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Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin, a former Foreign Service Officer and senior Congressional staff, is a consultant on Asian issues.
In January 2009, in his first inaugural address, Barack Obama famously directed these words to adversaries of the United States, including North Korea: “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
Pyongyang responded in the first months of the new administration with a series of provocations, throwing any potential future negotiations off track. Washington’s North Korea diplomacy in the Obama era never fully recovered.
Pyongyang’s response to the pledge of an “extended hand” included the following: the detention and imprisonment of two U.S. journalists in the Tumen River border area with China on March 17, 2009; a second underground nuclear test, which was widely regarded as Pyongyang’s first successful test, on May 25th; and a series of missile launches in July.
Former President Bill Clinton was dispatched to Pyongyang in August of that year to secure the release of the two journalists and held “a wide-ranging exchange of views on matters of common concern” with Kim Jong Il, according to Pyongyang’s Korea Central News Agency (KCNA). Thus Kim Jong Il was able to finally achieve his reported long-term goal of meeting with President Clinton, a meeting which had first been contemplated but then abandoned in the closing weeks of the former president’s administration in the fall of 2000. The Obama administration, literally burned after its initial outreach to North Korea, moved forward cautiously.
Washington’s North Korean diplomacy remained in the deep freeze for the remainder of the Obama administration
With the exception of one brief attempt at diplomacy, the failed “Leap Day Agreement” of 2012, it adopted a policy of “strategic patience” toward Pyongyang, predicated on “no rewards for bad behavior” and no engagement with North Korea until Pyongyang publicly reaffirmed its commitment to “verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner,” as agreed to in the Joint Statement of the Fourth Round of the Six-Party Talks in Beijing on September 19, 2005.
As Pyongyang was not about to agree to these conditions, Washington’s North Korean diplomacy remained in the deep freeze for the remainder of the Obama administration.
Pyongyang conducted a third, fourth and even a fifth nuclear test, a series of ballistic missile launches, including from a submarine, and acquired a reportedly growing nuclear arsenal which may include, according to an article published in Foreign Policy in September, 2016, as many as twenty weapons, acquired via both the processing of plutonium and of highly enriched uranium (HEU).
Kim Jong Il in 2009 was not the first North Korean leader to test the mettle of a new U.S. administration shortly after its arrival in office. His father, North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung had taken a similar approach. Kim Il Sung tried the patience of President Gerald Ford in the summer of 1976 with the DMZ ax murders of two U.S. military officers, as Ford dealt with the fallout of the Nixon pardon and the withdrawal from Vietnam.
More famously, Kim Il Sung confronted the untested administration of President Bill Clinton when it first assumed office in 1993-94. Within weeks of the new president moving into the Oval Office, Pyongyang announced in March of 1993 its intention to withdraw from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) due to a disagreement with inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
This led to a series of actions and counteractions which left the Korean Peninsula by the summer of 1994 on the brink of war, as confirmed again recently by Clinton administration Defense Secretary William Perry at a January 9th 38 North press briefing.
Kim Jong Il in 2009 was not the first North Korean leader to test the mettle of a new U.S. administration shortly after its arrival in office
As Don Oberdorfer recorded in his seminal work “The Two Koreas”, it was only a fortuitous visit by former President Jimmy Carter to meet with Kim Il Sung in June of 1994 that led to the opposing sides stepping back from Armageddon.
Kim Il Sung’s on-the-spot agreement with Carter to accept a temporary freeze and to keep the international inspectors and monitoring equipment in place at the Yongbyon nuclear reactor defused the crisis only a few weeks before his death.
It allowed the Clinton administration to transform the lemon of a potential North Korean foreign policy fiasco into lemonade as it negotiated the Agreed Framework nuclear agreement with Pyongyang later that year, considered by the administration one of its major foreign policy achievements.
Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s address, where he said his country would soon test an ICBM
So, the key question is: what does North Korea’s latest leader from the Kim family, Kim Jong Un, ever eager to follow in his father’s and especially his grandfather’s footsteps, have in store for the new Trump administration as it assumes the reins of power in Washington? The answer is plenty and it is very likely that it will not be pretty.
Kim Jong Un has largely sat on the sidelines during the transition and launch of the new Trump administration in Washington, assuming a wait-and-see attitude. Predictions that Pyongyang would greet the new Trump era with a series of ballistic missile launches or even yet another nuclear test have proved to be premature.
In his annual New Year’s address, delivered in Pyongyang on state television, the Supreme Leader said, according to news reports, that his country is making preparations for a test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile which “has reached the final stage.”
Kim also reportedly pledged to further advance efforts to build a nuclear arsenal, repeating the claim that North Korea had conducted its first hydrogen bomb test last year.
He also made an ominous reference to the joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, stating, according to KCNA, “we should resolutely smash the enemies’ despicable and vicious moves.”
Still, Kim Jong Un kept his powder dry, even letting his January 8th birthdate pass without incident. He was not so patient last year, however, with Obama’s last year of “strategic patience,” conducting two of North Korea’s five nuclear tests in 2016, one around his January birthdate, as well as a series of land-based and submarine-based missile launches.
Kim Jong Un has largely sat on the sidelines during the transition and launch of the new Trump administration
Given the Kim family precedent of testing new presidents, it seems that Kim Jong Un will not wait indefinitely before moving into crisis mode to test the mettle of President Trump. Pyongyang will have certainly taken note of the new administration’s use of fiery rhetoric in its first foreign policy clashes with other countries such as Mexico and China.
Given the North Korean regime’s self-image as a proud upholder of Korean sovereignty and opponent of bullying by great foreign powers and “imperialists,” any Washington moves which are perceived as disrespectful will likely solicit a strong reaction. And Kim Jong Un has a number of potential provocative responses up his sleeve. He could create tensions along the DMZ, as his grandfather did with Gerald Ford, or along the maritime Northern Limit Line (NLL) as his father repeatedly did with South Korea.
Then there are the always attention-getting missile launches and/or nuclear tests. One way or another, President Trump and his new foreign policy team should expect the message from Pyongyang that Kim Jong Un will not be slighted or ignored well before the 4th of July.
Feature image: KCNA