FPI Executive Director Jamie Fly: What happened to containment of North Korea?

In 1947, after George Kennan, writing under the pseudonym "X," published his famous article on "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" in Foreign Affairs, he quickly found that his concept of "containment" was distorted in the public discussion about his article that ensued. In his new book, The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War, Nicholas Thompson writes that Kennan went so far as to draft a letter to columnist Walter Lippman arguing that "containment meant propaganda and aid, not pistols and tanks." He ended up not sending the letter because Secretary of State Marshall requested his silence.

The Obama administration now appears to be faced with a dilemma similar to that confronting George Kennan in 1947. Containment is a nice term to throw around, but what does it actually mean in practice? In this case, the country to be contained is North Korea.

North Korea was supposed to be one issue where the Obama administration promised to be tougher than their predecessors. After the North disrupted the president's April 5 disarmament speech by firing a Taepodong-2 missile and followed that with a nuclear test on May 25, David Sanger of The New York Times wrote an article quoting a senior Obama advisor who said that the administration intended to "break the cycle" of provocative actions by Pyongyang, leading to payoffs and an agreement that later falls apart, only to lead to more crises and more payoffs.

Sanger described the new policy as "containment," although he noted that many in the administration were reluctant to use the term. As Stephen Hayes points out on The Weekly Standard's blog, the administration's rhetoric after North Korea's provocations in the first half of the year were much stronger than the follow-through.

This Obama version of containment was to rely on the newly passed United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1874, and supposed U.S. efforts to interdict illicit North Korean shipments. They indicated their seriousness about this task through a series of leaks to the press about the U.S. Navy's following of one specific ship headed to Burma, which supposedly turned around and returned to North Korea. The administration also followed up the new UNSCR with several designations of additional North Korean entities involved in proliferation, but they stopped short of implementing more extensive Section 311 actions against Asian financial institutions doing business with the North, the very measure that brought North Korea to the negotiating table in the past after the U.S. Treasury Department froze the assets of Banco Delta Asia.

Unfortunately, this tough talk and new sanctions have now given way to the traditional focus on negotiations which have repeatedly failed to bear fruit.  President Obama announced on Wednesday that he is sending U.S. Special Representative Stephen Bosworth to Pyongyang next month in an attempt to lure the North back to the Six Party framework.

While U.S. efforts behind the scenes to interdict illicit North Korean shipments undoubtedly continue, the president's announcement about Bosworth's trip effectively means that any effort to contain the proliferation problem posed by North Korea is now going to be put on the back burner because of concerns that provocative U.S. actions will destroy any chance that the North Koreans will be willing to talk.

Despite the White House listing North Korea as one of the key issues to be discussed at just about every stop of Obama's Asian trip, he seems to have  made little progress. We should not expect much assistance from China -- they are happy to maintain the status quo as long as Kim Jong Il does not act out too frequently. The president's stops in Japan and South Korea, however, appear to have been lost opportunities, as he could have used his discussions in both countries to strengthen defense cooperation between the United States and Japan and South Korea and to discuss increased cooperation on missile defense and nuclear planning. Such an effort would make clear to the Chinese the cost of their inaction on the issue.

Some may argue that the reason the Obama administration can return to the failed policies of its predecessors on North Korea is that while troubling, we have bigger challenges to face in the region and the world.  North Korea is a problem to be managed, not resolved.  Such an argument overlooks North Korea's role in the construction of Syria's secret nuclear reactor at Al Kibar, built while the North was supposedly negotiating in good faith with the successive U.S. administrations, as well as its ongoing assistance to the missile programs of rogue regimes such as Iran and Burma. North Korea may appear to be manageable only until the next case of nuclear technology transfer from the North is discovered, but the next time it may be too late.

As George Kennan found out, talking about "containment" is easy, but defining and implementing it is the difficult part.

Originally published by Foreign Policy's Shadow Government.

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