Progressive Pragmatism or Cynicism in Confronting North Korea?

In his inaugural address, President Barack Obama offered the possibility of dialogue to leaders in Iran and North Korea, saying he was “willing to extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” It was a nice turn of phrase, but things went south pretty quickly. After a long-range missile launch in April 2009, things got ugly. North Korea proceeded to test a nuclear weapon that May; and in 2010, sank a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors, and shelled the South Korean Yeonpyeong Island. North Korea then spent the better part of 2011 negotiating for food aid, a process that survived the death of Kim Jong Il and culminated in the short-lived Leap Day Deal that lasted all of two weeks before the North announced it would celebrate the centenary of Kim Il Sung’s birth with another rocket launch. As the DPRK seems headed for yet another nuclear weapons test and the US presidential campaign season kicks into high gear, the Obama administration’s political opponents are taking pot-shots. “The Carter administration with better sweaters,” is perhaps the funniest of an otherwise humorless lot of criticisms.

But the defense provided by the Obama administration is not much more encouraging. The President, the line of argument goes, is a reluctant realist or, better yet, a progressive pragmatist. The President has retained his progressive instincts, without dwelling upon them. After the high-minded rhetoric of his inaugural address, he “pivoted” in response to provocations by Iran and North Korea, embracing sanctions, which enjoyed even greater international credibility for his having given it his best shot. For three months.

The Obama administration began with a decent and sensible view of the role of the United States in the world. Almost immediately, however, it seemed to glide past the invisible line demarcating progressive pragmatism from what can best be described as cynicism. A harsh word, I admit. It has been about 2,500 years since an organized philosophical movement described itself as cynics.

Cynicism, however, best describes the administration’s general approach to North Korea and Iran. Whether or not the President believed his campaign rhetoric about engaging with Iran and North Korea, virtually none of the people he appointed did. Privately, most senior officials in the Obama administration believed from day one that the administration could do little or nothing to persuade or compel Iran and North Korea to slow their respective nuclear weapons programs. The appropriate metaphor involving clenched fists would involve the United States prying nuclear weapons from the cold, dead hands of several unpleasant world leaders.

Of course, Iran and North Korea had already done plenty to earn the skepticism of the Obama administration’s new national security team. It is difficult to read either the memoirs of those who have negotiated with North Korea or even Jonathan Pollack’s book, No Exit, and conclude that the North is likely to abandon its nuclear weapons program any time soon. I happen to find the arguments for deep skepticism quite compelling, though I lack the great and unyielding certitude on this point that so many officials seem to express.

This certitude helps explain, for instance, why administration officials express little or no concern about the effect of NATO’s campaign against Libya on nonproliferation efforts. Qaddafi, it should be remembered, surrendered his nuclear weapons and missile programs because he believed doing so would improve his relationship with the West and, presumably, prolong his awful reign. It may not have been the last thing to go through his mind as he was dragged to his ugly death—that was a 9 mm round—but Qaddafi surely wondered whether NATO would have launched airstrikes against a nuclear-armed Libya. So did senior figures from North Korea and Iran, who suggested the Libyan dictator would have been better off keeping his nuclear weapons program.[1] Senior administration officials dismiss completely the possibility that Qaddafi’s fate makes an excellent advertisement for the bomb, which only makes sense if you think the bomb needs no further advertisement.

Yet, if one really believes that we will not be able to pry nuclear weapons from Kim Jong Un’s hands, then why try diplomacy at all? The answer illustrates the difference between cynicism and pragmatism.

In general, the Obama administration has viewed diplomacy not as a means to discourage Iran or North Korea in their nuclear pursuits, but rather as a means to demonstrate that Tehran and Pyongyang have only themselves to blame for their respective programs. Every effort is made to avoid legitimizing either program. The Obama administration, and its defenders, measure the “success” of diplomacy not by whether North Korea or Iran slow their efforts, but whether other countries beyond our closest allies join us in isolating Tehran and Pyongyang.

That this is not the articulated policy of the Obama administration is hardly surprising. The administration is unlikely to announce it is preparing to live with an Iranian bomb or to accept North Korea’s nuclear weapons status. And if the goal is to ensure that blame for a collapse in negotiations attaches to the other party, it hardly helps to declare this policy in advance. Yet, I would argue, this is the policy all the same. And the best term that I can imagine for such approach is cynicism.

