Foreign Policy Making in the US


December 6, 2012







Comparison of US Administration’s response to North Korea after May 2009 with the Administration’s initial foreign policy plan


Dongwook LEE



Usage of nuclear tests for North Korea is a signal where it wants to make neighbor countries and political counterparts reassess their prevailing strategies. The North was insisting that the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula would require the United States to disengage from its security commitments in Northeast Asia, remove its nuclear umbrella from South Korea, withdraw US military forces from the peninsula, and develop a US-DPRK strategic relationship paralleling the US-ROK alliance.[1] This paper tries to find out the difference between foreign policy to North Korea proposed by President Obama for his election campaign and what Bush was holding on till the end of his term, and the difference occurred after North Korea nuclear test. What is the most notable factor that formed Obama Administration’s foreign policy measures in response to the North Korea nuclear test? Which factor had the most influence just after two military provocations?

The United States  was pursuing three primary denuclearization objectives: to convince Pyongyang to relinquish its fissile-material inventory; to preclude the possibility of additional fissile-material production by the North; and to ensure the DPRK’s full compliance with its non-proliferation commitments.[2] According to US think tanks and policy analysts, the United States has four options in dealing with a nuclear North Korea:[3]

1.      Give economic aid and a security assurance if North Korea dismantles its nuclear program.

2.      Use a military strike against North Korean nuclear facilities.

3.      Let North Korea develop nuclear weapons.

4.      Starve the North Korean regime of money.

The ultimate goal remains nuclear abandonment by the North, but a more practicable objective is risk minimalisation, both in relation to the DPRK’s extant weapons and in any potential transfer of technology and materials beyond North Korea’s borders.[4] The United States has not yet deemed North Korean nuclear weapons a direct threat to US national security.[5] But its nuclear and missile programs remain a prospective threat against which the US continues to prepare, notably with respect to ballistic-missile defense.[6] Unlike Israel, India and Pakistan, the DPRK was a signatory to the NPT, the main cause of reproach from the United States. American officials had additional dealings with diplomats and technical personnel during the negotiations over Pyongyang’s missile development, the cancelled light-water reactor (LWR) project, and the now-suspended disablement of the DPRK’s nuclear complex at Yongbyon.[7] Intelligence data on the North’s earliest years of nuclear development was patchy and inconclusive, and more definitive evidence emerged only as the North pursued development of a complete nuclear fuel cycle, and when IAEA personnel were briefly able to undertake limited inspections at Yongbyon, the centre of the North’s plutonium-based program.[8]

If  the Congress were divided in two contrasting opinions, there would be no ability from the US to negotiate the nuclear crisis effectively with the DPRK. Sanctions managed by the Congress moved to practice after ironing out differences between Republican senators and representatives. Bipartisanship did not exist even though organized fact-finding trip to North Korea was conducted with senators from both parties. However, as more economic aid and stance similar to the Sunshine Policy from the South Korean government were not a feasible track the Democratic party can take, Congress worked in a same direction as the UN Security Council, and mainly operated by Republican party in terms of relations with North Korea. North Korea Accountability Act of 2009 was introduced by four senators from the Republican party from Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in August after the nuclear test, making president Obama along with Secretary of State and Secretary of the Treasury to pressure North Korea in a state approach, although it failed to pass the Senate.

The  United States approaches to the North Korea’s nuclear issue through sanctions from the UN Security Council in response based on liberal idealism. Interventions sanctioned by an international system, notably UNSC and IAEA, dominated the abnormal relations between the two states so far covering both Bush and Obama administration. These began three days after the outbreak of the Korean War, and have been increased in its scope and subject for containment of North Korean regime.

President George H. W. Bush on 27 September 1991 announced that the United Sates would unilaterally withdraw all remaining US tactical nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula and from US surface ships in the western Pacific.[9] IAEA safeguards that the North Korea acceded were due to preliminary South Korean withdrawal of nuclear weapons. The United States has pushed towards North Korea giving South Korean case as a justification of stopping nuclear weapons development, until the George W. Bush administration. With the capabilities it already had or was soon to complete by the early 1990s, Pyongyang today could have an arsenal of a hundred or more nuclear weapons.[10]

             Some policy analysts believe that North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons reflects anxieties triggered by the end of the Cold War and the DPRK’s loss of explicit security guarantees from Russia and China.[11] Pyongyang selected the gas-graphite reactor technology, which was the best dual-use option for both civilian and military nuclear usage.[12] As a small nation which uses a strategy of a scorpion to make other two or more neighboring countries fight each other, a certain amount of exaggeration of nuclear abilities led to overcome political crises inside North Korea and strengthened its relation to international community. Although DPRK is called as a hermit state, its arms deal with countries normally hostile to the United States remains stable with appreciation of trade partner countries.

