[OVERSEAS VIEW]Both U.S. parties divided on NorthOne of the frequent criticisms of the Bush ad-ministration’s app-roach to North Korea has been that the administration is divided. Critics argue that “hawks” like Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld and United Nations Ambassador John Bolton have undermined the approach of “doves” at the State Department. My own experience in the administration always led me to two conclusions about these criticisms: first, they ignore the fact that President Bush himself decides the policy, not those in the agencies. And second, every government is divided on North Korea policy (including South Korea).
That led me ponder how a Democratic administration might manage North Korea policy. After all, the Democrats are poised to possibly take over the Senate and maybe even the House in elections in November. And the Democratic Party could take over the White House in the 2008 elections. With candidates getting ready to make their bid for the presidency, policy debates in the Democratic Party are heating up and one can begin to see what policies a Democratic-run Congress or administration might pursue. One thing that is striking already is that the Democrats might be even more divided on North Korea than the Bush administration.
The most striking statement on North Korea by any Democrat lately has been the proposal by former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry and former Assistant Secretary Ashton Carter to attack the Taepodong-2 missile on the ground before it was launched. The proposal was introduced in an essay in the Washington Post on June 22 and was quickly endorsed by several other prominent Democrats such as former Vice President Walter Mondale. The Republican White House, meanwhile, argued that its focus would remain on diplomacy and not the use of force.
The Perry/Carter proposal stands in very stark contrast to the admonitions of former President Jimmy Carter, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson or former Secretary of State Madeline Albright that the United States must find a way to move from pressure on North Korea toward more direct bilateral engagement and accommodation of North Korean concerns.
When Democrats in the Congress tried recently to pull together legislation on North Korea policy, they were unable to reach a consensus on how much pressure versus engagement is necessary and instead focused on internal processes within the U.S. government. On June 16, Democratic Senators Levin and Clinton sent a letter to President Bush urging him to “develop a single, coordinated presidential strategy to diplomatically address North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat.” The senators also urged the president to appoint a senior presidential envoy to implement the strategy and to keep Congress and the American people fully informed of North Korea’s activities. The legislation was intended to fix the perceived divisions in the administration, but did not have any specific conclusions about whether to send the senior coordinator to Pyongyang, because conservative Democrats do not want to go into an election having argued for “appeasing” Pyongyang right after the North walked out of the six-party talks and threatened to launch a missile towards the United States.
This wide gap on North Korea policy reflects a broader divide in the Democratic Party over national security policy priorities. Polls show that the American public has considered the Democratic Party to be weaker than Republicans on national security policy ever since the Vietnam War.
In 2004, Senator John Kerry chose to run on national security; the White House and President Bush’s chief political advisor Karl Rove knew that national security issues would divide the Democratic base. Mr. Kerry lost.
The Democratic presidential primaries look to be another fight on whether to run on an anti-war/anti-Iraq platform. Senators Russ Feingold, John Kerry and John Edwards are all exploring campaigns that would push the anti-war theme; Senator Hillary Clinton, the clear front-runner, is more supportive of staying in Iraq, in part because she has her eye on the general election, where a majority of the American voters do not think it is time to “cut and run” from Iraq. Other conservative and moderate Democratic candidates are falling into the same line and hope that they can get the nomination if Senator Clinton stumbles.
While not all the candidates have voiced an opinion on the Perry/Carter proposal for attacking the Taepodong-2 site, it is a fair bet that those who are for staying the course in Iraq will also be more hawkish on North Korea, while those favoring an early withdrawal will be more inclined to reduce pressure and increase engagement. Within the Democratic Party ranks of strategic thinkers ― the people who would fill the top levels of government in a Democratic administration ―both views can be found. The Pentagon would predictably have the hawks and the State Department more of the doves.
If the Democratic Party does not reach a consensus on its overall approach to foreign policy and North Korea, their administration would likely be very divided indeed.
* The writer is senior director for Asian affairs at the U.S. National Security Council.
by Michael Green