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Ignored Issues Won't Go Away

North Korea's nuclear test Monday is fresh evidence that President Obama's problem is not that he's taking on too many big issues at the same time -- it's that he can't leave even one on the back burner.

Administration officials thought they could afford not to focus too intently on North Korea, in favor of other even hotter spots around the globe. No such luck.

Indeed, there are several other significant issues Obama has tried to avoid dealing with, quite possibly only making things worse for himself in the long run. Two that come to mind are gay rights and torture. This is a consequential president, coming to power at a consequential time, and ducking things is ultimately going to get him in more trouble than addressing them head on.

As Robert Burns writes for the Associated Press: "The Obama administration, which said the North's action invited stronger, unspecified international pressure, has consistently called for Korean denuclearization but seemed not to have anticipated a deepening nuclear crisis.

"Just two weeks ago, the administration's special envoy for disarmament talks with North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, said during a visit to Asian capitals that 'everyone is feeling relatively relaxed about where we are at this point in the process.' If so, they are no longer."

Yesterday morning, Obama was out in the Rose Garden declaring that "North Korea's actions endanger the people of Northeast Asia, they are a blatant violation of international law, and they contradict North Korea's own prior commitments."

Non-proliferation expert Joe Cirincione writes for "Obama followed the advice of staff who recommended ignoring North Korea. The argument was that North Korea had no place to go and would eventually come back to negotiations. This was a strategy endorsed by many former Bush officials. There was nothing like the diplomatic approaches that Obama has started with Iran--and North Korea noticed.

"Obama officials even put preconditions on renewing negotiations, reportedly blocking Special Envoy Stephen Bosworth from going to North Korea until that country promised not to conduct another missile test. Officials also backed the tough line taken by South Korea, including curtailing fuel shipments to the north. Worse, some officials seem to have concluded that North Korea's program cannot be stopped, that the best we can do is 'manage' the problem.

"But North Korea will not be ignored. Or managed. Or coerced into compliance or collapse. These approaches were tried in the Bush administration. They failed. They only gave Pyongyang time to increase the threat of its nuclear and missile programs and export of sensitive technologies.

"It is time to shift gears. We need a coordinated effort with China that combines pressure with incentives. Not just promises to talk, but a clear description of what North Korea could gain from stopping and then rolling back its program, coupled with sustained engagement that carries through on the commitments we make and gives the North Korean government the attention it thinks it deserves--however repugnant that may be."

Despite the facts, some critics and their enablers will inevitably try to cast the North Korean nuclear test as a negative verdict on Obama's policy of engagement.

But the real problem is that Obama is once again inheriting a dire situation made worse by the Bush administration. And at this point, few experts share even Cirincione's small glimmer of optimism.

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "Setting the right tone will be critical now, analysts said, because the Bush administration frequently veered between tough talk and concessions, largely because top officials were split on the right response. Bush initially labeled North Korea part of an 'axis of evil' and let lapse a deal that had kept North Korea's nuclear reactor shuttered.

"During the Bush years, North Korea built a stockpile of plutonium that could fuel at least a six weapons until it finally conducted its first test in 2006. The U.N. Security Council backed Bush's demands for a tough response, but then the president abruptly dropped efforts to impose a new sanctions regime after other nations resisted. He instead shifted to intense diplomacy, including offering concessions such as dropping North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, if it began to disable its nuclear program."

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times that Obama's aides are "[a]cutely aware that their response to the explosion in the mountains of Kilju, not far from the Chinese border, [will] be seen as an early test of a new administration....

"But as they had meetings every few hours — including a lengthy session in the Situation Room on Monday evening — some of Mr. Obama’s aides acknowledged that the administration’s options were limited."

Joe Klein blogs for Time: "[L]et's not kid ourselves: the military option is off the table, unless North Korea starts firing those missiles at someone. The sanctions option is also of limited utility because the Chinese are afraid that if North Korea is squeezed too hard, hundreds of thousands of refugees will stream across the border into their country. That leaves diplomacy--and seduction. There is a chance that if we make the North Koreans dependent on our food, fuel and consumer goods, we will have more leverage over them. But that is only a chance and the Kim family has shown a remarkable willing to allow its people to suffer and starve. There are no good options here--some are vaguely plausible and others are disastrous."

Neoconservatives Dan Blumenthal and Robert Kagan, writing in the Washington Post op-ed page, grudgingly admit that direct military action isn't an option -- only because we aren't prepared "to protect our allies against possible North Korean retaliation." In the meantime, they advocated missile defense.

