Cliff May

Last year, the White House announced a “pivot” toward Asia, a “rebalancing” of what National Security adviser Tom Donilon called “all elements of U.S. power.” There was to be less emphasis on the Middle East, where nothing ever seems to go America’s way, and a new strategic foreign-policy focus on the Far East, where perhaps something might.

When “it comes to the Asia-Pacific,” Donilon said only a month ago, “the United States is ‘all in.’” At the moment, however, “all in” is not working out.

Donilon acknowledged that the totalitarian regime ruling North Korea represents a growing threat, and vowed that the Obama administration would not “stand by” while 29-year-old dictator Kim Jong-Un “seeks to develop a nuclear-armed missile that can target the United States.”

But at a congressional hearing last week, it was revealed that the Defense Intelligence Agency now has “moderate confidence” that North Korea has figured out how to miniaturize a nuclear weapon and fit it into a missile warhead. The State Department and CIA have not quite come to that conclusion. James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, attempted to put the controversy to rest by saying, “North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear armed missile.”

Far from settling matters, that raises a list of troubling questions. Among them: How long before North Korea does demonstrate the “full range” required to fire a nuclear-armed missile at American and other targets? If the U.S. is not going to “stand by” and let that happen, what actions will be taken? And if those actions fail, what can be done to prevent Kim from transferring such capabilities to Iran’s rulers — North Korea’s longstanding missile- and nuclear-weapons partner?

North Korea is a police state, which makes it difficult for even the most adept intelligence agencies to predict the actions of its rulers. That does not imply that those actions are irrational. On the contrary, for decades, the regime’s key stratagem has been “military extortion.” For example, in 1994, when North Korea was already intent on acquiring nuclear weapons, young Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, agreed to freeze his program in exchange for oil, food, and two light-water nuclear reactors (difficult to use for making nuclear weapons) costing $4 billion. As the late Margaret Thatcher wrote: “This was a major diplomatic defeat for the West and a notable success for a bankrupt basket case.” Suspicions that the North Koreans were clandestinely proceeding with plutonium and uranium-enriching programs soon led to the collapse of the agreement.

A few years later, as analyst Edward Luttwak recently pointed out, “South Korean President Kim Dae-jung won the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize for his unprecedented reconciliation summit with Kim Jong Il, a moment when peace and even unification seemed imminent. Only later did the truth leak out: The summit had been purchased for $100 million in cash. Unsurprisingly, it led to nothing.” Actually, it led to this: In 2005, North Korea announced that it had nuclear devices. The following year, it successfully tested one. It has tested two more since — most recently in February.

Luttwak adds: “Having successfully extracted payoffs so consistently through threats and occasional attacks, the North is naturally at it again. Even though another nuclear test and the threatened launch of a mobile long-range ballistic missile appear imminent, a payoff from the South, not war on the Korean Peninsula, is the likely outcome. And Pyongyang knows this.”

Given this history, one has to wonder: Before making the pivot to Asia, what “new strategic foreign policies” did the National Security Council, the State Department, and the Pentagon come up with? Surely, analysts and planners anticipated the kind of threats North Korea has been making. When Donilon said the administration would not “stand by,” did he have an alternative in mind, or was that just bluster?

Even the New York Times editorial writers, hardly hawkish voices, have expressed disappointment, noting that the response to North Korea so far “does not make us confident that the administration has a fully thought out strategy that will be any more successful than the current one, which has failed to curb either the North’s nuclear weapons program or its bellicosity.”

Perhaps American diplomats believed — or hoped — that China would be helpful. On a Bloomberg news program last week, the anchor asked me if China’s leaders were growing impatient with Pyongyang. He cited President Xi Jinping’s statement: “No one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains,” a comment welcomed by White House spokesman Jay Carney. I replied that the remark was ambiguous because Xi did not specify at whom his criticism was directed.

China expert Gordon Chang has since noted a dispatch in People’s Daily, the Communist party’s flagship newspaper, indicating that Xi was almost certainly referring to the U.S. Chang asks, “Why would Beijing back the world’s most ruthless regime?” Chang answers: “The People’s Liberation Army, which may now be the most powerful faction in the [Communist] Party, has traditionally maintained its pro-Pyongyang views, and it is apparently using its enhanced standing to push Beijing closer to Pyongyang. The rise of the military has had consequences. For instance, the PLA has sold the North Koreans at least six mobile launchers for their new KN-08 missile, which can hit the U.S.”

Toward the conclusion of his visits to Seoul, Beijing, and Tokyo this week, Secretary of State John Kerry held out an olive branch to Kim, saying he hoped to “find a way for reasonableness to prevail.” In an apparently unscripted moment, he added: “Let’s face it. Everyone here knows this, we’ve got enough problems to deal with around the world.” Does that sound like someone who has pivoted and is “all in”? Or someone who is doing a pirouette — and is all at sea?


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.