By Sarah Lohschelder
The North Korean government ensured an interesting start to 2016: on January 6, the secluded regime purportedly detonated a hydrogen bomb, although experts say it was more likely a boosted fission weapon. Shortly thereafter, on February 7, North Korea launched a rocket carrying a satellite into space. While in itself a harmless act, analysts claim the rocket launch is a test-run helpful to the development of intercontinental missiles capable of reaching as far as Alaska. The UN Security Council and the White House have condemned North Korea’s actions.
Of course, missile and nuclear tests by the North Korean regime are nothing new: the first successful missile test occurred in 1993 and the first nuclear test in 2006. Thus, three successive U.S. presidents – Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama – have dealt with the threat posed by North Korea’s weapons tests. Looking at U.S. policy toward North Korea over time, we can conclude that, despite all three presidents failing to prevent the continuous development of North Korea’s nuclear program, the United States has learned from its past mistakes.
Clinton’s Carrots: The Agreed Framework
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, North Korea sought to compensate for the loss of Soviet protection by intensifying its efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon. The Clinton administration was faced with North Korea’s first successful missile test in May 1993, as well as North Korea’s threat to exit the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Clinton successfully negotiated the Agreed Framework of 1994, which resulted in the closure of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear power plant in exchange for oil deliveries, a phasing-out of economic sanctions, and help with the construction of a light water reactor for energy production. Both parties complied with their treaty obligations until 1996.
Congress then began delaying funds for the oil shipments and light water reactors and failed to reduce economic sanctions as promised. As a result, North Korea reactivated the Yongbyon facility in 1998 and the Agreed Framework officially broke down in 2003.
This course of events suggests two fundamental shortcomings of Clinton’s dovish approach toward North Korea: the first being a lack of follow-through (albeit conditioned by Congress, not the administration); the second being that Yongbyon was initially only closed but not dismantled, thus allowing North Korea to restart its nuclear program at relatively little cost.
Overall, North Korea benefited from its nuclear provocation and the Agreed Framework: it received economic aid, temporarily improved diplomatic relations with the United States, and pulled out of the agreement in time to maintain its nuclear program.
The United States gained little from this episode: it looked divided and weak, having made a good faith effort to negotiate and failed to achieve any permanent concessions. Rather, at considerable expense, the United States had gained nothing but a four-year delay in North Korea’s nuclear program.
The takeaway from these events was that North Korea could not be trusted because, for the regime, it pays to provoke.
Bush’s Sticks: The Axis of Evil
The Bush administration took an entirely different approach to “the North Korea problem.” Rather than seeking an agreement with the hermit country, the Bush administration sought regime change – deemed necessary because of North Korea’s membership in the “Axis of Evil” as a country producing weapons of mass destruction.
Indeed, rather than building on the Agreed Framework, which was suspended but not yet abrogated when Bush came into office, the administration declared that not only complete and verifiable nuclear disarmament, but also a reduction of North Korea’s conventional weapons, were a precondition for negotiations.
In 2003, North Korea finally withdrew from the NPT and, in April, admitted for the first time to the possession of nuclear weapons. These events prompted the Six-Party Talks between the United States, South and North Korea, China, Russia, and Japan in August of that year.
However, having learned the lesson of the Clinton era, the Bush administration adhered to its “dismantle first, talk later” policy. The Six-Party Talks stretched on for years, punctuated by nuclear and missile tests in 2006, until North Korea finally withdrew from the Talks in 2009.
The net result of Bush’s hawkish policies was little better, if not worse, than those of the Clinton administration. The Bush administration failed (quite purposefully as some have argued) to achieve an agreement on denuclearization with North Korea. On the contrary, the North Korean nuclear program progressed to the point of a successful nuclear test in 2006 and another one only a month after its withdrawal from the Six-Party Talks in 2009.
The Bush administration’s declared goal of regime change also failed. Bush clearly underestimated the North Korean regime, which turned out to be surprisingly stable.
In economic and diplomatic terms, the administration could hardly have squeezed North Korea any more than it did. Militarily, Bush was constrained by two factors: the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq and the strained alliance with South Korea; Seoul fearing both the burdens of war and the burdens of premature reunification.
What we learned from the Bush years is that North Korea will not yield to pressure easily.
Obama’s Strategic Patience: No Carrots, No Sticks
Obama offered negotiations in his inaugural speech, but North Korea responded with missile and nuclear tests. The administration quickly changed to a policy of strategic patience, essentially a commitment to denuclearization as a precondition for talks, conducted in close alliance with Seoul and the other members of the Six-Party Talks.
Washington did engage in bilateral negotiations with Pyongyang, producing the Leap Day Agreement – which fell apart only three weeks after it was announced because of a failed satellite launch by Pyongyang.
While South Korea is much happier with the Obama administration than it was with the Bush administration, the attempt to have China exert pressure on North Korea has clearly failed. The UN Security Council agreed to toughen sanctions on North Korea in response to its most recent tests, but China is reluctant to put too much pressure on the regime for fear of destabilizing its reclusive neighbor.
Ultimately, the nuclear test and rocket launch this year prove that the Obama administration was no more successful than its predecessors in stopping the progress of North Korea’s weapons development. However, Obama appears to have learned from Clinton’s and Bush’s experiences: the policy of strategic patience has not given anything away without an irreversible concession in return (Clinton’s lesson) and did not engage in fruitless efforts at regime change either (Bush’s lesson).
Thus, one may conclude that strategic patience is the least bad, least costly way for the United States to deal with North Korea, and may well be the best way forward – at least until conditions in North Korea change drastically and allow for positive engagement or support of a coup.
Sarah Lohschelder is a MSc Foreign Service / Juris Doctor candidate at Georgetown University. She is a Security Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.