The US policy toward North Korea since Barack Obama has assumed the US presidency is very different from the promises of engagement which he made during his election campaign. This policy presents a striking example of the disparity between the preelection promises and the action taken thus far during the Obama presidency.
On the first day of the new administration, sanctions were authorized against three North Korean firms under the Arms Export Control Act, along with several nonproliferation executive orders. The three firms were KOMID, which had been sanctioned by other administrations, Sino-Ki and Moksong Trading Company, which were being sanctioned for the first time. (1)
The hostile direction of Obama’s policy, however, has been signaled most clearly by the change made when the new administration failed to reappoint Christopher Hill to his position as Undersecretary of State for East Asia and the head of the US negotiation team for the six-party talks with North Korea.
Not only was Hill not reappointed, but the role of US negotiator with North Korea was downgraded and split among several different officials. A part time position was created for an envoy. Another person would be the US representative to the six-party talks. And still another official was to be appointed to the position of Undersecretary of State for East Asia, which was Hill’s former position.
Stephen Bosworth accepted the position as envoy. His official title is Special Representative for North Korea Policy. Bosworth did so on a part time basis. At the same time, he maintained his full time position as Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University along with his new part time job.
There has been little public discussion about why the Obama administration made such significant changes. The Boston Globe, in an article about Bosworth’s appointment, refers to the concerns expressed by Leon Sigal, the director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council in New York. The article quotes Sigal saying that there are officials in the new administration, “who don’t think we can get anywhere, so they don’t want to do the political heavy lifting to try.”(2)
In contrast to the loss of Hill as a negotiator with North Korea, the Obama administration reappointed Stuart Levey, as the Undersecretary of Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. Levey’s office in the Treasury Department, was created in 2004 under George W. Bush. This office was used to impose economic sanctions on North Korea. One such action was the act of freezing the funds that North Korea had in a bank in Macao, China, the Banco Delta Asia (BDA).
North Korea was not only denied access to $25 million dollars of its funds, but was also denied the use of the international banking system. This freezing of North Korean funds was announced shortly after North Korea and the five other nations who were part of the six party talks signed the September 19, 2005 agreement to denuclearize the Korean Penninsula.(3) The announcement by the Treasury Department sabotaged the implementation of this important agreement which would have gone a long way toward the goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. North Korea withdrew from the six party talks until the $25 million was returned. (4)
It is significant here to note that Levey and his office briefly came under public scrutiny in 2006 when the New York Times published an article exposing how the office has access to and uses the SWIFT Data Base to do intelligence work targeting people and transactions that it claims are in violation of US law. (5) The SWIFT Data Base contains the transations and identification information for the hundreds of thousands of people and entities that do electronic banking transactions using the SWIFT system.
The action by the US Treasury using a section of the Patriot Act against the Banco Delta Asia Bank, however, demonstrated that the US government has the ability to use this data base information against those it wants to target politically, rather than those who have committed any actual illegal acts. Testimony by former US government officials to the US Congress, and documents submitted to the US government by the bank owner and his lawyer, demonstrated that there was never any evidence offered of any illegal acts. Instead the Patriot Act had been used to allow the US government to act against this bank for political objectives. (See“Behind the Blacklisting of Banco Delta Asia: Is the policy aimed at targeting China as well as North Korea?”)
The new positions that the administration has designated to negotiate with North Korea are at a lower administrative level than was Hill’s former position In addition, the Obama administration, by not reappointing Hill to his prior position, has lost the expertise Hill had developed. Hill had effectively countered the sabotage to negotiations presented by Levey’s office during the Bush administration.
At every step of the way that Hill sought to engage North Korea, he met with opposition within the Bush administration. Remarkably, Hill found the means to effectively counter much of this opposition, making progress in the negotiations. In August, 2008, however, the Bush administration unilaterally changed what it claimed North Korea’s obligations were as part of Phase 2 of the talks, and falsely declared North Korea in violation. (6)
With Hill gone from the North Korean desk at the State Department, and Levey reappointed to his position at the Treasury Department, it is significant that Obama sent an interagency group to visit the capitals of Japan, South Korea and China to discuss what strategy to use to punish North Korea. Levey was prominently featured as one of the US government officials on the trip.
These officials included Special Representative for North Korea Policy, Stephen Bosworth who accompanied Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy (or Wallace Gregson, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia-Pacific Affairs), Undersecretary of Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Stuart Levey, and Jeffrey Bader, Senior Director for Asian Affairs, National Security Council.
But is punishment appropriate? There has been no similar effort to open negotiations with North Korea.
Instead of the Obama administration building on the achievements that Christopher Hill and the lead negotiator for North Korea, Kim Kye-gwan had made in their negotiations, the US administration has given its support to Levey and others whose actions have sabotaged the success of the six-party talks. The failure of the Obama administration is similar, however, to what has come before with regard to US policy on North Korea.