There is something to be said, of course, for playing a bit of defense now and then. After any unsuccessful diplomatic engagement, the parties inevitably attempt to persuade international opinion that the other is to blame. It is only natural that we should be prepared to push back against accusations by the likes of Iran and North Korea. There is a fine line between preparing for the possibility of failure and counting on it. By my reckoning, the Obama administration has spent much of its time on the wrong side of that line.

A cynic is usually defined as one who disparages the motives of others. By that narrow definition, of course, it is easy to slip into cynicism about Iran and North Korea. But the deeper meaning arises from what is objectionable; cynicism is contemptuous in that it plays upon the scruples of others. Simply put, cynics act in bad faith.

The demise of the 2010 proposal for a “fuel swap” with Iran is a subject for another article, but it illustrates nicely the charge of cynicism. Starting in 2009, the administration pursued the idea that Iran should swap its stockpile of low enriched uranium for a fresh load of fuel for Tehran’s research reactor, eventually encouraging Brazil and Turkey to lobby Iran to accept the deal. The administration did so largely on the expectation that Iran would refuse such an arrangement, teaching officials in Brazil and Turkey what US officials already knew—that Iran alone was to blame for the failure of diplomacy. The failure of this exercise would be a great success, paving the way for another round of UN sanctions against Iran.

When Brazil and Turkey succeeded in securing Iran’s agreement to the admittedly imbecilic confidence building measure, the Obama administration claimed the President sent, “detailed letters in the last week of April [to Brazil and Turkey] outlining specific concerns” with the deal. When Brazilian officials leaked their copy of the letter—which quite clearly encouraged Brazil and Turkey to seek the agreement that they got—administration officials indicated that the letter could only be understood in the context of private warnings to Brasilia and Ankara. After cables from many of those meetings appeared in the WikiLeaks material—containing only encouragements and no warnings—administration officials resorted to saying that they didn’t ask Brazil and Turkey to negotiate on their behalf. The simplest explanation, based on the available materials, is that the administration did encourage Brazil and Turkey to negotiate with Iran, but on the expectation that Iran would say “no.” When Iran said “yes,” the administration was caught wrong-footed and it showed.

The story of the Leap Day Deal follows a similar arc. The administration designed a policy that made North Korea look bad. The administration conditioned its return to Six Party Talks on North Korea’s compliance with a seemingly reasonable set of “pre-steps,” including moratoria on missile and nuclear tests as well as plutonium production and uranium enrichment activities.[2]

The approach was structured in such a way that the administration seemed a willing and frank interlocutor, would receive most of the benefits up front, but did not extend any concession beyond the provision of nutritional assistance which was, in any event, formally de-linked from Six Party Talks.[3] Then North Korea did something totally unexpected: they agreed to the pre-steps. Or more correctly, they appeared to agree to the pre-steps, coaxed the administration out on a limb, then began sawing furiously by announcing a rocket launch to celebrate the centenary of the Great Leader’s birth.

DPRK officials may have miscalculated about whether they could have their food aid and their rocket launch, too. Or, more likely, they planned the launch all along and were bargaining as a means to reduce the inevitable pressure that the launch would incite. Either way, the Obama administration looked foolish. Administration officials were initially dismissive when reporters pointed to disparities between the US and DPRK descriptions of the terms of the deal. Again, they appear to have been caught completely wrong-footed by another country saying “yes.”

What is unusual about the Leap Day Deal is that it was not a deal at all—it was merely a pair of brief, unilateral statements. Although North Korea exploited this approach, it was apparently the United States that proposed such a format—largely to ensure that North Korea took the blame. In the February 29 Nelson Report—the daily record of American Asia watchers—one observer friendly to the administration summarized his perspective: “The important thing about all this is that, as you explained, this deal was structured differently, and it was set up as a test of NK seriousness. They failed the test.”

One can see, in a number of statements in the Nelson Report, a sort of frustration on the part of the administration: This was supposed to blow up on the North Koreans; we’re not the ones who are supposed to look dumb. The 2010 Fuel Swap with Iran and the 2012 Leap Day Deal with North Korea were the diplomatic equivalents of letter-bombs sent by the United States. They just happened to blow up when returned to sender.

The blunders, by the way, are not the problem—even the best administrations make mistakes and suffer setbacks. Mistakes are interesting because they reveal a lot more about an administration than its successes. Mistakes help us understand what makes an administration tick. The danger from cynicism is much worse than a little egg on the face.

