Romney on North Korea



We have long thought that the Republican party will ultimately come to its senses and see that Mitt Romney poses the greatest challenge to the Obama presidency. (We also secretly hope that the current circus will continue). If the Republican base does come to its senses, what will the nominee do on the foreign policy front and with respect to North Korea in particular?

Romney has posted a long, wonkish document on his website that outlines a moderate Republican vision of foreign policy. Introduced by an old and thoughtful friend, Elliot Cohen of SAIS, the document stresses that we continue to live in a dangerous world—a standard Republican theme—and the importance of American power and leadership for global peace and prosperity.  The core principles Romney outlines—“clarity and resolve,” the promotion of markets and democracy, the use of hard as well as soft power--are hardly ones on which Republicans and Democrats disagree. We were even pleasantly surprised by at least a grudging, backhanded acceptance of the significance of alliances and multilateral institutions, not a strong suit of the last Republican president.

What about North Korea? Rumor has it that Mitch Reiss is Romney's guru on all things North Korean, and he is also a thoughtful and knowledgeable analyst. Unfortunately, Romney’s White Paper conjures a Democratic target that no longer exists. The section on North Korea rests on the premise that we pass out too many carrots to North Korea while holding back on the stick. “Mitt Romney will reverse this dynamic.”

Huh? What carrots? Ever since the missile and nuclear tests of 2009 and the attacks around the Northern Limit Line of 2010, the Obama administration has hardly been in engagement mode. To the contrary, articulate Democratic critics such as Lee Sigal went after the administration almost immediately for not engaging enough. Subsequent policy only got tougher. Virtually every “get tough” policy the document lists is already being pursued, including sanctions and a virtual multilateralization of the PSI in UNSCR 1874.

The one tweak that Romney adds—and it is a quite dramatic one—would be to sanction companies that undertake commercial trade with North Korea. This extraterritorial approach to sanctions enforcement would indeed be an escalation. But it does not sit well with allies--as we found out with Helms Burton and Cuba--and would certainly not get Chinese cooperation. And as always with such tough talk, there is very little consideration of what to do if North Korea fails to respond to such bluster. What is Plan B?

There is no mention of the Six Party Talks as a mechanism to move the peninsula forward.  This is not a trivial oversight; it is a failure to fully grasp the diplomatic setting.

China is rightly singled for not being helpful, and the Romney document is somewhat more thoughtful than the Cheney memoir in this regard. As we pointed out in an earlier post, Cheney hoped to outsource US policy to Beijing. Romney’s White Paper has the good sense to understand Chinese concerns and talk about persuasion, assistance with potential refugees and even contingency planning. Even if the last is a non-starter, it is smart to send the right signals to Beijing about American intentions if something went radically wrong. But you think Kurt Campbell hasn't worked that issue?

We could do worse, I suppose. But the Romney strategy doesn’t look that different from what we are already doing. Good luck with that.

Coming up: amusing scraps from the rest of the field.



A Strategy to Secure America’s Enduring Interests and Ideals


with a Foreword by Eliot Cohen

October 7, 2011

North Korea

North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is a serious menace to world peace. A nuclear weapons capability in the hands of an unpredictable dictator like Kim Jong-Il or his eventual successor poses a direct threat to U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula and elsewhere in East Asia, threatens our close allies South Korea and Japan, destabilizes the entire Pacific region, and could lead to the illicit transfer of a nuclear device to another rogue nation or a terrorist group. As president, Mitt Romney will commit to eliminating North Korea’s nuclear weapons and its nuclear-weapons infrastructure.

A key mistake in U.S. policy toward North Korea has been to grant it a series of carrots in return for only illusory cooperation. Each step the world has taken toward North Korea has been met with further provocations and expansion of its nuclear program. Over the years, North Korea has found that its pursuit of a nuclear weapon reaps it material and diplomatic rewards, taking away any incentive for it to end its program.

Mitt Romney will reverse that dynamic. The United States will make it unequivocally clear to Pyongyang that continued advancement of its nuclear program and any aggression will be punished instead of rewarded. Romney will work with allies to institute harsher sanctions on North Korea, such as cracking down on financial institutions that service the North Korean regime and sanctioning companies that conduct commercial shipping in and out of North Korea.

He will also step up enforcement of the Proliferation Security Initiative to constrain North Korean illicit exports by increasing the frequency of inspections of North Korean ships and discouraging foreign ports from permitting entry to North Korean ships. Such measures would significantly block the trade revenue that props up the North Korean regime and shut off routes by which the regime supplies its nuclear program.

China holds significant political and economic leverage over North Korea. It is not using that leverage, however, to achieve the goal of ending North Korea’s nuclear program. China fears a destabilized North Korea and the implications of its possible collapse for the region along its border. Romney will work to persuade China to commit to North Korea’s disarmament. He will reassure China it will not be alone in dealing with the humanitarian and security issues that will arise should North Korea disintegrate. This will involve detailed planning for such an eventuality to ensure that we are ready to deal with the numerous issues that will arise if and when the North Korean regime collapses under the weight of its own economic and political contradictions.

Romney will also pursue robust military and counter-proliferation cooperation with our allies and others in the Pacific region. As the United States invigorates our relationships with South Korea, Japan, and others, and increases our collective military presence and cooperation, it should demonstrate to the Chinese that they should join the coordinated effort or be left behind as a regional counter-proliferation partner.

More From

More on This Topic

North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Ready for war