US Policy: Quo Vadis?



If Senate and House hearings last month are any indication looks like North Korea policy could be headed toward another period of politicization similar to that which occurred during the Clinton administration following the mid-term elections of 1994. And it's not just talk: on April 1, 2011 House International Relations committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and 8 co-sponsors introduced H.R.1321 "to continue restrictions against and prohibit diplomatic recognition of the Government of North Korea."

The hearing videos provide the most thorough evidence we have about the current state of US policy toward the peninsula. If you are short on time, our friends over at the National Committee on North Korea have taken good notes on the questions posed by the Senate and House committee members. I had a hard time gleaning anything new from the Senate testimony of Kurt Campbell and Stephen Bosworth. Strategic patience is the order of the day. We’re still apparently waiting for the North Koreans to signal their seriousness on nucs, though without saying--publicly at least—exactly what that might entail. Policy is also held hostage by Seoul, as we wait for the North Koreans to make a serious enough gesture to lift the South’s objections to a new push on the Six Party Talks.

Yet outside the government, strategic patience is getting challenged both left and right. Senator Kerry and ranking minority member Howard Berman raised thoughtful questions about engagement. Victor Cha notes that the risks of miscalculation on both sides may be underestimated, and offers a strong centrist critique of “strategic patience” that is worth a close read. The theme of combining pressure with various forms of engagement was a theme of most of the expert testimony, some of which was simply brilliant.

But criticism of strategic patience also came from the right for not being tough enough. For starters, the Senate committee hearings were called “Breaking the Cycle of North Korea Provocations”; the House committee hearings, were called “North Korea’s Sea of Fire: Bullying, Brinksmanship, and Blackmail.” The interventions of the Republicans on the House committee suggest some political slogging ahead, including with respect to the “Kabuki theatre” of the Six Party Talks (Ros-Lehtinen), on food aid (Ed Royce) and even on whether the KORUS would allow the duty free entry of goods from the Kaesong “slave labor camp” (Brad Sherman).

These concerns are not just cheap talk.  The legislation introduced by Ros-Lehtinen and her co-sponsors lists five acts that "can be defined as terrorism or as highly provocative," including the sinking of the Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong-do. Notwithstanding the October 2008 decision to rescind the designation of the DPRK as a state sponsor of terrorism, the restrictions against the DPRK that would be in place as result of such a designation, should remain in effect until the President certifies that a list of 12 conditions have been met. Don’t hold your breath on the North Koreans complying; the list includes everything from releasing Japanese abductees and stopping all weapons shipments to shutting down the gulag.  The bill also calls on the US to take any missile launch to the UN. Again, the National Committee on North Korea is on top of all of this and keeping us updated.

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