Hillary Clinton's North Korea Naivete

Hillary Rodham Clinton prefaced her first trip abroad as secretary of State with a speech Friday sketching out various Obama administration views regarding her Asia itinerary. Her approach on the crucial issue of North Korea's nuclear weapons program embodies an overwhelming--and unfortunate--continuity with the Bush administration. This is not at all surprising, given the president's campaign rhetoric.

What is surprising is the sheer innocence in which the substance has been packaged, a naivete extending well beyond North Korea. The secretary's attitude is potentially more troubling than the dull repetitiveness of the policy, which invokes the importance of the six-party talks and the need to "get the negotiations back on track."

Take, for example, her repeated references to "smart power," presumably meant to distinguish the brainy Obama team from its predecessor. Like Justice Potter Stewart's definition of pornography, we are apparently meant to know smart power when we see it. Every incoming administration is entitled to a few weeks of touting its superiority, but the bumper stickers need to disappear when overseas travel begins, replaced by real policy, not slogans. Otherwise, observers would conclude that the president, and perhaps his secretary of State, are still running for office, rather than realizing they are already there.

Leaving Pyongyang with any nuclear capability simply invites future abuse and a recurrence of the very problem we need to "eliminate."

Clinton accurately called North Korea's nuclear program "the most acute challenge to stability in northeast Asia," and she established the objective that the North "completely and verifiably eliminate" its nuclear weapons activities. This familiar formulation implicitly--and very unfortunately--accepts that North Korea can keep a nuclear program as long as it is "peaceful." Whatever else it may be, this deal is not "smart." Leaving Pyongyang with any nuclear capability simply invites future abuse and a recurrence of the very problem we need to "eliminate."

Equally unfortunately, Clinton made no reference to the global scope of North Korea's threat, notably in the tumultuous Middle East, where the North's contribution to nuclear and ballistic missile proliferation has long stoked regional tensions. The omission is all the more striking because Clinton also said that "we can no longer approach our foreign policy solely country by country, or simply carving the world into separate regions." She then proceeded to do just that, ignoring, among other things, North Korea's missile cooperation with Iran and its attempt to replicate its Yongbyon reactor in Syria (until the site was destroyed by Israel in September 2007).

The secretary's comments at a subsequent news teleconference only compounded the speech's lack of strategic breadth. Asked her assessment of the Agreed Framework, the Pyongyang-Washington agreement concluded during her husband's presidency, Clinton regretted that "the Bush administration completely walked away" from the agreement. She said that "information" about North Korea's uranium enrichment efforts "should have been dealt with very seriously" but "in addition to the Agreed Framework," not in place of it.

This is a breathtakingly confused position. First, North Korea's repeated violations of the Agreed Framework breached the agreement, not the Bush White House. Pyongyang cheated on the agreement's central premise--the North's denuclearization--and lied about it.

And adhering to U.S. commitments under the framework while the North was violating its obligations would have been a classic case of rewarding bad behavior--exactly what the Clinton administration did wrong. Given North Korea's flagrant, ongoing violations, what possible reason could be advanced to believe that the North would honor a new agreement to forgo uranium enrichment? Moreover, by continually casting doubt on the very existence of Pyongyang's uranium enrichment program, Clinton is only reinforcing the North's determination not to allow meaningful verification of its nuclear program.

Stressing that "we have not forgotten the families of Japanese citizens abducted to North Korea," Clinton promised to meet the families "on a very personal...human basis." Although empathy is commendable, it would have been more encouraging had the secretary emphasized the important conclusion that North Korea's state terrorism, as exemplified by these families' stories, vividly reveals the character of that criminal regime.

This is an important matter of statecraft and politics in Japan, and on which the abductees' families themselves are clear and persuasive, just as it would be here if our citizens were being kidnapped. The families appreciate empathy, but what they really want is accountability from Pyongyang.

Clinton emphasized that she was prepared for "active listening" on her trip. One hopes that she will be particularly active in listening to South Korea and Japan, where the North's repeated acts of duplicity have sunk in far more profoundly than at the State Department. Although there seems to be little reason to hope that the Obama administration will actually offer "change" on North Korea policy, perhaps Clinton will at least return from Asia sobered by the depth of the North's regional and global threat.

John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.

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  • John R. Bolton, a diplomat and a lawyer, has spent many years in public service. From August 2005 to December 2006, he served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. From 2001 to 2005, he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security. At AEI, Ambassador Bolton's area of research is U.S. foreign and national security policy.

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