Robert Carlin, part of the US government negotiation team with North Korea under the Clinton Administration, documents that there were significant and successful negotiations on 22 issues carried out in the period between 1993 and 2000. (7) These achievements, however, were not put into a form under the Clinton Administration that could survive the transition to the Bush Administration.
Similarly, Mike Chinoy, a former CNN journalist, in his book “Meltdown”, documents both the Clinton years and much of the saga during the Bush years and how the negotiations were torpedoed not by North Korea, but each time by forces within the US government itself.(8)
Besides a long set of successful negotiations between North Korea and the US followed by the US reneging first on its agreements, the US conducts frequent military maneuvers in the vicinity of North Korea which North Korea has claimed is a threat to its peace and security.
On April 5, 2009, North Korea test launched a communications satellite using a rocket of advanced design. This test broke no international law or treaty to which North Korea is a party. (9) Still the launch was condemned by the UN Security Council in a Presidential Statement. Also new sanctions were imposed on North Korea, stating as the authority for them, a previous Security Council Resolution, SC Resolution 1718. (10)
North Korea has been the target of hostile acts by the US. North Korea has tested rockets and has done tests of two nuclear devices, which it claims it needs as a deterrent. The US has military agreements with Japan and South Korea, which includes them under the protection of the US nuclear umbrella. There is only an armistice ending the fighting of the Korean War. The US as the head of the UN command has not been willing to agree to a treaty ending the Korean War.
The failure of the UN Security Council to explore the problem that North Korea is facing in trying to check the hostility it has encountered from the US government demonstrates the failure of the processes of the UN Security Council in carrying out its obligations under the UN charter. The lesson North Korea took from the Security Council failure to protect Iraq from the invasion by the US is a lesson that other nations will also take if there is no means found for the Security Council to reform its processes so that it doesn’t just become a means for the political targeting of a nation as happened with Iraq. (11)
In his comments to journalists in response to the sanctions put on North Korea in April 2009, the Deputy Ambassador to the UN from North Korea, Pak Tok Hun said, “The recent activities of the security council concerning the peaceful use of outer space by my country shows that unless the security council is totally reformed and democratized we expect nothing from it.” (12)
The challenge to the nations of the UN is to provide a more neutral and considered investigation of the problem it is trying to solve rather than just carrying out the punishment a P-5 nation may endeavor to inflict on another nation.
1. Karin Lee and Julia Choi, “North Korea: Unilateral and Multilateral Economic Sanctions and U.S. Department of Treasury Actions, 1955-April 2009”, National Committee on North Korea, (Paper last updated April 28, 2009), p.26.
2. James F. Smith, “In role as envoy, Tufts dean carries hard-earned lessons”, The Boston Globe, May 26, 2009, http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2009/05/26/in_role_as_envoy_tufts_dean_carries_hard_earned_lessons/?comments=all
3. Ronda Hauben, “North Korea’s $25 Million and Banco Delta Asia: Another Abuse under the US Patriot Act”, OhmyNews International March 3, 2007. http://english.ohmynews.com/articleview/article_view.asp?no=351525&rel_no=1
4. Ronda Hauben, “Behind the Blacklisting of Banco Delta Asia: Is the policy aimed at targeting China as well as North Korea?”, OhmyNews International, May 18, 2007 http://english.ohmynews.com/articleview/article_view.asp?no=362192&rel_no=1
5. Erick Lichtblau and James Risen, “Bank Data Is Sifted by U.S. in Secret to Block Terror”, New York Times, June 23, 2006.
6. Ronda Hauben, “US Media and the Breakdown in the Six-Party Talks”, OhmyNews International, September 28, 2008.
7. Robert Carlin, “Negotiating with North Korea: Lessons Learned and Forgotten”, “Korea Yearbook 2007”, Edited by Rudiger Frank et al, Brill, 2007, p. 235-251.
8. Mike Chinoy, “Meltdown”, St. Martin’s Press, 2008,
9. Ronda Hauben, “Controversy at UN Over North Korea’s Launch: Reconvening six-party talks or penalizing Pyongyang? “, OhmyNews International, April 10, 2009.
10. Ronda Hauben, “Security Council’s Ad Hoc Actions Increase Tension on Korean Peninsula: [Analysis] North Korea responds by withdrawing from six-party talks as promised”,OhmyNews International, April 17, 2009. http://english.ohmynews.com/articleview/article_view.asp?no=385093&rel_no=1
11. Seumas Milne, “After Iraq It’s Not Just North Korea that Wants a Bomb”, Guardian Comment Is Free, May 29, 2009.
12. Pak Tok Hun, Informal Comments to the Media at the UN Media Stakeout, April 24, 2009.