Obama’s obvious omission
North Korea has carried our four nuclear tests.
Three have occurred during Barack Obama’s presidency, while two happened just before his State of the Union addresses.
In 2013, Pyongyang set off a nuclear device in the evening before the speech, which President Obama openly acknowledged in his remarks the next day.
But this time, Obama did not acknowledge Pyongyang’s latest provocation, as many media outlets here pointed out; in fact, he didn’t even mention North Korea.
So what does this mean?
Some have described this omission as consistent with Washington’s policy of “strategic patience.” One of the tenets of this strategy is to break the cycle of provocation and negotiation by not responding to every attempt by North Korea to gain attention. And so Obama purposely ignored these events.
Still, others have argued that the omission was not about strategic patience - rather, it was more about the nature of the State of the Union address.
The speech traditionally concerns domestic policy. And the intended audience is American, not international. To the extent that there was foreign policy included in the speech on Tuesday night, these passages were designed more to highlight the administration’s accomplishments, not its difficulties, and lay the foundation for historians to remember the legacy of these achievements, whether this related to Iran, the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) or Myanmar.
North Korea policy is clearly not a victory for the Obama administration, so it was left out.
A third theory for the omission highlights the broader agenda of the United States, which distracts from all other issues. The war against the Islamic State (ISIS), health care, the crisis in Ukraine, the South China Sea and many other issues take up so much of the administration’s attention that there is simply no time to give serious thought to North Korea, even after Pyongyang detonated a fourth nuclear device.
There is a certain amount of truth to each of these theories. But let me offer a fourth one. This has nothing to do with strategic patience, nothing to do with legacy-building and nothing to do with a lack of care about the issue.
On the contrary, I believe this administration cares very deeply about the problem, but after seven years of trying, it has basically accepted that there will be no breakthrough with North Korea during his last year in office.
In this sense, the omission signals a loss of hope. It represents an abandoning of the hope that perhaps there could be one last effort at engineering diplomatic progress, as seen with Iran, Cuba and Myanmar. And, therefore, the president saw no need to mention it.
Sound a little bit far-fetched?
Let me explain what I mean. In his 2013 State of the Union speech, Obama gave significant attention to North Korea’s third nuclear test, stating: “The regime in North Korea must know they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations. Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only further isolate them, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats.”
There are three observations about these statements. First, given that the State of the Union speech is 90 percent domestic policy and 10 percent foreign policy, the inclusion of these sentences can be interpreted as giving a lot of attention to North Korea. It is more than the president said about Israel and only slightly less than what he said about Afghanistan.
Second, though the lines quoted above sound tough and hard-nosed, they clearly but subtly imply a willingness to negotiate. Despite the fact that Kim Jong-un tried to embarrass the president by conducting a nuclear test on the evening before his most important speech of the year, Obama led his remarks by highlighting a potential path to “security and prosperity” for North Korea, if only it would live up to international norms.
For any who doubt my optimistic reading of this passage, all they need to do is look at the next line in the speech, which speaks about the potential for diplomacy with Iran.
The president said: “Likewise, the leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations, and we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon.”
The key phrase is “likewise the leaders must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution.”
Thus, Obama saw North Korea in the same light as Iran - an opportunity to make a diplomatic deal even in the face of a nuclear test.
In this sense, the omission from the 2016 State of the Union Speech reflects not anger on the part of the administration, but sadness. Sadness that all hope has been lost of a diplomatic deal for his last year in office. Again, if the past is any indication, there should have been a line condemning the North Korean test, but at the same time, saying that peace and diplomacy is open to Pyongyang if they choose the right path. The fact that Obama chose not to do this seems to me like he has given up on North Korea.
As Robert Gallucci and I argued recently in the New York Times, what this means is that the issue will be passed from Obama to the next U.S. administration, approximately one year from now, without any agreements that halt or freeze its nuclear and missile programs.
And by this time in 2017, who knows how many more weapons the North will have?
The Korean peninsula may become the first major crisis for the next American president.
*The author is professor at Georgetown University and senior adviser and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
by Victor Cha