The Washington Post editorial board recommends... ignoring things. "What Kim Jong Il's latest provocation should not cause, however, is the response he is seeking: a rush by the Obama administration to lavish attention on his regime and offer it economic and political favors....

"Mr. Obama should simply decline to treat North Korea as a crisis, or even as a matter of urgency."

By Dan Froomkin  |  May 26, 2009; 2:40 PM ET
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It seems to me the key to resolving the situation with North Korea is what does China want? As long as China is willing to coddle North Korea they will continue to act like spoiled children throwing tantrums. If China becomes exasperated enough with their behavior then we will likely see some real action and the end of the Kim family. Until that time there are virtually no carrots or sticks to use against North Korea. The best stick at the moment is a blockade, but the question is what are we prepared to do if North Korea takes hostile action against the US or our allies? Carrots don't work, because the North Koreans have been quite content to destroy their own economy and starve its own people for the last 50 years. What can we do to them economically that they have not done to themselves already?

Posted by: troyd2009 | May 26, 2009 5:04 PM | Report abuse

As much as I was against it when Bush had a chance to resolve this issue diplomatically, I now agreee the best solution available to the US is to wait and see what NK does. If Kim launches a missile or sells a warhead, the US will have the go-ahead to resolve the problem militarily. Until then simply giving Kim what he wants is exactly like rewarding a begging dog.

Posted by: imike1 | May 26, 2009 5:16 PM | Report abuse

Ignoring the actions of North Korea is not viable, but setting a tone of low key responses to their actions is probably the best approach to a situation with few viable options. The first poster is correct in that North Korea has a history of throwing tantrums to get attention. The best way to deal with those tantrums is not to overreact.

In the Washington Post today, the lead article quoted some far east experts on North Korea's nuclear program. More than one of them stated that the latest nuclear test was not much of an improvement over the test conducted in 2006 (the lack of improvement in yield indicates that their scientists haven't mastered the ability to create an initial explosive reaction that maximizes the potential yield of the limited nuclear material currently available to their program) .

Basically, their scientists have had to create a home grown nuclear program, and if the scientists can't master the intricacies required for an efficient explosive yield, how much further away is North Korea from creating a device that will fit into an intermediate range ballistic missile?

Any form of "engagement" fostered by overreaction will be ineffective. The current good news is that both China and Russia are not enamored with North Korea's latest nuclear test. That dissatisfaction may offer an opening for the Obama administration to initiate a three way, rather than a six way, diplomatic initiative.

In the end, Blumenthal and Kagan didn't offer any new or concrete solutions in their opinion piece today. They expressed the desire to ultimately create a climate where North Korea will become a more open, democratic society. That is a surprising dreamland fantasy that would take decades to achieve under the most ideal circumstances, and blatantly ignores the sphere of influence that China represents in this region. That idea (assuming that anyone in the Obama administration is serious about it), needs to be immediately taken off the table if we want to engage North Korea using China's influence with that country.

North Korea's schizophrenic reactions to Western engagement is due to the equally schizophrenic approach by the US over the last eight years. However, China's support has been consistent. Constructive engagement with China prior to overtures with North Korea may offer a constructive opening.

None the less, the options are limited and tenuous.

Posted by: MillPond2 | May 26, 2009 6:01 PM | Report abuse

Don't panic. North Korea is a difficult, maybe insoluble problem, but it has not been ignored. Whatever Obama does Kim Jong Il will react.
As for torture and gay rights, waiting for information to become public, sometimes through court decisions, and for the public attitudes to evolve concerning gay issues is smart. Within two years we will know a lot more about torture/spying. Don't ask don't tell will be overturned and more states will accept civil unions or gay marriage. It's only been four months. Try to keep things in perspective.

Posted by: awmarch1 | May 26, 2009 6:18 PM | Report abuse

Could North Korea build that nuclear device in 4 months? Unlikely.

Could Kim Jong Il decide in 4 months whether to detonate an existing device? Yes, despite his illness.

So it's likely this device was in production for some time and was exploded as a symbolic gesture, a temper tantrum - "Pay attention to me!"

I agree that China has significant interest in resolving the issue, but only dealing with the US will assuage Kim's ego.

Posted by: boscobobb | May 26, 2009 7:19 PM | Report abuse

This is what you get when Dick Cheney and John Bolton are in charge of diplomacy.

Posted by: samellison | May 27, 2009 12:30 AM | Report abuse

NK is to China what the east bloc satellites were to the Soviet Union. NK doesn't act on its own any more than Hamas, Hezbollah or Syria. They're puppets.

