Condoleeza Rice on North Korea: The Second Administration



In an earlier post, we talked about Rice’s views of North Korea during the first administration. In this post, we carry the story forward, focusing particular attention—as Rice does—on the events of 2008.

Rice offers little further insight on the atrophy of the talks in 2003-4 but notes that on becoming Secretary she sought “a longer-term framework that pointed the way toward denuclearization and a resolution of the underlying tensions in the region” (167).  Building on her background in Europe—she had done academic work both on the Soviet military and German unification—Rice contemplated the development of multilateral institutions for Northeast Asia that would complement alliance relationships, including a peace treaty (523-4).

To pursue this path, she had to make the President comfortable with a diplomatic approach to North Korea and secure the latitude to negotiate without being “micromanaged.”  The strategy involved three components:

  • The first was coordination among the five parties; “we couldn’t have China, South Korea, Japan and Russia each going its own way.”
  • Second, the US would seek defensive measures to block proliferation, but these would also serve to bring pressure to bear. Financial measures such as BDA were also fair game, although Rice openly worried about their politicization.
  • Finally, Rice had to convince the president that “a change in regime policy, rather than in the regime itself, would be sufficient to begin negotiations.”  This was the hardest sell. But Bush bought on and even surprised her by toying with the idea of offering Kim Jong Il a peace treaty in return for giving up his weapons. His apparent rationale: to test the regime’s intentions. When pressed by Hadley that the strategy would involve taking regime change off the table, Bush countered by saying that the strategy was  “just regime change by other means.” Bush argued that the regime would “never survive if the place was opened up.” Rice correctly notes that the President “had made a strategic leap in his thinking,” but Kim Dae Jung must be turning in his grave.  Isn’t that the underpinning of the Sunshine approach?

Rice is pointed on the frustrations of dealing with China. “The problem wasn’t that Beijing was too active. Rather, the Chinese exhibited a studied passivity that was detached in an almost Socratic way: they commented on issues but rarely worked to resolve them.” At another point, she tells the Chinese that they have to stop acting like “meeting planners” and take responsibility for making the talks work.

The missile and nuclear tests of 2006 tested Chinese patience, however, and Rice provides an interesting detail: that the Chinese had quietly cut off the supply of spare military parts to Pyongyang in the wake of the tests. Rice rightly interprets the two sanctions resolutions of 2006 as a breakthrough in Chinese thinking, even if imperfectly enforced as we have shown.

The resolution of the BDA issue was required to get the talks restarted in 2007, and this decision went all the way to the President. Paulson was involved as well because the New York Fed ended up being the channel for the money when Chinese banks were afraid to touch it.

Rice devotes an entire chapter to 2008 (“One Last Chance for North Korea”). The Secretary was rightly troubled about the mixed picture: progress on initial steps on Yongbyon and getting inspectors on the ground, but delay in the declaration that was due at the end of 2007. Rice fretted as Chris Hill and Kim Kye Gwan struggled over the declaration, and in large measure for political reasons (“unfortunately, Chris often acted as if [reporting on developments] was an intrusion into the considerable flexibility that I’d won for him with the President.”)

Removal from the terrorism list is the denouement of the story, and pressures were intense. Rice notes all of the contradictions. The North Koreans shouldn’t have even been on the list given the absence of any recent evidence of terrorist activity. But the declaration was late and insufficient and a variety of forces were arrayed against any concessions (including both the Vice President and the Japanese, whom Rice describes as particularly troubled).

Rice outlines more clearly than I have seen the logic of introducing the verification issue at this point. Many—including Lee Sigal in particular—have argued that verification moved the goalposts and undermined the engagement approach. We also noted that the highly legalistic North Koreans were likely to balk because it had  not formally been included in the February and October 2007 agreements.

But Rice was fending off intense pressure on both proliferation (the Syrian reactor) and HEU. Getting a verification regime would allow the US to challenge North Korea on HEU by demanding inspections. The approach of getting a verbal commitment from the North Koreans in order to allow the removal from the terrorism list had to go to the President, and according to Rice was by no means a done deal. The president was troubled not only by the substance but may have been thinking about his right flank as well. John Bolton at this point was out of government and lobbing grenades. In working the Hill, Rice got pushback from Senators Kyl and Ensign and Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

In the end, the North Koreans could not commit on paper to what they had vetted verbally. By this time, we believe events were being influenced by Kim Jong Il’s stroke in August and the succession panic that it no doubt set in train.

Rice’s final reflections struck us as quite thoughtful. She dismisses the military option and thinks that a “sanctions only” approach was doomed to failure as well; “There was no evidence that sanctions alone were changing their behavior or slowing their path to even more sophisticated nuclear technology.” Moreover, “the imposition of sanctions in the absence of a willingness to negotiate seriously serves only to isolate the United States from its allies.”  More importantly,  Rice believes they were unlikely to work.

History is a tangle of counterfactuals. We still believe that a less ideological and more disciplined foreign policy team might have prevented some of the missteps in the first administration that led to the need for clean-up of the second; we make this case in detail in a recent debate with Josh Stanton, triggered  by our review of the Bolton memoir. But in the end, the underlying responsibility for the whole issue resides in the regime’s grand strategy. We can make it easier or harder for them to make the right choices, and we made it harder in 2002-2. But North Korea needs its Sadat.

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