Over the past two weeks, South Korea has been obsessed with a huge scandal involving its president, Park Geun-hye. Highly unpopular, she faces fierce criticism and protests over her mysterious relationship with a religious cultist without any position in government who apparently edited Park’s speeches and may have made critical decisions concerning North Korea.
But in Washington, where foreign-policy elites generally ignore the politics of South Korea, the obsession was over North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un. He has built a small arsenal of nuclear weapons and—claiming that his country’s survival is at stake—is moving relentlessly to develop missiles capable of reaching not only South Korea and Japan but even the United States.
On October 24, James Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, essentially threw up his hands over Kim, expressing exasperation over the failure of economic sanctions to slow his weapons program. ““I think the notion of getting the North Koreans to denuclearize is probably a lost cause,” he said in a speech in New York.
That same week, John Hamre, a former Pentagon official and the president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, admitted in a conference on Korea at the conservative Heritage Foundation that many in Washington are embracing a more militaristic approach. “I’ve been at meetings with senior US officials who say we need to change policy to formally embrace regime change,” he said. Hamre argued that such a policy would be counterproductive because it would lose China’s support for denuclearization.
So what will the next US president—widely believed to be Hillary Clinton—do about Korea? It just so happens that, as November 8 draws near, she has quietly mapped out hawkish positions on North Korea and China that would go well beyond President Obama’s policy mix of military pressure and economic sanctions.
“There’s no doubt she’ll be a far more hawkish president than Obama,” historian Andrew Bacevich said in a Washington speech at the New America Foundation on October 19, speaking specifically of Clinton’s approach to Asia and the Pacific.
Clinton’s offensive has been shaped by two of her senior foreign policy advisers, both of whom are veterans of Obama’s first term: Kurt Campbell, Clinton’s former assistant secretary of state for Asia, and Michèle Flournoy, who was assistant secretary of defense for policy. They are the co-founders of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a pro-military think tank founded in 2007. Campbell currently serves as co-chairman and Flournoy is the CEO. In recent days, both Campbell and Flournoy have told Korean audiences that all options, including preemptive military strikes, would be on the table when it comes to Kim.
Strangely, despite the growing tensions, North Korea hasn’t figured large in the three presidential debates. Instead, Clinton has focused largely on Donald Trump’s cavalier suggestion in September that South Korea and Japan develop their own nuclear weapons to counter the North.
Clinton, eager to show her fealty to traditional US policy, has argued instead for maintaining US alliances with Seoul and Tokyo and keeping the US “nuclear umbrella” over them. “I would work with our allies in Asia, in Europe, in the Middle East, and elsewhere,” she said in the final debate on October 19. “That’s the only way we’re going to be able to keep the peace.”
The Clinton team’s new thinking for Korea began to emerge on September 9, when North Korea tested its fifth nuclear device since 2006. That day, she declared US policy, particularly the Obama administration’s plan to lean on China to curb Kim and his military, dead in the water.
“It’s clear that the increasing threat posed by North Korea requires not only a rethinking of the strategy, but an urgent effort to convince the neighbors, most particularly China, that this is not just a US issue,” Clinton said after she convened a group of her national security advisers.
The public got another glimpse into her thinking two weeks ago, when WikiLeaks released three Clinton speeches delivered to Goldman Sachs in 2013 (the texts were included in hacked e-mails from former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta).
To prevent the North from developing nukes, Clinton said in one talk to her banker friends, “we’re going to ring China with missile defense. We’re going to put more of our fleet in the area. So, China, come on, you either control them or we’re going to have to defend against them.”
Clinton’s private militance was on public display on October 17, when retired Admiral James Stavridis, a top Clinton adviser, told an NPR affiliate in Boston that North Korea was “the most dangerous country in the world,” and mapped out a provocative plan to counter its nuclear program with cyber war and preemptive military strikes.
Stavridis, the former commander of the US European Command who was briefly considered by Clinton as a running mate, said her administration would go beyond sanctions with a “significant effort in the cyber world to try and neutralize [Kim’s] progress.” He endorsed developing US military contingencies “capable of reaching into that regime and blunting their abilities to use those weapons.”
If there was “credible intelligence” that Kim was planning to use his arsenal, “you would launch a preemptive strike,” said Stavridis. Even though this would spark a war, he played down the potential impact. “Unfortunately we’d be in for a short, sharp conflict on the Korean peninsula” that would lead to “thousands of deaths,” he said. But “I’m confident South Korea and the United States would easily surmount North Korea.”
Stavridis is well-acquainted with US capabilities from his military career and his current role as chair of the international advisory board of Northrop Grumman, the nation’s second-largest military contractor. But it seems insulting to tell Koreans—who lost nearly 4 million people in the Korean War, one of the most devastating in modern history—that another war would be “easy.” Nearly 37,000 US soldiers died as well.
To be sure, Obama’s own policies are also fairly hawkish. In recent months, his administration has tightened economic sanctions against Pyongyang and announced the imminent deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile-defense battery, known as THAAD, to the peninsula.