A US military withdrawal from the ROK had long been among Kim Il-sung’s foremost strategic objectives. As he remarked to Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu only a month before the Kissinger visit, ‘[I]n the absence of the Americans in South Korea or of any other foreign forces, the South Korean people could install a democratic progressive government, through its own forces, and the establishment of such a government would draw us very close to each other, so that, without fighting, we could unify the country.’[13]

Under the George W. Bush administration, North Korea and its leader were the target of contempt, dismissal and verbal attacks.[14] The politics of “naming, labeling and framing” set the two governments significantly back in any pre-existing bilateral progress.[15] Also, the Bush administration killed the Agreed Framework for domestic political reasons and because it suspected Pyongyang of cheating by covertly pursuing uranium enrichment.[16]

November 2000 election led to a dismissive tone of Agreed Framework initiated in 1994, leading to its complete breakdown in 2003. Hardened attitude of the Bush administration following the attacks of September 11, 2001 was apparent in the president’s highly personalized criticisms of Kim Jong-il, his characterization of North Korea as a member of the ‘axis of evil’. After Pyongyang decided to formally renege on its NPT commitments and restart its long-suspended plutonium enrichment program, the Bush administration made China as a mediator taking an offensive role to dissuade North Korea. This tradition goes back to 2002, when Then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell pressed China to host three-way discussions because it was clear that Bush was opposed to direct talks, according to the book “Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell,” by Washington Post Associate Editor Karen DeYoung.

On bilateralism of the United States towards North Korea before its first nuclear test in 2006, president Bush maintained a multilateral approach such as Six-Party Talks in terms of getting information about North Korea’s nuclear enrichment program. In a CNN article on October 10, 2006, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday defended the Bush administration’s refusal to hold bilateral talks with North Korea in the face of Pyongyang’s claim of a successful nuclear test.[17] As scholars argue that Northeast Asia is a region that has every possibility of becoming the best trading bloc in the future, because of Japanese capital and technology, Chinese labor and money, Russian natural resources, and the Korean work ethic,[18] Bush administration maintained multilateral approach leveraging gains of regional cooperation even though his personality and thinking were the most hostile to North Korean dictatorial regime.

Before the Obama administration, president Bush tried not to provoke North Korea directly through diplomatic clash. Instead, the United States managed to leave a very ineffectual diplomatic channel with stubborn policy principles. The stalled multilateral negotiation has turned out to be a failure where each member brings its own issues to the community agenda.[19] Senior Vice Foreign Minister Kang, who acted as the lead North Korean negotiator for the Agreed Framework, claimed that Pyongyang sought a bilateral agreement with both countries sitting ‘knee to knee’, but it is very doubtful that the DPRK anticipated or desired serious negotiations with the Bush administration.[20]

DPRK’s nuclear test secured the bilateral channel with the United States, which DPRK failed to erect during Bush’s first term. After DPRK resumed energy assistance from the US with bilateral talks, under the terms of the denuclearization action plan of February 2007 announced at the Six-Party Talks, the North agreed to ‘shut down and seal for the purpose of eventual abandonment the Yongbyon nuclear facility’ and to allow IAEA personnel to monitor and verify Pyongyang’s compliance with its commitments.[21] But because of small anticipation for the United States to change their interests, agreement of North Korea turned out to be a makeshift.

During the visit of US Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly to Pyongyang in October 2002, the US for the first time accused the DPRK of pursuing uranium enrichment.[22] But at a later time, the status goes to zero again. Following the initial 2002 altercation with the Bush administration over North Korea’s alleged uranium enrichment program, as part of its response to UN sanctions following the April 2009 missile launch, Pyongyang announced that it would now pursue enriching uranium for domestic LWR program.[23] On 10 January 2003, the DPRK announced its ‘automatic and immediate’ withdrawal from the NPT and its ‘complete free[dom]’ from the restrictions of the safeguards agreement within the IAEA, simultaneously claiming that ‘in the current stage, our nuclear activities will be limited to only peaceful purposes, including electricity production.’[24] When investigating the reason of opting out of NPT for North Korea, it is most plausible that it wants to be equal to the US in terms of relations in Northeast Asia.

