Exclusive: One fallout from the Hillary Clinton-led “regime change” in Libya after Muammar Gaddafi gave up his WMD deterrence is that North Korea keeps building up its nuclear-weapon program. Its leaders don’t want to suffer Gaddafi’s grisly fate, another case of how war can exacerbate other tensions, notes Jonathan Marshall.
By Jonathan Marshall
In response to North Korea’s recent announcement that it plans to launch a satellite within a few days, Washington and its partners are speaking loudly to condemn the regime but carrying very small sticks to stop it. If Teddy Roosevelt were still alive, he would not be impressed.
A White House spokesman called North Korea’s plans “another irresponsible provocation” and a senior State Department official demanded “tough additional sanctions,” as if those had ever deterred the Pyongyang regime. South Korea blustered that its northern counterpart will pay a “grave price” if it follows through with the launch, without offering anything more than rhetoric.
The satellite launch, which critics view as a cover for a ballistic missile test, comes only a month after the North held its first claimed hydrogen bomb test. By most accounts, that test was a failure. No one doubts, however, that North Korea will someday get an effective bomb, and a delivery vehicle, unless it experiences a dramatic change of heart.
The Obama administration’s current policy of economic sanctions, appealing to China for help, and denouncing the Kim Jong-un regime, isn’t working. As with its other failed policies, such as its military interventions in Afghanistan Iraq, and Syria, the U.S. government insists on continuing to do more of the same, apparently hoping for a miraculous change of outcomes.
Successive Kims who have run North Korea for decades have always thrived on Western denunciations. They have tightened the country’s belts, starving their own population if necessary, to resist Western sanctions. And they have persuaded China that the consequences of regime collapse, anarchy and mass refugee migrations, would be far worse than the status quo.
Although the Obama administration continues to appeal to China to turn the screws on the Kim regime, Beijing insists that Washington resume the six-party talks (including the Koreas, United States, China, Russia, and Japan), which expired when Obama took office. North Korea wants a peace treaty, 63 years after the end of the Korean War, as the price of stopping its nuclear program. A resumption of talks, a peace treaty, and diplomatic recognition might be prices well worth paying in return for a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.
The chances of actually getting North Korea to abandon nukes altogether are likely nil. For that, thank NATO’s staggeringly counterproductive intervention to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, who unilaterally gave up his weapons of mass destruction, only to become a victim of regime change.
North Korea’s Foreign Ministry concluded, “Libya’s nuclear dismantlement much touted by the U.S. in the past turned out to be a mode of aggression whereby the latter coaxed the former with such sweet words as ‘guarantee of security’ and ‘improvement of relations’ to disarm and then swallow it up by force.”
North Korea has not always been completely unreasonable on nuclear issues. In 1994, the Clinton administration managed to persuade the regime to halt its plutonium production. Pyongyang closed down its one reactor, stopped construction of two much larger reactors, and placed 8,000 spent fuel rods under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. But Washington failed to follow through on promises of making reliable fuel oil deliveries or helping build light-water reactors. North Korea, in turn, engaging in a missile test in 1998 and started a centrifuge program that could, in time, produce nuclear fuel.
Instead of trying to negotiate solutions, however, Clinton’s successor chose to reject engagement with this charter member of the Axis of Evil. In the words of President George W. Bush’s arms control czar, John Bolton, “this was the hammer I had been looking for to shatter the  Agreement.”
The results were predictable: North Korea, released from its obligations by Washington’s effective withdrawal from the agreement, began harvesting plutonium from its old fuel rods, restarted its reactor to produce more, and set off a nuclear device in 2006. Scrambling to cut its losses, the Bush administration eventually renegotiated a new plutonium freeze with North Korea, but it lost a valuable opportunity to pursue more a more sweeping deal in return for diplomatic recognition and promises of non-aggression.
The Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience” hasn’t been any more productive. Its idea is to make no concessions and wait for North Korea to recognize that bluster and threats won’t work. A year ago, the State Department flatly rejected a proposal from Pyongyang to put a temporary moratorium on nuclear tests in return for a suspension of U.S. military exercises with Seoul.
Instead, the United States imposed tougher sanctions on North Korea in response to its alleged, but disputed, hacking of Sony’s e-mail accounts. Even the New York Times editorial page lamented Obama’s refusal to offer a “serious response,” adding “It’s hard to understand what America would lose by testing the North’s intentions once again, especially as China may be ready to be a more responsible partner in finding a solution.”
North Korea is a mean, tough and often unpredictable adversary, but it doesn’t deserve sole blame for regional tensions. The United States has long threatened North Korea with the use of nuclear weapons in case of a conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
Many people who now condemn North Korea’s plan for a satellite launch ignore Japan’s much more advanced military rocket program, or the fact that in 2012 the Obama administration gave a green light to South Korea developing ballistic missiles capable of hitting any target in North Korea. South Korea tested a new long-range missile in 2014.
At the start of 2016, Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund and a leading expert on arms control, observed, “[It] is clear that the Obama Administration strategy of ‘strategic patience’ has failed to contain North Korea’s program. It is also clear that the Bush Administration policy of killing negotiations in favor of regime change failed to stop the program. North Korea went nuclear in 2006 under Bush and expanded under seven years of Obama. It is time to try a new approach.”
A new approach should start with diplomatic engagement rather than isolation and ever tighter sanctions. Many arms control experts agree that means resuming the six-party talks without preconditions, instead of insisting that North Korea first accept denuclearization as the goal. North Korea, in turn, must drop its insistence that the talks start with a peace treaty.
But there’s every reason for Washington to signal genuine interest in ending our conflictual relations by negotiating such a long-overdue treaty and recognizing the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. If nothing else, such steps would earn China’s plaudits. And perhaps, just perhaps, showing a poor, weak and isolated DPRK the respect it wants, whether or not that respect is fully deserved, might advance the vital cause of peace on the troubled Korean peninsula.
Jonathan Marshall is an independent researcher living in San Anselmo, California. Some of his previous articles for Consortiumnews were “Risky Blowback from Russian Sanctions”; “Neocons Want Regime Change in Iran”; “Saudi Cash Wins France’s Favor”; “The Saudis’ Hurt Feelings”; “Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Bluster”; “The US Hand in the Syrian Mess”; and “Hidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War.” ]