To back up US concerns about Kim’s nuclear and missile programs, the Pentagon has sent B-1B strategic bombers capable of nuclear strikes into Korean airspace, most recently on September 13. And two weeks ago, Daniel Russel, Obama’s top diplomat for Asia, boasted that Kim would “immediately die” if he managed to succeed in building nuclear-capable missiles.
Still, Obama has refrained from antagonizing China—as Clinton’s “ring of missile defense” surely would—in the hopes that Chinese leaders might prod Kim to end his nuclear program. The THAAD missile-defense deployment, however, has stirred strong political opposition within South Korea. Many Koreans feel Obama’s actions could deepen the standoff with the North, and would prefer to see a return to negotiations and diplomacy.
Many Americans who have worked on Korea agree. Over the weekend of October 22, three former US diplomats met in Malaysia with a delegation from North Korea’s foreign ministry for two days of informal talks. According to the South Korean daily JoongAng Ilbo, the North was represented by Han Song-ryol, a foreign vice minister, and four other senior-level diplomats:
Among the participants, who gathered at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur, was Robert Gallucci, who was part of a U.S. negotiation team in 1994 that reached a landmark deal with Pyongyang on freezing its nuclear-weapons program in return for economic incentives. Joseph DeTrani, a former U.S. deputy envoy for the long-stalled six party talks aimed at dissuading the North from its nuclear weapons program, and Leon Sigal, director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council, were also there.
While details of the two-day meeting remain unknown, Sigal told reporters there that the North Korean team demanded that the two sides begin talks for a “peace treaty” that would establish diplomatic relations between the two.
Both the Obama administration and the Clinton campaign made clear that the three men did not speak for them. After the meeting, sources told the daily Hankyoreh that US attendees “were not assigned any authority to negotiate by the Barack Obama administration or by the camp of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who is likely to win the election next month.”
Other US policy experts, including William Perry, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Defense, and Jane Harman, the former congresswoman, have called for direct US negotiations with North Korea.
“The United States has an underappreciated ace in its deck: North Korea has been trying to talk to us since 1974,” Harman wrote in a September 30 op-ed in The Washington Post.
Citing the ineffectiveness of sanctions and the limits of Chinese influence, Harman urged a future administration “to enter into talks with Pyongyang with the stated goal of negotiating a freeze of all North Korean nuclear and long-range missile tests and a return of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors. Realistically, this can only be achieved through direct talks with North Korea.”
But the Clinton team has flatly rejected that approach, arguing that North Korea must first agree to denuclearize before talking. In the days leading up to her final debate with Donald Trump, both Campbell and Flournoy mapped out a strategy to pressure Kim Jong-un—as Stavridis suggested—with threats of military strikes.
Campbell laid out Clinton’s potential stance in a joint appearance in Washington on October 11 with Peter Hoekstra, a former Republican lawmaker advising Trump. In his talk, Campbell rejected the idea of dialogue with the North. “Let’s focus now on the activation of a much more engaged, purposeful sanctions regime,” he said.
Asked about a preemptive strike, he replied that Clinton was “not going to take any options off the table at this time.” He noted that Tim Kaine, Clinton’s running mate, and Wendy Sherman, another Clinton adviser, have staked out similar ground. Hoekstra, speaking for Trump, agreed with Campbell on the strikes, and said the Republican candidate, if elected, would not talk directly to Kim, as he had promised early in the campaign.
Flournoy, who is widely expected to be named defense secretary in the next Clinton administration, chose the Korean government-owned Yonhap News to make her stand. “Negotiations are a waste of time unless you have those signals” from the North that they have denuclearized, she said in an interview with the news service published on October 16. And when it comes to dealing with Kim, “Flournoy said that all options are on the table, including preemptive military action,” Yonhap reported. Flournoy was in Seoul that week with a delegation from her think tank.
In response to the growing tensions, antiwar groups in the United States are stepping up their demands for peace talks and de-escalation. Over 70 individuals and 84 organizations from around the world, including Noam Chomsky, have signed a global petition requesting that the Obama administration cancel the THAAD deployment in South Korea.
The missile-defense strategy, the petition states, “intensifies regional military tensions, fuels a new arms race, and increases the possibility of a new war on the Korean peninsula. In doing so, it also undermines the national sovereignty and democratic aspirations of people in other countries, in this instance those in South Korea.”
Last weekend, antiwar and Korea solidarity groups in Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, DC, staged candlelight vigils to protest the THAAD deployment. They were organized in part to support the vigils that have taken place for weeks in South Korea. In Seongju Township, where the missile-defense battery may be located, the rallies have been going on for 100 days straight, Hankyoreh reported on October 21.
“Whether it takes 200 days or 300 days, we’ll keep holding the candles and continuing the struggle until the THAAD deployment plans are scrapped,” Kim Chung-hwan, the chair of the regional action committee, declared at one rally.