As for our response Obama has few choices. He's inherited a mess. No he's gotten a garbage heap from all his predecessors but at the end of the day he's just a pol. He's no more brilliant than most college grads, but he has a great oratorical manner. That being said China is the road to NK.

With Pelosi having stuck her foot in her mouth over there I believe her trip is a percursor of dealing with the Chinese trade imbalance, our currency fall, and interest rates. It's not a given interest rates will be double digits in less than four years, but it is a possibility. The real question while the markets around the world unwind and reinvent themselves is where is American ingenuity going to take us?

Are we going to stay put on the oil trail and ponder our future as the Iranians build nuclear armed warheads, or are we going to stage our own revolution? We are constantly putting out or trying to extinguish fires and flare ups. Let them react to us for once. Who the heck is NK anyhow? It's a simple formula to point at them when pols have no answers to anything. It's like political ducking and heat transfer. Get out of the hot seat by finding another fire. Congress is a useless sack of grain on the docks.

Post recession blues can be put to use by reinvigorating our alternative energy solutions. No one said no more drilling and no more tree chopping. I think the bi-polar mentality we are stuck in is partially created by pols whose sole aim is reelection. The Either/Or with me or agin' me thing is trippin'. It divides. I doubt if Obama can fuse this country together regardless of his luck and ability. But the country need not be dominated by politicians, Hollywood, media, debt, the Middle East and the rest of the daily dope. Let's do our jobs, lead our lives and relax a bit.

Wall Street isn't going anywhere. They'll find a way to get back on top. Hey maybe if we leave them alone and not get all tangled up in finances they'll actually do a good job instead of robbing everyone. Maybe the Titans of the Street can put it to the NK, Iranians et al the way they do to us in our pensions. Why is it they are called upon to sell China investments to us all the time? Not a single bit of the money or time spent on fixing the Green at Bond Street will ever be repaid. Let's face it we've been stuck with the bill again. So let's let the CEOs who can't screw a light bulb in without a committee meeting go back to the work of discharging duties that make real money not smoke and mirrors.

The real danger is taking our eye off the prize.

Posted by: KraftPaper | May 27, 2009 8:03 AM | Report abuse

Dan are you actually claiming that Bush did not create the situation with North Korea? What happened did you read a history book or something and actually educate yourself rather than spewing nonsense.

What are you going to tell us next, that Iran has hated us for years and years, not just since 2001?

Really its like watching an intellectual awakening, lol.

Posted by: DCDave11 | May 27, 2009 11:59 AM | Report abuse

David Frum wrote a pithy speech for Bush in his first term in a ploy to rile up Christian conservatives, referring to Iran, IRaq, and North Korea as an "Axis of Evil." The trailer trash ate it up; "evil" is a nice solid idea with a lot of appeal to people who don't deal well with nuance. This was part of the ginning up of the Iraq invasion; at the time Iran's nuclear program was mothballed and North Korea had only a preliminary program.

Iraq was of course totally disarmed by years of sanctions, so needless to say that was the one we actually attacked. The fact was not lost on the other two AoE states, whose nuclear programs immediately resumed, and can you blame them?

Posted by: chrisfox8 | May 27, 2009 2:31 PM | Report abuse

Iran never hated the United States despite our giving them every reason to. They would still like to be like us, but Kermit Roosevelt and his other CIA buddies were trying to horn in on the Great Game and as will happen when you let a bunch of frat boy inbred aristocrats run things, they put one of their own in charge. It's just lucky for the world the Iranians are civilized Muslims and not Baptists or Methodists, or we would be in real trouble now. DCDave should crack some history books his own self.
North Korea shouldn't be the subject of so much hype. Keep an eye on them and try to shut them down, perhaps by not outing our CIA agents working on counterproliferation. Smooth move, Cheneylax.

Posted by: sparkplug1 | May 27, 2009 5:42 PM | Report abuse

Aid to despotic regimes inevitably props up the despots. Threatening them (especially employing EMPTY threats) does the same... foreign threats reinforce the regime's best excuse for continued existence.

So long as they aren't attacking anyone else, the best thing to be done with regimes like that of North Korea is NOTHING AT ALL. Don't trade with them, don't threaten them, certainly don't give them assistance. Most, perhaps all, will eventually collapse of their own corrupt weight, but even short of that, deprived of credible foreign threats, and without the advantages of exchange, they will steadily become weaker and LESS capable of doing serious harm to anyone else.

Posted by: Observer44 | May 27, 2009 7:15 PM | Report abuse

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