Clinton II and North KoreaThe more things change, the more they stay the same. This is a phrase in English, when applied in Washington, D.C., that means a change in policy does not necessarily mean a transformation of policy. Barring some unforeseen circumstances, it looks pretty clear that Hillary Clinton will be the presumptive Democratic nominee for the U.S. presidency. And according to most head-to-head polling, it looks as though she would beat the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump.
What would a Clinton administration policy look like towards North Korea? First, we need to start with personnel. It is likely that national security policy will be handled by individuals like Wendy Sherman (former undersecretary of State), Kurt Campbell (former assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs), Jake Sullivan (current foreign policy coordinator for the Hillary Campaign), and Laura Rosenberger (current deputy foreign policy coordinator for the campaign). All are experienced Asia hands, especially Campbell.
Second, the basic objectives of policy would not change. That is, the goal would continue to be the complete, verifiable denuclearization of North Korea. No administration could step away from this goal, whether Republican or Democrat, regardless of how unrealistic the goal may appear given the North’s byungjin doctrine.
Third, the policy would be characterized by strong defense and deterrence against the threat from North Korea. The United States would focus on the alliance as the key element of its North Korea policy, prizing policy coordination and defense cooperation with the ally over engagement with Pyongyang. There would also likely be an emphasis on tightening the trilateral defense cooperation and information sharing among the three allies, Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul, as well as emphasis on missile defense cooperation to deter the missile threat from North Korea.
Fourth, there would continue to be an emphasis on sanctions diplomacy as a way to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table, and in this regard, there will be a continued focus on China to strictly enforce its sanctions on especially coal, energy, and mineral imports to North Korea.
Fifth, with regard to cooperation with China, the United States would focus on guarding against North Korea cyberattacks. As a result of the recent Obama-Xi Jinping summit, the two countries agreed to stop the use of their territory by third parties for cyber activities. While there is much that the countries disagree in the cyber domain, this was a not-so-veiled reference to North Korean cyber operations, for which Beijing agrees to seek cooperation with the United States.
Surveying the list above, the tenets of a Hillary Clinton policy do not look that different from what the Obama administration is practicing now. So, where would be the differences? It seems to me that a Clinton presidency would certainly change the optics of the policy. The policy of strategic patience, whether correct or not, appears to the public to be too passive and ineffective. So Clinton would do away with the label and probably use new rhetoric to signal something different.
Also, while the Obama administration’s recent pronouncements lean in the direction of being willing to accept China’s formula for “parallel tracks” as a basis of talks — that is, pursuing peace treaty talks and denuclearization talks at the same time, it is not clear to me whether a Clinton administration would agree. Their receptivity would largely depend on South Korea’s position. If the Park government (or a future Blue House) were willing to consider the possibility, then there might be more openness on the part of the United States. This discussion, however, is academic as the North has made clear that they are not interested in denuclearization talks of any kind.
Finally, my guess is that a Clinton presidency would focus on quiet but high-level dialogues between the United States, Korea, and China about the future of the Korean peninsula. The unpredictability of the regime raises strategic concerns and requires responsible dialogue among the three countries most directly affected by an instability inside the North.
One certainty is that the North will not stay quiet at the beginning of her presidency, should she be elected. Our data at CSIS shows that Pyongyang likes to do provocations around the time of U.S. elections as a way to coercing a new administration to deal with them.
*The author is professor at Georgetown University and Senior Adviser and the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.