January 30, 2014 | Forbes
Pivoting Right Past North Korea
President Obama in his State of the Union address on Tuesday gave scant time to foreign policy, and just one long sentence to the Asia-Pacific — object of his foreign policy pivot in 2011, and a region on which he said the U.S. “will continue to focus.” To illustrate that focus, he gave just one specific example: typhoon relief last year to the Philippines, where American Marines and civilian aid workers were greeted with words such as “God bless America.”
That’s an uplifting picture. But there are other storms brewing in the Asia-Pacific, with dangerous implications for the U.S. and its allies. North Korea, a purveyor of weaponry to the Middle East, appears to be readying its fourth nuclear test and honing its long-range missiles. An increasingly aggressive China is massively beefing up its military might and extending its reach, while jockeying for territory with U.S. allies, such as the Philippines and Japan. With America cutting its military and turning inward, there are growing questions about the reliability of the U.S. defense umbrella that has long helped keep what peace there’s been in East Asia.
Nor do China and North Korea by any stretch confine their more troubling activities to the Orient . Both have a record as sanctions-dodging partners in illicit traffic with such regimes as Syria and Iran; both are diplomatic allies, in conclaves such as the United Nations, with the likes of Russia, Venezuela and a number of other despotic states grown increasingly assertive over the past generation. Just 20 years ago, Russia was on the ropes, a post-Soviet polity casting about for ways to reinvent itself as a significant power. China was just beginning its economic rise, still reeling from the 1989 Tiananmen showdown and slaughter. North Korea was struggling with the loss of its Soviet subsidies and its first father-son transition of totalitarian power. Iran, while cultivating messianic ambitions and a thriving network of terrorists, was years away, not weeks, from being able to produce nuclear weapons.
Today, these countries form a rising axis of powers, a loose grouping in many ways, but increasingly well armed, and sharing a basic hostility toward America and its founding principles of government of, by and for the people. This development may loom right now as a backdrop to the terrorist threats that have preoccupied Washington since 2001, but they suggest the shape of worse dangers ahead. It is not enough for America’s president to assure Americans that the U.S. with its allies will continue to “”disrupt and disable” al Qaeda and “other extremists.” Nor does it suffice to laud the ability of American diplomacy to produce a nuclear deal with Iran, when that deal leaves Tehran on the verge of nuclear breakout, while Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani tweets about the bargain as “world powers surrendered to Iranian nation’s will.”
A broader American vision and strategy is needed, and real leadership and serious debate on that score are much overdue. When the president reports on the State of the Union, it is a fine thing for him to praise American heroes for their courage, laud the hours logged by diplomats and remind Americans that there are places on the globe where their largesse for storm victims is met with gratitude. But that is not a strategy, and it does not tell Americans where their country stands in the world today.
Take the example of North Korea, of which the president in speaking to the nation made not a single mention. On Jan. 29, the day after Obama’s State of the Union address, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper submitted written testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that highlighted North Korea, along with Iran, as “unpredictable actors in the international arena.” Clapper warned, specifically, that their development of cyber espionage and attack capabilities “might be used in an attempt to either provoke or destabilize the United States and its partners.” He added, “North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs pose a serious threat to the United States and the security environment in East Asia.” Recalling North Korea’s export of ballistic missiles to countries including Iran and Syria, as well as North Korea’s help to Syria in building a clandestine nuclear reactor (destroyed by an Israeli air strike in 2007), Clapper warned: “North Korea might again export nuclear technology.”
Since Obama took the oath of office in 2009, North Korea has become manifestly more dangerous. That is the kind of development that the president himself, like it or not, should be explaining to the American people. On Obama’s watch, North Korea has conducted its second and third nuclear tests, in 2009 and 2013. With increasing success, it has been testing long-range missiles, regardless of Obama’s warning after a North Korean missile test in 2009: that “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.”
On Obama’s watch, North Korea in 2010 not only unveiled but advertised a uranium enrichment program that Pyongyang had long denied. Last year North Korea restarted the mothballed nuclear reactor at Yongbyon — an in-house factory for plutonium. So North Korea now flaunts two pathways to the bomb, both uranium and plutonium. Not only is this convenient for the arsenal of North Korea’s third-generation tyrant Kim Jong Un, but potentially it is a boon for sharing nuclear technology and test facilities with such North Korean allies as Iran. America has made a practice of bearing witness, and offering futile protests, while North Korea conducts its nuclear and missile tests. The message to the rest of the world, not least Iran, has been — yes, you can get away with it.
During Obama’s presidency, North Korea has also felt free to bully the U.S. and its allies through some of Pyongyang’s more conventional means. In the spring of 2010, North Korea torpedoed and sank a South Korean frigate, the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors, and later that year North Korea shelled a South Korean island, killing four. North Korea has also turned a series of Americans arrested on its turf into de facto hostages held for diplomatic ransom, as in the current case of Kenneth Bae — arrested in Nov. 2012 and sentenced to 15 years in a North Korean labor camp. Last year, Kim Jong Un took a fancy to hob-nobbing with American basketball star Dennis Rodman, whose antics while visiting North Korea — including his drunken denunciation earlier this month of the imprisoned Bae — were not merely an embarrassment to Rodman, but a way of humiliating the United States.
Last December, North Korea’s Kim underscored the premium he places on absolute and murderous power by executing his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who had been widely regarded as regent of the regime and the second most powerful man in North Korea. Now North Korea’s regime is suggesting it might be open to another nuclear deal. This is a familiar maneuver in North Korea’s long pattern of bargain-cheat-and-repeat nuclear extortion. But on Wednesday, America’s Special Representative for North Korea Policy, Glyn Davies, turned up in Seoul, talking to the press about U.S. hopes that North Korea, on the nuclear issue, might “begin to change their attitude, change their actions” while the U.S. works with South Korea to set the stage “for diplomatic progress in coming months.” In what universe will such “hope” stop the North Korean nuclear program?
If President Obama did not wish to showcase North Korea in the foreign policy segment of his State of the Union, he might at least have sounded a clear warning that such threats not only exist, but are growing. Instead, he stressed that “American diplomacy has rallied more than 50 countries to prevent nuclear materials from falling into the wrong hands, and allowed us to reduce our own reliance on Cold War stockpiles.” That would be more reassuring were there not another 143 states or so unaccounted for, and had North Korea not twice already on his watch demonstrated that a rogue state can conduct nuclear tests with relative impunity.
Not that a president in a State of the Union address is required to list in detail every threat on the horizon, or every move with which he plans to protect American interests. But when the president omits large and increasingly dangerous realities, when he offers no genuine strategy for dealing with them, when he sums up 21st century East Asia with a feel-good story about storm relief, he emboldens America’s enemies, and does nothing to alert and rally Americans themselves. That makes it ever more likely a day will come when domestic debates over minimum wage will be dwarfed by the vast human cost of the next Pearl Harbor, the next Sept. 11, or some currently unimaginable horror wreaked by nations now developing the ability to incinerate Los Angeles.
Ms. Rosett is journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.