On January 21, 2009, during his very first national address as president of the United States, Barack Obama rehearsed a line to the massive crowd assembled in Washington, D.C. that would become one of his administration’s most historic pronouncements during the next eight years. “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent,” Obama said, “know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
The “unclench your first” phrase, like everything in Washington these days, has divided policymakers across the spectrum as to the best way to deal with authoritarian regimes that pose a direct national security threat to the United States and its allies. Proponents of the policy refer to Obama’s words on that Inauguration Day as the beginning of a new era in U.S. foreign policy, one that would replace the unilateralism of the past with a new pragmatic, yet open, approach in order to nip the world’s toughest problems. Opponents have labeled any openness with the likes of Iran’s Ali Khamenei or North Korea’s Kim Jong-un as appeasement unbecoming of a nation that should consistently promote democratic ideals around the world.
However one views the policy, it has become abundantly obvious over the past two terms of the Obama administration that the “unclench your fist” approach hasn’t worked particularly well – if at all – with North Korea. Indeed, it took the Kim dynasty only three months to blow up any opening of a new relationship with the United States with a nuclear weapons test. Over seven years later on September 9, 2016, North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test hours after Obama departed from Asian soil. Instead of unclenching his first, Kim is pounding it on the table.
The North Korean nuclear weapons program has become the perennial anchor on the powerful ship that is the U.S. foreign policy establishment. U.S. primacy, the bedrock principle in the region since World War II, has been challenged by a relatively an isolated and rather insignificant country that has weathered the storm of U.S. economic sanctions, partial naval quarantines and inspections on the high-seas, diplomatic isolation, and the occasional threat of military force. U.S. primary, in fact, has gotten us nowhere with North Korea; the stronger the U.S. military force presence in Northeast Asia, the more nervous and belligerent the North Koreans become.
Across three U.S. administrations, Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program has been one of those problems that is too dangerous to ignore, but too difficult to resolve. President Bill Clinton tried diplomacy, but failed to take into account North Korea’s ability to master uranium enrichment technology. President George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech had the effect of essentially closing the door to any negotiations until the last year of his presidency. Obama hasn’t had much more luck than his predecessors: a 2012 agreement that would award North Korea hundreds of thousands of tons of food aid in exchange for a suspension of its nuclear activities collapsed after a month.
Ever since that “Leap Day Agreement” fell apart, Washington’s North Korea policy over the past four years has been described as one of “strategic patience” — a term meant to demonstrate to the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that his country will not receive any international recognition as a nuclear weapons power or experience the benefits of being a full member of the international community unless and until it lives up to its earlier commitments on denuclearization. If Pyongyang wants help from the world, according to the strategy, then it must show the world upfront that it’s willing to suspend its nuclear activities and genuinely work toward the “verifiable denuclearization for the Korean Peninsula” that it signed up to in 2005.
In practice, “strategic patience” is a fancy way of saying that the United States will ignore North Korea and continue to levy unilateral and multilateral economic sanctions on Pyongyang as long as its leadership persists with nuclear development and ballistic missile testing. Indeed, strategic patience has come to embody a cycle of escalation and counter-escalation, where more nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests from the North Koreans elicit stricter sanctions and inspections on Pyongyang’s economic activity, which in turn produces more belligerent behavior from the North Koreans. This week’s fifth nuclear test from North Korea, it is important to note, came several months after the strongest yet UN Security Council sanctions were imposed. A policy formulated to coerce the North Koreans into surrendering their nuclear weapons program has instead made the security situation in Northeast Asia even more dangerous.
Obama is likely to leave office in five months with the North Korean government boasting a greater nuclear stockpile with a more sophisticated understanding and knowledge of what it takes to miniaturize those weapons onto a ballistic missile.
North Korea is certainly one of the most complicated conundrums for those U.S. officials tasked with creating and implementing American foreign policy. Sanctions, half-hearted attempts at diplomacy, and saber rattling have all failed to stop Pyongyang from pursuing the ultimate deterrent. The United States hasn’t had diplomatic relations with North Korea for over 65 years, which means that U.S. policymakers have little insight into the machinations of the Hermit Kingdom. What can Washington possibly do that hasn’t been done before over the past six decades?
The next U.S. administration will be searching high and low for answers to this question, but a good start for the next commander-in-chief would be to drop preconditions that have gotten the United States nowhere and have only provided the Kim dynasty with more excuses to behave badly. As much as we would like Kim Jong-un to cooperate according to an American script, the 30-something year old dictator has shown through words and deeds that no progress toward denuclearization will occur without the North getting something in return. What Washington views as an act of good faith that will show seriousness of purpose — a suspension of uranium enrichment or plutonium production — Pyongyang views as an arrogant demand by a superpower that continues to lead the world in strangling the country to capitulation. It’s hard to see Kim magically taking a different line with the next president.
Negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program provide a recent example of what can happen when old negotiating paradigms are dispensed with (admittedly, no agreement is perfect, but the idea is to make progress toward an achievable goal). Throughout eight years of the George W. Bush administration, Washington refused to enter into any talks with Tehran on its nuclear program unless Iran suspended its uranium enrichment activities. Demands for zero enrichment were not only rejected by the Iranians, but answered with a dramatic expansion of its uranium enrichment infrastructure. Several hundred centrifuges became several thousand by the time Obama was elected in 2009. The United States was only able to cap Tehran’s nuclear potential when it made the pragmatic decision to drop the precondition of zero enrichment, instead negotiating a reasonable accord that would keep Tehran a year away from assembling the fissile material it needed for a nuclear bomb. Just as importantly however, the deal allowed Iranian leaders to go back to Tehran and sell the agreement as beneficial to their national security and economic interests and therefore worth signing onto.
Whether or not a similar negotiating ploy can work with the North Koreans is impossible to know. North Korea is a tougher nut to crack; in contrast to the Iranians, the North Koreans have a far more advanced nuclear program at their disposal and will be loath to give up the material they have produced, which is roughly equivalent to 10-16 nuclear weapons. Diplomacy, however, is all about hard choices and priorities; the alternative to a new approach, as demonstrated throughout the Obama administration, is a dramatic increase in Pyongyang’s nuclear potential and a more potent danger hanging over Washington’s allies in Northeast Asia.
China, of course, needs to be a part of the equation as well. It is no secret that Beijing is increasingly annoyed about Kim Jong-un’s antics; the North Koreans chose to unleash their latest medium-range ballistic missiles into the sea when leaders of the world’s 20 biggest economies were in China talking about global finance. But Beijing too needs to be offered incentives if Washington is truly interested in tackling the North Korean nuclear problem once and for all. Unfortunately for the South Koreans, this may require the U.S. to rethink its deployment of the THAAD missile defense system in return for verifiable commitments from the Chinese that cross-bordering smuggling operations are detected and stopped and the smugglers are arrested and prosecuted. It’s a terrible omen on the Chinese that it takes concessions in order for them to implement their international obligations, but that is where the United States finds itself.
Switching course even if it proved to be politically unpopular at home enabled the Obama administration to strike an agreement with the Iranians on an issue that only a few short years ago was widely thought to be one of the most pressing international crises that America and the region confronted. We are fast approaching deja vu with the North Koreans — if we haven’t passed it.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.