Obama engagement policy 'in tatters' after North Korean rocket defiance
US officials closely involved with North Korea policy said Washington's
attempt to win agreement from Pyongyang to abandon its development of
nuclear weapons and rockets in exchange for desperately-needed food aid
has failed. They now expect North Korea to try and overcome the
embarrassment caused at the rocket breaking into pieces over the Yellow
Sea by carrying out a third nuclear test in the near future.
that goes ahead, it will represent a significant foreign policy failure
for Obama and prove a severe political embarrassment in an election
In February, the Washington and Pyongyang reached an
agreement under which the communist regime would halt its missile
testing and uranium enrichment, and agree to the resumption of
international monitoring of its nuclear sites, in return for Washington
providing 240,000 tonnes of food to the North Korea which has faced
widespread shortages and famine.
The US says it warned North Korea
that the rocket launch – which Pyongyang said was intended to carry a
satellite but which the Obama administration claimed was a ballistic
missile test – would violate the agreement.
Charles Pritchard, a
special envoy for negotiations with North Korea in the Bush
administration and a special assistant to Bill Clinton on national
security, said Obama's policy of engagement has now failed.
essentially in tatters. They made a calculation. They reached out to
North Korea and it fell apart," he said. "I think the US will be
essentially regrouping on an international basis. They're not going to
go back to a bilateral engagement with the North Koreans any time soon."
said that the regime's young new leader, Kim Jong-un, is likely to
attempt to restore Pyongang's credibility – and possibly also his own
with North Korea's military – by pressing ahead with development of a
"The failure of the rocket makes it much more
likely that there will be a third nuclear test. This has been a huge
public and domestic embarrassment for North Korea. A brand new,
untested, inexperienced regime that has gone out on a limb to really
have a spectacular successful celebration, and now it'll be a dark
shadow over all of their celebrations. They need some new achievement."
That view was backed by Christian Whiton, a US state department deputy special envoy to North Korea in the Bush administration.
looks pretty likely. The way this usually comes out is that South
Korean intelligence starts leaking information to the South Korean
press. That has happened and it looks like preparations are underway,"
he said. "If you step back and look at this it looks like a failure by
North Korea with its rocket but actually what you're seeing is more of a
power move by the regime."
One of Obama's deputy national
security advisers, Ben Rhodes, denied that the administration's dealings
with North Korea have been a failure. He argued that the president has
taken a tougher stand with Pyongyang than the Bush administration
because Washington will not now deliver the promised food aid.
this administration has done is broken the cycle of rewarding
provocative actions by the North Koreans that we've seen in the past.
Under the previous administration, for instance, there was a substantial
amount of assistance provided to North Korea. North Korea was removed
from the terrorism list, even as they continued to engage in provocative
actions. Under our administration we have not provided any assistance
to North Korea," he said. "The message that we've been delivering is
that North Korea is wasting its money on these weapons as many of their
people starve and as their economy is one of the most backward in the
Asked if it is proper to leave ordinary North Koreans to
go hungry or even starve because the actions of their government,
Rhodes said that it is the regime in Pyongyang "that is holding its own
He said he would not be surprised if Pyongyang now attempts a nuclear test.
North Koreans have tended to pursue patterns of provocative actions to
include missile launches, nuclear tests as they undertook in 2006, 2009.
And so we're certainly concerned about the pattern of provocative
behaviour that the North Koreans engage in. What we want to make clear
to them is that each step that they take in terms of provocations will
only lead to a deeper isolation, increase consequences. And frankly,
that's not just a message they're hearing from us, they're hearing it
from the Chinese and the Russians as well," he said.
The US was
expected to lead the condemnation at a UN security council meeting on
the crisis on Friday. The White House warned of new sanctions.
domestic critics swiftly accused him of creating the crisis through
weakness. Some have contrasted the president's stand against Iran with
his more cautious approach on North Korea.
Mitt Romney, the likely Republican presidential candidate, said Obama was incompetent and naive in handling North Korea.
of approaching Pyongyang from a position of strength, President Obama
sought to appease the regime with a food-aid deal that proved to be as
naive as it was short-lived," said Romney. "This incompetence from the
Obama administration has emboldened the North Korean regime and
undermined the security of the United States and our allies."
Jon Kyl, the Republican whip in the US Senate, called on the White House to "abandon its naive negotiations with North Korea".
Pritchard said the crisis now threatens to become an election issue.
a presidential election year, the president can't afford a spectacular
loss on the foreign policy side over North Korea where he's been very
cautious over the last three years. It will essentially erase all the
good things he can point to in other areas of his foreign policy," he
said. "So I think Obama steps back. You're not going to see any
bilateral engagement on the part of the United States for the remainder
of this term."
The former officials now expect the White House to
abandon bilateral negotiations with Pyongyang and to attempt to build on
collective international pressure.
Pritchard said that will be
made difficult by China's dual role of attempting to pressure North
Korea while also shielding it. That, he said, will give Pyongyang a
relatively free hand.
"This regime (in North Korea) cannot afford
to negotiate away, to be seen to be knuckling under to pressure from
others to stop what they are doing. They have nothing else going on for
them. They are going to march forward and there's very little the
international community can do," he said.
Whiton said he regards that as very dangerous.
a cost to doing nothing with North Korea because North Korea
proliferates nearly every weapons system it has. In 2007, one of the
reasons the last round of talks fell apart was because we caught the
North Koreans helping the Syrians build a carbon copy of the North
Korean nuclear reactor.
"They were building it in Syria. There were North Koreans on the site. Thankfully the Israelis blew it up," he said.
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