The Rosett Report

North Korea's Nuclear Fist vs. Obama's Over-Extended Hand

If only President Obama were as tough on America’s enemies as he’s been on his own domestic rivals. Recall his statement, during the 2008 presidential campaign, on how to deal with Republicans: “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.” Unfortunately, no such creed seems to apply in Obama’s dealings with North Korea (or, for that matter, with Iran, or Russia, or Cuba…). Instead, while Pyongyang prepares a nuclear test, Obama brings neither a gun nor a knife to the showdown. Rather, in apparent hope of yet another “historic” bargain to cap the rotten nuclear deal with Iran and the feckless embrace of Cuba’s Castro regime, he extends his hand to Pyongyang.

So we learn from a Feb. 21 Wall Street Journal scoop, headlined: “U.S. Agreed to North Korea Peace Talks Before Latest Nuclear Test.” The Journal article, by Alastair Gale and Carol E. Lee, broke the news that “days before North Korea’s latest nuclear-bomb test, the Obama administration secretly agreed to talks to try to formally end the Korean War, dropping a longstanding condition that Pyongyang first take steps to curtail its nuclear arsenal.”

In other words, while North Korea was readying its fourth nuclear test, the Obama administration was quietly offering concessions to North Korea’s tyrant Kim Jong Un. Make no mistake, for America to talk with North Korea at all is, in itself, a concession — dignifying the world’s most horrific rogue regime, while setting the stage for yet another round of North Korean cheating and nuclear extortion. For the American superpower, erstwhile leader of the Free World, to furtively offer sweeteners — and this one was a whopper — in hope of opening official talks with Kim is even worse. Concessions that the State Department may regard as carrots are viewed by North Korea as capitulation.

Nor would a formal peace deal with Pyongyang’s Kim regime be likely to bring anything resembling peace, any more than the series of nuclear deals since 1994, under Presidents Clinton and Bush, brought the much-promised and never-delivered North Korean “denuclearization.” To this day, almost 63 years after the armistice that has left North and South Korea facing off across the Demilitarized Zone, North Korea’s idea of an acceptable end to the Korean War is not some happy coexistence, or climbdown from Pyongyang’s totalitarian Kim dynasty, but the reunification of the Korean peninsula — under the rule of Pyongyang.

It’s unclear whether this latest hand-extending by Obama was a desperate gesture meant to stop — or at least delay — North Korea’s then-imminent nuclear test, or simply another step in the Obama administration’s long slog of capitulations and concessions dressed up as “engagement” with assorted hostile powers. Either way, it’s bad news, and obviously it did not succeed in stopping North Korea’s Jan. 6 nuclear test, or the Feb. 7 test-launch of a long-range missile — the latest step in North Korea’s program to build nuclear-tipped missiles that could target the United States.

According to the Journal article — sourced to anonymous U.S. officials — “the U.S. called for North Korea’s atomic-weapons program to be simply part of the talks.” (As opposed to concrete steps toward denuclearization being a precondition.) Despite that concession, North Korea said no, and in short order, on Jan. 6, carried out its fourth and most recent nuclear test — advertising it as a test of a hydrogen bomb. That ranks as the very opposite of any interest in denuclearization; instead, North Korea is working on nuclear weapons massively more powerful than the atomic bombs it has already tested in 2006, 2009 and 2013. With North Korea’s record of proliferation to the Middle East, this test qualifies not only as a direct threat to the Free World, but potentially a sales pitch to the likes of Iran.

Even for the Obama administration, a nuclear test (possibly a thermonuclear test) — not least, the third nuclear test on Obama’s watch — has to qualify as a humiliating dismissal of the proffered Obama hand. Small wonder that shortly after the Journal story broke, the State Department in a statement emailed to Reuters tried to muddy the tale.

Quoting this statement, Reuters produced a story headlined: “U.S. rejected North Korea peace talks offer before last nuclear test: State Department.” That sounds like the Obama administration stuck to its guns (or knives, or soup spoons, or whatever utensil it has been using in its back-channel efforts to sup with North Korea). It seems to contradict the Journal account, that the U.S. “Agreed to North Korea Peace Talks.”

But let’s read the fine print. Reuters quotes a statement emailed to them by State Department spokesman John Kirby, saying: “To be clear, it was the North Koreans who proposed discussing a peace treaty.” Kirby’s statement continues: “We carefully considered their proposal, and made clear that denuclearization had to be part of any such discussion. The North rejected our response…. Our response to the NK proposal was consistent with our longstanding focus on denuclearization.”

Yes, but there is a difference between demanding concrete signs of a nuclear climbdown (the old, longstanding condition for talks) versus demanding that once talks begin, denuclearization will be part of the talking (which is what Kirby’s statement actually says). It is the difference between deeds and words. And when it comes to an illicit nuclear program run by a rogue regime with a long record of back-tracking, revising and cheating on every deal, that is a large difference.

Kirby’s statement is quite consistent with the Journal account, that the Obama administration dropped its “longstanding condition that Pyongyang first take steps to curtail its nuclear arsenal.” What Kirby told Reuters is that any discussion would have to include denuclearization. Conceptually, we are talking about the difference between telling a wayward child that he must eat at least some of his peas before there will be any dessert, versus dishing up dessert on the condition that the child, while chowing down on chocolate cake, agree to discuss the eating of peas.

Not that North Korea’s regime should be trusted even if it does start dismantling its nuclear program. North Korea has by now made a habit of shutting down its plutonium-producing reactor at Yongbyon as part of assorted nuclear deals, and then restarting it when convenient. And who can forget the hoopla, as part of the (failed) 2007 Six-Party nuclear deal, on Bush’s watch, over the demolition in 2008 of a cooling tower at Yongbyon — which predictably turned out to be no bar to the next three North Korean nuclear tests.

So, what really happened in the U.S.-North Korean back channels described by the Wall Street Journal and Reuters? Putting together the two stories, and taking into account the vague phrasing that State’s spokesman emailed to Reuters, here’s my best guess: North Korea, while going through the final checks for its fourth nuclear test, proposed talks for a “peace treaty” to end the Korean War. This was not a serious proposal. If indeed it came from North Korea, it was bait — and perhaps also a marker for future propaganda, allowing North Korea to claim, as convenient, that it had offered “peace.” Much as Lucy offered Charlie Brown that elusive football.

The Obama administration, with its extended-hand policy, grabbed for the chance to get around its own conditions for nuclear talks, dropped the requirement that North Korea first demonstrate a good faith interest in scrapping its nuclear program, and told Pyongyang that the U.S. was willing to fold discussion of the nuclear program into some larger pie-in-the-sky peace talks. At which point, with the nuclear test ready to roll, and having established that Obama is not serious about enforcing his own administration’s stated conditions for talks with North Korea, Pyongyang told Washington to take a hike — and detonated its fourth underground nuclear test.

That was more than six weeks ago. Since then, the Obama administration has been trying to wring a new sanctions resolution from the United Nations Security Council, where North Korea’s patron powers, Russia and especially China, hold veto power. What’s taking so long? It seems the U.S. gets no respect these days. Need anyone ask why?