The Republican Debates: North Korean Cameo II

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In December, we took note of a brief North Korean cameo in one of the Republican debates. This last Saturday, however, there was more to chew on given the nuclear and missile tests (here and here). As a crowded field moves to South Carolina, the debate provides insight into the foreign policy thinking of the Republican candidates.

The North Korea question was first posed to Senator Cruz, who had clearly been briefed. His central line of attack: that North Korea’s nuclear program was a direct result of the Agreed Framework of 1994 (although not named as such) and thus of the Clinton presidency. Senator Cruz castigated Wendy Sherman for her role in managing North Korean affairs during the Clinton presidency, noting her parallel role in the Iran negotiations. The idea that Sherman was an “appeaser” has long had traction on the right, and was used by no less than James Baker to characterize the Agreed Framework and the 1999 Perry process that ultimately led to Secretary of State Madeline Albright's visit to Pyongyang (for commentary along these lines, see this piece at The American Thinker). My assessment of the Agreed Framework is much more positive. Yes, the North Koreans cheated on it with respect to enrichment. But what replaced it was exactly nothing; breakout occurred with the test of 2006, not in 1999.

With respect to the satellite launch itself, Senator Cruz was appropriately cautious about pre-emption—deferring to consultation with intelligence and military advisors—even after being pushed by Martha Raddatz about being tough (see the full exchange below). Senator Rubio correctly noted that there is an option to a pre-emptive strike, which is to develop the capacity to shoot down “satellite launch vehicles” and missiles if they pose risks; this can be done by strengthening missile defense, which Senators Cruz and Rubio and Governor Kasich all supported. Senator Cruz went further, saying that the North Korean launches pose the risk of a high-altitude nuclear detonation and electro-magnetic pulse and we have to harden the grid as well; The Washington Post offers a brief debunking of this urban myth, which has gotten some traction among a number of other Republican candidates as well.

In a short one-liner, however, Jeb Bush took the Raddatz bait and said that if it was required to keep us safe, he would pre-empt.

With respect to other dimensions of the problem, Governor Kasich focused his remarks on the need to interdict North Korean shipping to slow proliferation risks. And Donald Trump made the most explicit case that China should handle the problem, given that they have “total control” of North Korea.

Is the Donald right? I was contacted by Politifact on exactly this question and they said “no,” scoring his answer on this question as “mostly false.” Yet although they quoted me on the issue, I had in fact said that the answer is “mostly right.” The basis for my answer is that China has the ability to exercise greater leadership on the issue, but not the interest in doing so. Put differently, it depends on what you mean by “control.” But thinking we are successfully going to outsource this problem to China is indeed “mostly false.” Any solution—if one is even possible at all—would require incredibly deft diplomacy; my take on how this low-probability event might occur is outlined in a piece for the Nikkei Asia Review here and rests on cooperation with China that would get us back to talks. Don't hold your breath.


From the Republican Debate, February 6 (full transcript here)

RADDATZ: Senator Cruz, you are a first term Senator as well. Your opponents say you, like Senator Rubio, are not prepared to be Commander in Chief. You have talked tough about threats we face in the Mid-East. It was reported just moments ago that the North Koreans test launched an intercontinental ballistic missile. North Korea has nuclear weapons, and conducted another nuclear test just last month.

The missile that was launched is the kind the North Koreans hope could someday carry a nuclear weapon capable of reaching the United States. How would you respond if Commander in Chief to that launch?

CRUZ: Well, I would note, initially the fact that we're seeing the launch, and we're seeing the launch from a nuclear North Korea is the direct result of the failures of the first Clinton administration. The Clinton administration led the world in relaxing sanctions against North Korea. Billions of dollars flowed into North Korea in exchange for promises not to build nuclear weapons.They took those billions and built nuclear weapons.

And, I would note also the lead negotiator in that failed North Korea sanctions deal was a woman named Wendy Sherman who Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton promptly recruited to come back to be the lead negotiator with Iran. So, what we are seeing with North Korea is foreshadowing of where we will be with Iran.

With respect to North Korea and what we should do now, one of the first things we should do is expand our missile defense capacity. We ought to put missile defense interceptors in South Korea. South Korea wants them. One of the real risks of this launch, North Korea wants to launch a satellite, and one of the greatest risks of the satellite is they would place a nuclear device in the satellite. As it would orbit around the Earth, and as it got over the United States they would detonate that nuclear weapon and set of what's called an EMP, and electromagnetic pulse which could take down the entire electrical grid on the Eastern seaboard, potentially killing millions.

We need to harden the grid to defend ourselves, and we need missile defense to protect ourselves against North Korea.