After a year-long absence from the Six-Party Talks, Pyongyang returned to the negotiations, culminating with release of the joint statement of 19 September 2005, with Beijing the principal drafter of the document.[25] However, after that Washington and Pyongyang quickly released unilateral statements with starkly different interpretations of their respective obligations.[26] During 2007 and 2008, North Korea curtailed some of its nuclear activities, including the shuttering and subsequent disablement of the Yongbyon reactor.[27] Bilateral negotiations turned out to be a deceit from one side where solutions to correct the fact lead to another deceit. President Bush’s first term was plagued with strategic and diplomatic errors that gave North Korea a free hand to accelerate the development of its nuclear program.[28]

Since Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moo-Hyun, the two former presidents of South Korea supportive for North Korea in humanitarian and economic aids did not take North Korean nuclear development in account in terms of military strategy, the Bush Administration did not have to calculate South Korean government’s behavior in order to change the originally set policy orientation towards North Korea. However, antipathy between the two Koreas started to affect late Bush administration and Obama administration thereafter till present. Rather than Obama’s election, election of South Korean president Lee Myung-Bak and his policy change to take the same approach according to the original policy orientation that prevailed from the beginning of Bush Administration was the reason for growing tension between the two Koreas and the leading military provocation in Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Do. However, North Korean nuclear test in May 2009 also does not bear its relation to president Obama’s election in late 2008.

Unlike the case of South Korea in which personality of a president forced another country’s foreign policy to change, United States had a set of foreign policy towards North Korea consistently regardless of a new president’s personality. George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney used the term ‘axis of evil’ for North Korea, but Bill Clinton and Barack Obama refrained from using that term. Nevertheless, that does not alter the US vital interests towards North Korea, and only approaches between the two camps were different. In a closer look of this procedure, administrative branch has more peculiarities because congressional support for traditional US foreign policy towards North Korea remained consistent with the UN Security Council.

Pyongyang had high expectations for Obama, and expected him to be different from George W. Bush. The election of a dialogue-oriented president tends not to add UN Security Council sanctions or resolutions towards North Korea so that it deems the new president favorable, but as North Korea does not change its foreign policy directive, so that of the United States cannot change either. With President Obama’s criticism of Pyongyang’s missile (or satellite) launch in his Prague speech on April 5, 2009, North Korea responded with a second nuclear test the following month, on May 25, 2009.[29] When the first nuclear test in October 2006 was partially successful with a yield of slightly below 1 kiloton, the second was more successful with an estimated yield of 2 to 4 kilotons. A realist standpoint considering the United States as a whole, or as a state while looking through changes in North Korean state can give accurate analysis to find out the most notable factor for change in foreign policy towards North Korea from Obama Administration.

At the beginning of the Obama administration, it asserted that its fundamental policy objective with the DPRK is ‘a definite and comprehensive resolution’ of the nuclear issue,[30] exactly the same as that of Bush administration holding firm of vital American interests. At that time resuming Six-Party Talks was always at hand, even though North Korean hostility to Lee Myung-Bak and reticence of Hu Jintao to initiate softer policy of South Korea were already two main obstacles. This solution of multilateralism almost vanished throughout North Korea’s efforts to save its current regime through a significant nuclear test and two military provocations. Six-Party Talks stopped abruptly just after the nuclear test, and did not start again since then.

In early 2009, North Korea forcefully expanded its claims to standing as a nuclear-weapons state.[31] In abrupt, unequivocal fashion, the DPRK walked away from every denuclearization commitment made during the latter years of the Bush administration.[32] Along with a nuclear test with upgraded warhead compared to 2006, it simultaneously reactivated the reprocessing facility at Yongbyon, which stopped operating the year before. Every major nuclear test has changed the foreign policy direction of US, and at that time the change was radical.

The April 2010 US Nuclear Posture Review implies to expect the emergence of leaders in North Korea who did not see the system’s fundamental identity tied to retention of nuclear weapons. But in current situation of failing the yearly goal of economic growth, the current leader has to remain the status quo in terms of nuclear policy in order not to fail additionally in political terms. Current leadership of North Korea is called a ‘no landing’ scenario – that is, the perpetuation of the existing system based on the unquestioned power and authority of the Kim family and of the ruling elites that support it, retention of its nuclear weapons capabilities, and a measure of economic recovery.[33] The United States also keeps a policy of waiting till North Korea forgoes possession of nuclear weapons and the means to produce additional fissile material in exchange for US security and economic commitments, a view that never corresponds with response from North Korea.

