As she begins her first trip as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton has issued a rather mild “warning” to North Korea.
Speaking with reporters en route to Tokyo–the first stop on her visit to Japan, South Korea, China and Indonesia–Mrs. Clinton urged Pyongyang to live up to its obligations under the Six Party Nuclear Accord. That 2007 agreement calls for the DPRK to dismantle its nuclear program, in exchange for energy assistance and various political concessions.
Her message on the plane before arrival was focused on North Korea.
“The North Koreans have already agreed to dismantling,” she said. “We expect them to fulfill the obligations that they entered into.” During the now-stalled “six-party talks,” Pyongyang agreed to stop its weapons work in exchange for economic and other incentives.
Clinton’s comments came as North Korea prepares for an expected test of its Tapeodong-2 long-range missile, capable of striking U.S. territory and military installations as far away as Hawaii and Alaska. Japanese and South Korean media outlets, citing intelligence sources, have reported that Pyongyang has shipped a TD-2 airframe and support equipment to a launch site on its eastern coast–the same location where the missile was previously tested in 2006. That launch ended in failure, when the TD-2 broke apart after only 100 seconds of flight.
Before traveling to Asia, Secretary Clinton warned the DPRK against any “provocative action and unhelpful rhetoric,” a clear reference to preparations for a possible missile test.
But if those words were aimed at deterring Pyongyang, they’re not having the desired effect. On Monday, the 67th birthday of Kim Jong-il, North Korea claimed it has a right to “space development,” a term frequently used as cover for the TD-2 program, which is aimed primarily at building a crude ICBM.
And, Pyongyang may be closer to achieving that goal than you might believe. U.S. Air Force analysts believe that a TD-2 with a small chemical or biological payload could reach targets in the extreme western United States. The same missile with a larger conventional, nuclear or chemical warhead could strike targets throughout the Pacific Region, including important military installations in Alaska, Guam, and Hawaii.
The projected flight path of the TD-2 may carry it over Japan, so Tokyo is understandably upset, and wondering how the U.S. will handle this latest provocation from the DPRK. Mrs. Clinton will outline our planned response in her meetings with Japanese leaders, but if her public comments are any indication, Tokyo will hardly be reassured.
Indeed, the secretary’s comments about North Korea–both last week and en route to Japan–are little more than diplomatic boilerplate. At this stage, it’s possible that Secretary Clinton and President Obama don’t want to tip their hand, and they may be offering a more detailed response plan in private talks with our Asian allies. We certainly hope so.
On the other hand, the Obama national security team clearly puts negotiations at the top of its options list for any crisis. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that Mrs. Clinton would adopt a fairly mild tone toward North Korea, believing that the U.S. can “talk” Pyongyang out of the test, and keep the Six Party process on track.
Clearly, Kim Jong-il welcomes that sort of thinking, seeing another opportunity to press the U.S. for even more economic and political “carrots.” That’s one reason that he’s pushing ahead with preparations for the TD-2 test, which could easily occur within the next month.
In fairness, the Obama Administration’s approach to North Korea is not dissimilar to that of the Bush Administration. As we’ve noted in previous posts, the previous crew at Foggy Bottom went to great lengths to excuse and overlook Pyongyang’s efforts at stalling and duplicity after agreeing to the Six Party deal two years ago. It’s the sort of behavior that encourages further misbehavior by the North Koreans.
However, there was one difference between the Mr. Bush’s policy towards Pyongyang and that of President Obama. When it became clear that North Korea was preparing to launch a TD-2 in 2006, Bush put ship and land-based missile interceptors on alert, and vowed to shoot it down. The subsequent in-flight failure of missile made that unnecessary, but the Bush announcement made it clear: there were limits on what would be tolerated from North Korea.
So far, the Obama team has yet to establish similar limits. That’s one reason that Kim Jong-il is so anxious to test his long-range missile.
ADDENDUM: The Secretary of State also used her in-flight chat with reporters to take a swipe at the Bush Administration. According to the AP, Mrs. Clinton criticized Mr. Bush for abandoning the 1994 “Agreed To” framework, reached between the U.S. and North Korea during her husband’s administration. She claims that Bush’s rejection of the accord led to Pyongyang restarting its plutonium-based weapons program, which resulted in an abortive nuclear test in 2006. Clinton says that reports of a covert uranium enrichment program in the DPRK–the Bush team’s rationale for pulling out of the agreement–remains a subject of “great debate.”
Apparently, no one bothered to ask Mrs. Clinton about covert activities in North Korea during her husband’s administration. By most accounts, the 1994 accord was nothing more than a sham; while Pyongyang shuttered its best-known nuclear facility, other programs kept operating, resulting in the technical breakthroughs that culminated in that partially successful test three years ago.
It’s another example of the Clinton Administration failing to keep its eye on the ball. Once North Korea agreed to the 1994 deal–brokered by Jimmy Carter–Washington made the grave mistake of expecting Pyongyang to keep its word.