Guest Contribution: “The Signal/Noise Ratio in US North Korea Policy”

Today, we present part two of a guest post written by Jeffrey Frankel, Harpel Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and formerly a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. An earlier version appeared as “Can Trump Deal with North Korea and China?” in Project Syndicate.

Americans have under-estimated the nuclear threat from North Korea and misunderstood what policies would reduce it. At the same time they have over-estimated the importance of bilateral trade deficits with China and misunderstood what policies would reduce them. Now these two different issues intersect.

My preceding post discussed the Chinese trade aspect of the problem. Here I review the geo-politics and history of the North Korea nuclear problem.

US policy has been to demand that Pyongyang dismantle its nuclear weapons program as a precondition for talks. This is no longer realistic, given the advanced state of the nuclear program and the North Koreans’ conviction that it is the guarantor of their security. American politicians can proclaim all they want that a nuclear North Korea is “unacceptable.” A freeze in the nuclear weapons program is the most that we could hope for in the medium run, and achieving even that will not be easy. There are not many good options.

Some will say that a freeze is not a sufficiently ambitious goal, even in the short run. But the time is past when an enforceable agreement to stop short of nuclear capability is a possibility, as it might have been in 2000 and 2001. The lessons of that period have been widely misunderstood. The Agreed Framework of 1994 had been an important achievement: a solution to the crisis created when North Korea departed from the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty in 1993. The Framework avoided a war that came closer than most people were aware. As a result of the Agreed Framework, the North Koreans slowed their nuclear program to a crawl. They froze plutonium production in the Yongbyon complex for eight years (1994-2002), as they had explicitly promised to do in the most important part of the deal.

It is true that they failed to live up to some other important aspects of the agreement, as so often in the past. But the US did not live up to its side of the agreement either. The important point is that the Framework was better than the alternative. When George W. Bush took office in 2001, discontinued negotiations, and ripped it up in 2002, the North Koreans immediately responded in the way that they had said they would: they restarted their frozen plutonium facilities and within four years were able to test their first nuclear bomb. A nuclear North Korea has been a fact of life since that time.

Incidentally, the episode illustrates why we should stick with the Iran nuclear agreement, considering the alternative. This is the opposite of the lesson that many have drawn from the Korean precedent.

So what is to be done about North Korea now? My preceding post acknowledged that it is probably true that heightened economic sanctions by China on its troublesome ally, such as a cut-off of oil supplies which could cripple the North Korean economy, would be the best hope of getting Kim Jung-un to agree to suspend his nuclear program in return for certain security assurances from the US. The question then is: how can the US persuade China to take stronger steps?

Start by considering the problem from China’s viewpoint, as any deal-maker should do. It doesn’t want North Korea to have nuclear weapons. But it fears even more the prospect of a breakdown of order in its next-door neighbor, with volatile consequences, including both the possibilities of waves of refugees and intervention by US troops. The US and Korean governments should be prepared to promise that if China applies strong enough economic sanctions to bring the North to its knees, the ultimate outcome will be neither US troops north of the 38th parallel nor a unified Korea with nuclear weapons. The US and South Korea should also be prepared to pause the deployment of THAAD (the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system) as a short-term gesture in return for China enacting and enforcing full sanctions.

It would take credibility on the part of the US president to make this strategy work — or to make any strategy work. Unfortunately credibility is something of which President Trump has very little. His signals are mostly noise.

To be fair, his predecessors also exhibited a disturbingly low correlation between verbal warnings to foreign adversaries and willingness to take action. So often in the post-war period, American presidents have made threats that they weren’t prepared to carry out and − equally − have carried out interventions that they had neglected to signal in advance. A classic example of the latter mistake was the 1950 speech by Secretary of State Dean Acheson defining an American “defensive perimeter” in the Pacific that excluded Korea, which is said to have encouraged the North to invade the South soon thereafter.