But North Korea seeks legitimation by the United States, and demands affirmation and acceptance of the United States. That is decreased military alliance with South Korea and Japan, and accepting North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state such as Israel. At the first time Obama was elected as president, Arab states and North Korea had a neutral or welcoming stance compared to a well-expected antagonism towards John McCain. Also for this year’s election results for giving Obama a second term, Chosun Sinbo, a pro-DPRK journal in Tokyo also reported the results as ‘neither side won, but it is true that Romney’s hard line deserves to be reprimanded.’

There have been repeated oscillations in inter-Korean relations, sometimes including clashes between the two militaries, of which North Korea’s March 2010 sinking of the ROK Navy corvette Cheonan was the most lethal of these episodes.[34] Pyongyang’s November 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong Do (a ROK-controlled coastal island) constituted the first use of North Korean artillery against South Korean territory since the Korean War.[35] The main reason of the Cheonan attack was interpreted as to reestablish support for Kim Jong-Il’s rule especially by the military after November 2009 clash on NLL. However, current stalemate does not give any measures in either military retaliation or bilateral talks. The Yeonpyeong Do attack is interpreted as a result of explicit revelation conducted by a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory Siegfried Hecker in terms of recently constructed centrifuges used for uranium enrichment, during his trip to North Korea in mid-November. After the politically neutral discovery, the blatant fact of recent violation of UN sanction with pursuit of another route for nuclear weapons led to doubtful and hostile discussion conducted by US and South Korean officials, which led to public address and media exposure. After Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Do military provocation, the Obama administration condemned its behavior along with the address of G8 group of industrialised nations meeting in Toronto in 2010. According to an agreement made between Lee and Obama in Seoul in November 2009, and a 25-minute talk over the phone on simultaneous reactions of US and South Korea, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton along with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates held the first-ever two plus two security talks with their South Korean counterparts. Moreover, the U.S. Freedom of Information Act and the Japanese equivalent will be [is] legally bound to shed light on this incident twenty five years from now [2010].[36]

With economic sanctions along with UNSC resolution to reaffirm its denuclearization commitments, US wanted to hear North Korea’s response opening a channel of dialogue as former president Clinton’s visit to Pyongyang in August 2009 shows. However, president Obama himself never succeeded a direct bilateral talk with the North Korean leader Kim Chong-Un yet. With the singular exception of China, various neighboring countries and the United States were engaged in deliberations and consultations about North Korea, not negotiations with North Korea.[37] As China-DPRK bilateral relations remain strong that no other country can follow that level of deeper interaction, United States relatively lag behind of its diplomatic ability. A new leader Kim Chong-Un trying to strengthen his inner political circle with holding firmly a nuclear card cannot risk his political path by abruptly opening talks with a US counterpart. After the leadership change in North Korea, neither secretary-level talks nor summit talks are currently available. Rather, president Obama visited US military camps in South Korea and made a public address condemning North Korea’s behavior with no much change in stance. Holding back of food aid and other economic support are the only measures designed for stability and anti-nuclear proliferation at best.

Bush administration preferred multilateral approach using Six-Party Talks, but also went on a bilateral discussion table when North Korea made a provocative action so that appeasement was needed afterwards. President Bush and members of the National Security Council during his two terms preferred justified denuclearization of North Korea with consensus of other neighboring countries. But in Obama administration, even that attempt did not take place. Obama administration did not change much from its previous administration, but it became more reticent while seeking consequences if the North Korea abolishes nuclear weapons and thus fall. What made a significant difference was the nuclear test in May 2009, and military provocation of Cheonan and Yeonpyeong do are subsequent results with no major change from May 2009. As no significant nuclear-generated power supply for improving people’s lives in North Korea is being conducted, the dual purpose that North Korea suggests is already an excuse. The answer to denuclearization does not lie in increasing threat towards North Korea, in which it will accelerate its drive for nuclear weapons development as a result. When North Korea believes that fundamental relationship with the United States was improving, then it is willing to slow down. In an interview with the news media in 2009, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated “we should try to step back and see North Korean issues as the forest instead of the trees.”[38] Looking at a forest, US can consider approaches other than direct sanction to limit nuclear proliferation, as improved transportation network replacing old North Korean infrastructure is constructed with support by government-corporate cooperation, named North Korean Development Bank, is being suggested by think tanks in the US. If Obama administration wants to make a diplomatic move, getting out of current stalemate, choosing alternatives other than war while differentiating from Bush era is going to be another Sunshine Policy or is very difficult to achieve.


