North Korea: Another Obama Failure
North Korea’s fifth nuclear test signals continuing progress and sophistication in its decades-long effort to possess deliverable nuclear weapons. Moreover, both US and South Korean military experts assess that the increasing range of Pyongyang’s ballistic missiles, and its ability to miniaturize nuclear devices in order to mate them with its missiles, means targets across America will be vulnerable in just a few years.
The North’s weapons program perfectly embodies Winston Churchill’s warning about “perverted science,” where humanity’s highest intellectual achievements fall into the wrong hands.
The test is yet another fire bell in the night. North Korea’s leaders may have been trying to get President Obama’s attention, but their odds of success are small. For nearly eight years, his resolute indifference to Kim Jung-un’s advances demonstrated that nuclear proliferation is just not one of his priorities.
While Obama’s rhetorical response to the North’s evident progress is sometimes vigorous, it never extends to meaningfully tightening sanctions or anything more robust. And Pyongyang doesn’t even slow down.
Why should it, given Obama’s lack of interest? Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also been thoroughly indifferent, although her rhetoric, especially as she runs for president herself, tends to torque somewhat higher than Obama’s. Nonetheless, if humor is permitted in these dire circumstances, Clinton’s just deserts will be having to deal with the consequences of their mutually failed North Korea policy if she wins.
Conversely, Japan and South Korea need little incentive to worry about Pyongyang’s growing threat. Their intense interest in missile-defense technology is less about China’s aggressive investment in nuclear and ballistic-missile programs than the North’s ongoing menace. In stark contrast, Obama and Clinton have consistently opposed vigorous national missile defenses for America — a mistake Donald Trump should emphasize.
Obama’s defenders argue the Iran nuclear deal demonstrates his nonproliferation bona fides. Instead, the Iran accord proves the opposite. New information emerges daily about the agreement’s inadequacies, both in its own right and in side arrangements like the cash-for-hostages ransom debacle. Plus, there’s increasing evidence of clear Iranian violations of the deal itself, which its verification mechanisms are insufficient to detect, especially considering that major Iranian cheating may be underway in hidden facilities in North Korea.
The unfortunately long, bipartisan history of negotiations with Iran and North Korea contains important lessons for the next president.
First, once launched on the path to nuclear weapons, Tehran and Pyongyang both demonstrated they had made irreversible strategic decisions. These were not lightly taken, nor the potential consequences ignored. Accordingly, once they were underway, negotiations to induce them to abandon their nuclear objectives were inevitably doomed to failure.
Gaining nukes had become essential not just for military purposes but for regime political survival. And just as diplomacy could never succeed, no “agreement” reached with the proliferators ever had serious prospects of being adhered to. Cheating was always central to the rogue states’ strategies. Once they had fixed on acquiring nuclear weapons, duplicity was an automatic reflex.
Second, our intelligence on North Korea has been negligible for so long, and obviously so to the rest of the world, that Tehran would’ve been foolish not to explore the possibility of cooperating with Pyongyang on developing nuclear weapons. We’ve known for at least 20 years of their extensive collaboration on ballistic missiles; why wouldn’t they also collaborate on nuclear weapons, the intended payloads of such delivery systems?
We should’ve long ago stopped “stove-piping” the North Korean and Iranian nuclear threats as if they were unrelated. We need dramatically improved intelligence about the North, in considerable measure for what it could reveal about cooperation with Iran and other possible nuclear proliferators. Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others might well pay Pyongyang handsome premiums to counter the potentially existential threat of a nuclear Iran.
Quite rightly, the threat of radical Islamic terrorism is a central issue in the 2016 campaign. Nuclear proliferation and other national-security issues should be as well.
Candidates who demonstrate mastery over these matters, and persuasively explain their strategic thinking, would be tapping a rich, politically helpful and widespread concern among American voters.
They are looking for leaders who truly understand that our government’s most important job is keeping their fellow citizens secure from foreign threats.
John Bolton, now at the American Enterprise Institute, was the US ambassador to the United Nations from August 2005 to December 2006. This article was originally published by The New York Post.