Cuba now, North Korea next?
In the late 1990s I was involved with a Council on Foreign Relations report on engaging North Korea. When we briefed the report to Congress I noticed a large number of Cuban-Americans and Cuban journalists in attendance. Many stayed afterwards to ask detailed questions about our views on sanctions towards North Korea. It was obvious that Cuba watches U.S. policy towards North Korea very closely. One can assume that Pyongyang is now watching President Barack Obama’s surprise announcement of a new opening to Cuba with considerable interest. Does the new U.S. policy towards Cuba foreshadow changes in North Korea policy?
The announcement came as a surprise, particularly after senior White House officials and outside advisors to the President had repeatedly said there would be no changes in Cuba policy. Behind the scenes, however, the administration had been preparing this move for the past eighteen months. The process began with negotiations for the release of American aid worker Alan Gross and then morphed into an exchange of Gross for four convicted Cuban spies held in the United States. Six months ago Pope Francis served as a guarantor of the agreement and provided the good offices of the Vatican to complete the negotiations, which morphed again from a prisoner exchange to the larger issue of normalization of relations.
Obama will move next month with unilateral measures to lift restrictions on travel, commerce and financial activities. The Treasury Department will allow banking and the Commerce Department will open the way for agricultural trade and exports of construction equipment and telecommunications technology. As part of that process, the State Department will review Cuba’s standing on the list of state sponsors of terror with an eye to removing them from the list to ease financial relations. These are all actions the President can take using his executive powers. The administration is clear that it also intends to move towards full normalization of diplomatic relations and reopening the U.S. Embassy in Havana, which serves now only as an “interests section” without full diplomatic status. The president, in short, is pushing as far as he can to normalize relations without relying on Congress. It is a big, bold and controversial move.
Opinion in the Congress is divided, but there are powerful opponents in both political parties vowing to block the president. The outgoing Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, is a Cuban-American and condemned the president’s action as the consequence of false hope that Raul Castro is willing to reform Cuba politically. Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, another Cuban-American and possible contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, will be taking over the subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in charge of Latin America and has vowed to block any effort to confirm the administration’s nominee for Ambassador to Cuba. Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, has also criticized the administration’s gambit. The announcement on Cuba came the same week Bush said he was exploring a run for president and allowed him to brandish his conservative credentials to Republicans who think he might be too moderate.
Opposition to Obama’s new Cuba policy is about more than politics, however. The American public overall is divided on Cuba, but feelings against the repressive Castro regime run deep among Cuban-Americans and defenders of human rights - probably deeper than the conviction of those who believe it’s time to open to Cuba.
Could this all apply to North Korea? There is a dangerous precedent here that North Korea might misunderstand. Though the negotiations focused on the release of Alan Gross, the fact is that Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and other senior officials had wanted to move to normalization of relations with Cuba anyway. There is no indication at all that the Obama administration intends to do the same with North Korea. Nevertheless, some critics of the Cuba gambit warn that countries like North Korea might conclude that taking American hostages can open the door to negotiations on sanctions-lifting and normalization.
Another important difference is that Raul Castro toned-down the anti-American rhetoric of his ailing brother, Fidel Castro. In contrast, Kim Jong-un has only intensified anti-American rhetoric, with threats to use nuclear weapons against Washington and the most recent case of threats and cyber-attacks against Sony Pictures. The American view of North Korea is deteriorating. Younger Americans have a more benign view of Cuba as they hear from their Canadian and European friends about cheap vacations on Cuba’s sunny beaches.
Most important, Cuba is decreasing as a material threat to the United States and U.S. allies in the Western Hemisphere. North Korea, in contrast, is becoming an increasingly dangerous threat to the United States and allies in East Asia as a result of Pyongyang’s ongoing nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
In short, North Korea is a much more difficult case than Cuba strategically, diplomatically and politically. And though the president has pushed the policy with Cuba about as far as he can unilaterally, we will now see how the Congress pushes back. The president made multiple concessions without receiving any substantive concessions in return. Cuba’s human rights record remains deeply oppressive. When the administration opened to Myanmar, the regime released hundreds of political prisoners and allowed the opposition National League for Democracy party of Aung San Suu Kyi to stand for election, albeit in a restricted constitutional context. There is no sign that Castro has agreed to such moves.
So I would bet against a similar diplomatic surprise vis-a-vis North Korea. Still, the administration’s defiance of Congress and push for legacy accomplishments is striking. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both made big concessions to North Korea in their last two years in office. If there is a sudden move with North Korea - and it is unlikely - the result would be to push North Korea right to the top of the 2016 presidential race. And bare knuckle political fights on North Korea usually do not result in better policies.
*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
by Michael Green