RADDATZ: Well, let me ask you this, if you were Commander in Chief tonight would you have order the U.S. military to destroy that missile preemptively on the launchpad to prevent North Korea from becoming an even graver threat? CRUZ: You know, at this point I'm not going to speculate on that without the intelligence briefing that any Commander in Chief would have, knowing what exactly is there.

(APPLAUSE)

CRUZ: One of the real problems...

RADDATZ: ... Senator Cruz, let me tell you this, you have talked tough about the Mid-East, you haven't gotten those intelligence briefings about that. Why not tell us whether you would preemptively strike a missile on a launchpad that threatens the U.S...

CRUZ: ... Actually, with respect, I have gotten the intelligence briefings on the Mid-East. Those have been going on for many years. I haven't gotten the intelligence briefing tonight on what North Korea's doing because I'm here in new Hampshire. When you're responding to an immediate incident, you need to know the intelligence of what's occurring.

CRUZ: But what I was saying -- look, it is qualitatively different dealing with a country once they have nuclear weapons. It's why you prevent them from getting nuclear weapons in the first place -- because your hands are somewhat tied once they have nukes.

It's why this Iranian nuclear deal is so catastrophic, and it's why I've pledged, on the very first day in office, to rip to shreds this Iranian nuclear deal so we're not sitting here in five years, wondering what to do about an Iranian missile launch when they have nuclear weapons. The stakes are too high for that.

RADDATZ: Okay. Senator Cruz, I will say that missile has been sitting there for quite some time, and they have had eyes on it.

RUBIO: But Martha, just -- Martha, just to clarify on that point, because he's right, and one more thing to point -- it is standard procedure of the United States to shoot down those missiles once launched if they pose a threat to civilians, land and ships (ph).

RADDATZ: Senator Rubio, I'm talking about a preemptive strike on the launch pad.

RUBIO: Well -- no, I understand. And not -- but -- but I think it's important to note that it is -- and Senator Cruz, I think, was alluding to this, as well -- it is the standard procedure of the United States, if those missiles pose a threat to land, civilians, our allies or any of our assets, to shoot down that missile in mid-flight.

I understand your question was about a preemptive strike, but my point is that there is in place now contingencies to avoid any sort of that strike (ph) from going errant and destroying any -- any assets of the United States, or implicating or hurting any of our allies or any of our assets in the region.

RADDATZ: OK. Thank you, Senator Rubio.

Governor Kasich, how would you respond to tonight's launch?

KASICH: Well, we've got to to step up the pressure…Look, in terms of North Korea, Martha, we have to make sure that we intercept both the ships and their aircraft, because what they're trying to do is to proliferate this very dangerous material, along with the -- with the technology, the instruments that can be used for mass destruction.

That's what I worry about the most, frankly, is non-state actors, people who don't have a uniform, people don't have a country, who can spread this, who are not subject to the -- to the mutual assured defense. In other words, you strike us, we strike you.

Some of these radicals, they don't care about that. That's what I worry about, for my children, and for their children, going forward. So, we have to be very tough.

And we should tell the Chinese, look, if you're not going to do this ballistic missile defense to the Koreans, ballistic missile defense to Japan -- and by the way, we should impose the same kind of sanctions on North Korea that we imposed on Iran, because they're able to shift money. They're able to send money and receive money.

(BELL RINGS)

KASICH: We've gotta to be very tough on this. And frankly, I think we could have -- I think we could have let the Japanese know that if you want to take action on that -- on that missile that's rising, you want to take action -- you will have our support, if that's what you think is the best thing to do. We cannot continue to be weak in the face of the North Koreans, or, frankly, in the entire rest of the world.

Martha, this is -- this is the -- relates...

RADDATZ: Thank you, Governor Kasich. Thank you -- thank you...

BUSH: ... this relates to strategic patience.

(APPLAUSE)

RADDATZ: ... Governor Bush, I'll get to you in a moment.

BUSH: This relates to the strategic patience of the Obama administration. They come up with these great marketing terms, and what they do is they pull back, and voids are filled, and they're now filled by asymmetric threats of terror, as well as nation-states on the run.

The next president of the United States is gonna have to get the United States back in the game, and if a preemptive strike is necessary to keep us safe, then we should do it.

(APPLAUSE)

RADDATZ: Thank you, Governor Bush.

Mr. Trump, do you have a red line with North Korea? Would you consider military action? And how far would you let them go?

TRUMP: We have -- tremendous -- has been just sucked out of our country by China. China says they don't have that good of control over North Korea. They have tremendous control. I deal with the Chinese all of the time. I do tremendous -- the largest bank in the world is in one of my buildings in Manhattan.

I deal with them. They tell me. They have total, absolute control, practically, of North Korea. They are sucking trillions of dollars out of our country -- they're rebuilding China with the money they take out of our country. I would get on with China, let China solve that problem.

(BELL RINGS)

They can do it quickly and surgically. That's what we should do with North Korea.

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