The White House Half Gets It On Korea

by Michael Auslin

Secretary of State John Kerry held a news conference in Seoul today after talks with his counterpart, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se. Tomorrow, he flies to Beijing, then Tokyo, talking in all three capitals about the current crisis with North Korea. In today’s presser, Kerry got it half right, revealing two very different tendencies of the Obama administration. Whichever path they choose will shape the dynamics in northeast Asia for the next four years.

On the worrisome side of the ledger, Kerry came perilously close to saying that Washington was desperate to conciliate Pyongyang. He stated: 

President Obama ordered a number of exercises not to be undertaken. I think we have lowered our rhetoric significantly, and we are attempting to find a way for reasonableness to prevail here. And we are seeking a partner to deal with in a rational and reasonable way.

That is just the wrong message to send. Canceling regularly scheduled exercises and lowering our rhetoric only rewards bad behavior. Instead, North Korean provocative language (and actions) should be met with firm resolve and the intensifying of alliance cooperation, such as military exercises. Further, hoping for a “rational and reasonable” North Korea as a negotiating partner is to continue to indulge unrealistic hopes and push the U.S. toward perceiving a change in attitude from North Korea when one will almost certainly never exist.

On the other hand, Kerry attempted to assure observers that the Obama administration would not jump back into talks with the North. Responding to a question from the Wall Street Journal’s Jay Solomon, Kerry said,

. . . We’ve been down that path [negotiations] before and we’ve been disappointed by the breach of those agreements previously. In principle, the United States…would not provide it absent a move by the North to live up to the standards that have been laid out and to move towards the denuclearization or to embrace the denuclearization.

It took the Obama administration two missile launches and a nuclear test to learn what the Bush administration did. No more talks with the North, absent real change, would be the best savings of taxpayer money yet proposed by the White House. However, it was discouraging to hear Kerry continue the fiction of aiming for denuclearization, which will never happen under the Kim regime. Even holding out that hope leaves open the possibility that the administration will be lulled into thinking this time really is different. 

Kerry provided two visions for the upcoming years: one where Pyongyang sets a confrontational rhythm, the other where Washington shows a new era has begun in which aggression and threats do not earn rewards. Let’s hope the administration understands which is more likely to ensure peace. 

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