In the long run, cynicism tacitly accepts proliferation in Iran and North Korea. If you believe the administration’s claim that support for sanctions is a measure of foreign policy success, you must also believe that sanctions are likely to, in some way, alter the course of Iranian or North Korean behavior. I don’t know anyone who sincerely believes this, either in the US government or out. This policy substitutes sanctions that satisfy bureaucratic and political imperatives for diplomatic efforts that might manage the challenge posed by nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea. What it amounts to is looking good, while failing.

What might reluctant realism or progressive pragmatism really look like? Designing an agreement that remains in our interest even if the other side cheats is not quite the same thing as designing an agreement that is intended to collapse. One may believe that there is very little to do that would slake Pyongyang’s thirst for nuclear weapons, while also believing that limited agreements with strong verification measures still might help manage the situation even if the other side cheats. This was the primary advantage of the much-maligned and totally misunderstood Agreed Framework.

I know this recommendation is a downer—like “eat your broccoli.” The 1994 Agreed Framework, and the Perry Process created to preserve it, were modest steps toward managing the threat from North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs. These were incremental, band-aid approaches that prevented a terrible situation from becoming much, much worse. (Had North Korea completed the two larger reactors under construction, Pyongyang would have been producing 280 kilograms of weapon-grade plutonium per year by 2000.[4]) Yes, North Korea cheated on the Agreed Framework. No, it did not represent a comprehensive settlement of security issues on the Korean peninsula. There is not much to say for it except, as the Bush administration discovered after 2002, it was better than any of the alternatives.

Of course the reason that no administration races to embrace the 1994 Agreed Framework is that the politics of it were terrible. It was a modest contribution toward avoiding the further deterioration of an already terrible situation. Opponents of the agreement, of course, focused on the few kilograms of plutonium that North Korea might have retained, rather than the hundreds that were prevented. The reaction from opponents of the Agreed Framework was unpleasant to watch. Back in 1994, one US Senator accused Robert Gallucci, the lead negotiator on the agreement, of “appeasement”—and it isn’t as if the US political system has become more civil in the intervening years.[5]

But that is the point. Progressive pragmatism is hard. There is every reason to surrender to a defeated cynicism. If it were easy, it wouldn’t have a special name. If it were easy, we wouldn’t admire Kim Dae Jung for his courage and sacrifice. And, if it were easy, we wouldn’t get so excited when one-term Senators run for President promising: “Change you can believe in.” Of course, those are campaign slogans. The decision-makers are those who won their last election. Statesmen, on the other hand, are the ones who lost.

The reality is that the dysfunctional pattern the United States has established with North Korea, and seems poised to replicate with Iran, exists for a reason. Lousy as it is, it satisfies the short-term interests of most involved, even if the long-term result is a losing situation for everyone. We know that. We also know that trying something else will most likely fail, usually at considerable cost to the person who sticks his neck out. But that’s why we admire those who try.

[1] A DPRK Foreign Ministry spokesman stated that Libya had been “coaxed … with such sweet words as ‘guarantee of security’ and ‘improvement of relations’ to disarm itself and then swallowed it up by force.” Iran’s Supreme Leader said Qaddafi “wrapped up all his nuclear facilities, packed them on a ship and delivered them to the West and said, ‘Take them!’ Look where we are, and in what position they are now.” The statement appeared in, “Foreign Ministry Spokesman Denounces US Military Attack on Libya,” KCNA, March 22, 2011, Ayatollah Khamenei was quoted in James Risen, “Seeking Nuclear Insight in Fog of the Ayatollah’s Utterances,” New York Times, April 13, 2012,

[2] The United States described these as “pre-steps” rather than “preconditions,” largely because the Obama administration made a big deal out of talking to states like Iran “without preconditions.” A senior official, just a few months before the “pre-steps” language could be found, was mocking the Iranians after a round of talks in Istanbul for insisting that “prerequisites” were not “preconditions.” If someone can explain the difference between preconditions, prerequisites and pre-steps, I’ll send you a “Pre t-shirt” from here:

[3] In fact, the administration employs a disreputable little sophism to use nutritional assistance as leverage. If North Korea did not keep its word about a moratorium on missile launches in the Six Party Talks, the argument goes, we must assume that they will not keep their word about monitoring provisions for food aid.. Had the Bush administration tried such a howler, pundits would have readied the John Yoo jokes.

[4] Solving the North Korean Nuclear Puzzle, David Albright and Kevin O’Neill, editors, (Washington, DC: ISIS Press, 2000) p. 11.

[5] “I am absolutely accusing the President and Mr. Gallucci of appeasement …” See the comments of Senator John McCain at 5:18 on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour on October 21, 1994. Video available at:

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