Sherman Arrives at UN Geneva for Syria Talks by US Mission Geneva on 2013-06-25 13:34:34