[1] Jonathan D. Pollack, No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons and International Security, Routledge, 2011, p. 160.

[2] Ibid., p. 134.

[3] Suk Hi Kim and Bernhard J. Seliger, “U.S. Policy Options on a Nuclear North Korea”, The Survival of North Korea, Suk Hi Kim, Terence Roehrig and Bernhard Seliger (ed.), McFarland & Company, 2011, p. 245.

[4] Ibid., p. 209.

[5] Ibid., p. 205.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., p. 23.

[8] Ibid., p. 19.

[9] Ibid., p. 106.

[10] Siegfried S. Hecker, “Lessons from N. K. Nuclear Crises”, The Survival of North Korea, Suk Hi Kim, Terence Roehrig and Bernhard Seliger (ed.), McFarland & Company, 2011, p. 218.

[11] Jonathan D. Pollack, No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons and International Security, Routledge, 2011, p. 14.

[12] Siegfried S. Hecker, “Lessons from N. K. Nuclear Crises”, The Survival of North Korea, Suk Hi Kim, Terence Roehrig and Bernhard Seliger (ed.), McFarland & Company, 2011, p. 226.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Mikyoung Kim, “Violence from Within: North Korea’s Place in East Asian Community Debates”, The Survival of North Korea, Suk Hi Kim, Terence Roehrig and Bernhard Seliger (ed.), McFarland & Company, 2011, p. 188.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Siegfried S. Hecker, “Lessons from N. K. Nuclear Crises”, The Survival of North Korea, Suk Hi Kim, Terence Roehrig and Bernhard Seliger (ed.), McFarland & Company, 2011, p. 227.

[17] “Rice : Bilateral talks with North Korea won’t work” (CNN, October 10, 2006).

[18] Suk Hi Kim and Bernhard J. Seliger, “U.S. Policy on a Nuclear North Korea”, The Survival of North Korea, Suk Hi Kim, Terence Roehrig and Bernhard Seliger (ed.), McFarland & Company, 2011, p. 250.

[19] Mikyoung Kim, “Violence from Within: North Korea’s Place in East Asian Community Debates”, The Survival of North Korea, Suk Hi Kim, Terence Roehrig and Bernhard Seliger (ed.), McFarland & Company, 2011, p. 189.

[20] Jonathan D. Pollack, No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons and International Security, Routledge, 2011, p. 140.

[21] Ibid., p, 151.

[22] Ibid., p. 138.

[23] Siegfried S. Hecker, “Lessons from N. K. Nuclear Crises”, The Survival of North Korea, Suk Hi Kim, Terence Roehrig and Bernhard Seliger (ed.), McFarland & Company, 2011, p. 218.

[24] Jonathan D. Pollack, No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons and International Security, Routledge, 2011, p. 140.

[25] Ibid., p. 146.

[26] Ibid., p. 147.

[27] Ibid., p. 133.

[28] Ed Shin, U.S. Diplomacy with North Korea During the Bush Administration, Woodrow Wilson School of  Public and International Affairs, 2009, p. 1.

[29] Mikyoung Kim, “Violence from Within: North Korea’s Place in East Asian Community Debates”, The Survival of North Korea, Suk Hi Kim, Terence Roehrig and Bernhard Seliger (ed.), McFarland & Company, 2011, p. 189.

[30] Jonathan D. Pollack, No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons and International Security, Routledge, 2011, p. 204.

[31] Ibid., p. 157.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid., p. 192.

[34] Ibid., p. 17.

[35] Ibid., pp. 17-18.

[36] Mikyoung Kim, “Violence from Within: North Korea’s Place in East Asian Community Debates”, The Survival of North Korea, Suk Hi Kim, Terence Roehrig and Bernhard Seliger (ed.), McFarland & Company, 2011, p. 190.

[37] Jonathan D. Pollack, No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons and International Security, Routledge, 2011, p. 177.

[38] Suk Hi Kim and Bernhard J. Seliger, “U.S. Policy on a Nuclear North Korea”, The Survival of North Korea, Suk Hi Kim, Terence Roehrig and Bernhard Seliger (ed.), McFarland & Company, 2011, p. 190.

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