Who will replace Hillary?What can we say about the next U.S. administration’s North Korea policy just days before the presidential election? Not a lot based on the presidential race so far. Both President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney skimmed through their final debate on foreign policy on Oct. 23 without touching on the North Korean nuclear problem, nor does the American public have a major interest in foreign policy this election cycle.
With the economy still languishing almost four years after the financial crisis, most voters tell pollsters that their No. 1 interest is jobs. When foreign policy has come up, it has mostly been around the questions of Iran’s nuclear program, the death of U.S. diplomat Christopher Stevens in Libya and China’s violation of trading rules.
There are probably some common denominators that would define either a second Obama administration or a new Romney administration. Though candidate Obama ran in 2008 promising to meet unconditionally with dictators like Kim Jong-il, the North Korean nuclear test in 2009 and the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong attacks in 2010 have cured the Democrats of any idealistic hopes about easy returns on diplomacy with Pyongyang.
A Republican administration would come in with a healthy skepticism about the North’s intentions, but not necessarily an allergy to some kind of engagement with the North. Either candidate would also want to base their North Korea policy on strong coordination with Seoul. A Romney administration would likely press harder for implementation of UN Security Council and other sanctions, but a second Obama administration is not likely to abandon sanctions and pressure as part of its approach.
Two factors will certainly shape the new (or returning) administration’s strategy: the views of the new Korean government and Pyongyang’s behavior. A third factor will also be important, and that is who the next president of the U.S. chooses as secretary of state. In fact, even if Obama wins re-election, Hillary Clinton will have to be replaced. So no matter what happens next Tuesday in the election, a few months from now a new secretary of state will be putting his or her own mark on North Korea policy.
If Obama is re-elected, watch for three key candidates to fill the slot. The first is UN Ambassador Susan Rice. Rice was considered by insiders to be the leading candidate to replace Clinton because she is close to the president and performed well as ambassador to the UN. However, Rice’s star fell somewhat after she went on national television to assert that the U.S. ambassador in Libya had been killed by an angry mob on Sept. 11, a categorical assertion that turned out to be completely wrong, much to the administration’s embarrassment.
Still, Rice is in the running. Korean diplomats at the UN note that Rice was reluctant to press China on the North Korea issue in the Security Council, but that may have been because of pressing Council business on Iran, Syria and Libya rather than North Korea policy per se. She took an early interest in shaping North Korea policy before Clinton took control of the process at the State Department, but there is no doubt that she would want to make a mark if she became secretary.
John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is the second candidate to watch. Insiders considered Kerry a second choice because his own ambitions unsettled the president, but Kerry played Romney in practice debates and may have recovered his standing with the White House. As a senator and 2004 presidential candidate, Kerry was pro-engagement and would likely push a similar line as secretary of state.
The third candidate getting attention is former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel. Polls now suggest that the election will be extremely close and a barely victorious Obama will be under pressure to make a bipartisan selection in his cabinet. As a respected moderate from the other party, Hagel would be a leading candidate. A Hagel State Department would likely have a mix of Republican, Democratic and independent political appointees with a pragmatic and non-ideological approach to North Korea.
If Mitt Romney wins the election, there are also three potential secretaries of state worth watching. The first is Bob Zoellick, former deputy secretary of state and World Bank president. When it was announced that Zoellick would be playing a leading role in the transition planning for a possible Romney administration, conservative commentators in the Republican Party complained because of his moderate views on China and the Middle East. Those more ideological critiques matter somewhat in the primary and the general election, but after the election, the president-elect is more likely to put an emphasis on pragmatism and effectiveness. Zoellick is also a candidate for secretary of the treasury, and so many expect him to be somewhere in a Romney cabinet.
A second candidate is Steve Hadley, George W. Bush’s last national security advisor and the deputy to Condoleezza Rice before that. As deputy national security advisor, Hadley put great effort into building an NSC-to-NSC channel with the new Blue House team of Roh Moo-hyun, which helped the conservative Bush and progressive Roh governments navigate some troubled waters together. He also worked on various aspects of the North Korea issue at the U.S. Institute of Peace since leaving government service.
A third and perhaps less known candidate is Robert Kimmit, the former deputy secretary of the treasury. Kimmit is a veteran foreign policy hand with service at senior levels in the State Department and Treasury Department. He had a major role in North Korea policy while at the Treasury, where he oversaw financial sanctions and other measures to roll back Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programs.
While each of these potential secretaries of state has their own experiences and characteristics, none is a fire-breathing liberal or regime-change neocon. And none is new to the diplomacy of the Korean Peninsula. The next administration in Seoul can take considerable comfort in that.
* The author is a senior advisor and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
by Michael J. Green