Report: Obama's Secret North Korea Talks Failed; Hagel Approach Ineffective

The Obama administration conducted two secret diplomatic missions to North Korea in 2012, according to reports in the South Korean press that were confirmed by the Los Angeles Times. The talks failed to dissuade the regime of Kim Jong Un to abandon that country’s aggressive nuclear weapons program. President Barack Obama suggested such talks in 2007, as did Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel that same year.

On Feb. 12, in what looks increasingly like a direct and personal rebuke to Obama, the North Korean regime conducted an underground nuclear test on the same day that the president was to give his State of the Union address. In two previous State of the Union addresses, President Obama had touted progress in isolating North Korea (2010), and had called on the regime to keep “its commitment to abandon nuclear weapons” (2011).

In a 2007 speech to the libertarian Cato Institute, Hagel had said that North Korea was “moving in the right direction” because of increased willingness by the U.S. to engage in diplomacy. He offered a similar diplomatic prescription for making progress in dealing with the Iranian regime, the dictatorship of Bashar Assad in Syria, and the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, suggesting talks would produce better result than confrontation.

However, the Assad regime is now killing thousands of civilians in a civil war, the Hamas organization rejects talks with Israel over anything except Israel’s destruction, and Iran refused the Obama administration’s offer of direct talks earlier this month. The failure of President Obama’s diplomatic overtures to North Korea--which may date back to 2011, according to reports the Times could not confirm--are only the most dramatic example.

The secret talks with North Korea occurred in April and August 2012, according to the Times, and congress has not yet been notified about the new talks or their substance. The last prior official attempt at diplomacy with North Korea was in 2009, in the early months of the Obama administration, when the U.S. attempted to restart the six-party talks from which North Korea had withdrawn over UN condemnation of its satellite tests. 

For all its flawed optimism about the prospects for democracy in the Arab Middle East--which is now swiftly unraveling everywhere it has begun--the guiding philosophy of the Bush administration’s approach to rogue regimes was correct in one key respect: that societies that are not free are incapable of making peace, because continued war and confrontation are essential to the regimes in maintaining their continued grip on power.

As Natan Sharansky wrote in The Case for Democracy--widely considered a critical book in guiding George W. Bush’s thinking--rogue regimes may sign peace deals if such agreements are in their short-term best interests, but “a genuine and lasting peace can only be made with democracies.” Until then, he advises, an national security policy that presents rogue states with tough, negative political or military consequences is best.

Former UN Ambassador John Bolton--like Hagel, the subject of an intense confirmation fight in 2005--recently published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal suggesting that the U.S. respond to North Korea’s nuclear test by pressuring China to support reunification of the Korean peninsula--a peaceful form of regime change. “A reunification strategy should have been pressed decades ago, but better late than never,” Bolton wrote. 


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