Among many examples of the former mistake — talking loudly and carrying a small stick — is Ronald Reagan’s decision to maintain a Marine force in Lebanon, even after the rationale for their presence had vanished. A suicide bombing in 1983 killed 241. The President said that if the United States were to withdraw, “we’ll be sending one signal to terrorists everywhere: They can gain by waging war against innocent people…” Three days later he withdrew. Terrorists indeed saw the signal. The point isn’t that he shouldn’t have withdrawn. The point is that those leaders who proclaim a military commitment under a rationale of maintaining US credibility often fail to take into account how much greater will be the loss of credibility if they are forced to back down later. Vietnam is of course the biggest example of this lesson.

But the noise/signal ratio is extraordinarily high now. Foreign leaders, like most American citizens, have come to realize that Trump’s statements — whether about the past, present or future — are all but uncorrelated with reality. Consider just two examples from the Korean nuclear issue. In January he tweeted, “It won’t happen!” in reference to North Korean aims to develop a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the US. On August 11 he said that if Kim Jong-un “utters one threat in a form of an overt threat — which, by the way, he has been uttering for years, and his family has been uttering for years — … he will truly regret it. And he will regret it fast.” One need not wait to find out: It is already clear that these two statements were not credible or accurate. For good measure, he then threatened military action against Venezuela.

It would not be surprising if China’s leaders have concluded that in the US President they have finally encountered a leader whose words are even less credible than those of Kim Jong-un.

This post written by Jeffrey Frankel.

17 thoughts on “Guest Contribution: “The Signal/Noise Ratio in US North Korea Policy”

  1. PeakTrader

    North Korea, Iran, Russia, and China need to be contained and pushed back. They can’t be trusted.

  2. PeakTrader

    “The (GW Bush) administration soon learned that “North Korea was likely operating a secret highly enriched uranium program — a second path to a nuclear bomb,” Bush states. The “startling revelation” proved that “Kim had cheated on the Agreed Framework” negotiated by Bill Clinton.

    Bush decided that the United States was finished negotiating with North Korea on a bilateral basis. He was determined to “rally China, South Korea, Russia, and Japan to present a united front against the regime.”

    Bush set about trying to bring China on side, telling President Jiang Zemin in October 2002 that North Korea’s nuclear program threatened not only the U.S. but also China. “President Jiang was respectful, but he told me North Korea was my problem, not his,” Bush recalls.

    In the following months and years, Bush kept the pressure on China, warning that “if North Korea’s nuclear weapons program continued,” the U.S. “would not be able to stop Japan—China’s historic rival in Asia—from developing its own nuclear weapons,” the former American president writes. And in February 2003, he told the Chinses president that “if we could not solve the problem diplomatically,” he would be forced “to consider a military strike against North Korea.”

    Bush’s persistence and toughness paid off. In the summer of 2003, the first meeting of the Six-Party Talks was convened in Beijing. Gradually, the aforementioned nation-states developed a united front on North Korea.

    “In Sept. 2005,” writes Bush, “our patience was rewarded.” North Korea committed to abandoning nuclear weapons development and agreed to meet its obligations under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).

    However, Bush says that he remained skeptical, because “Kim Jong-il had violated his commitments in the past.” But “if he did so again, he would be breaking his word not just to the United States, but to all his neighbours, including China.”

    Predictably, Kim Jong-il broke his commitments. In July 2006, he fired missiles into the Sea of Japan. “Three months later, North Korea defied the world again by carrying out its first full-fledged nuclear test,” Bush writes.

    Unlike its tepid past responses to North Korea’s provocations, China seemed alarmed by the nuclear test. Chinese President Hu Jintao declared that his country strongly opposed the test.

    In addition, Hu stated: “We engaged in conversations to appeal to the North Koreas for restraint. However, our neighbour turned a deaf ear to our advice.” In Chinese diplomacy, Hu’s words, though they sounded mild to Western ears, were a stinging rebuke of North Korea, revealing Beijing’s frustration with the rogue regime.

    China values “peace and stability” in its domestic and international situations, and North Korea clearly threatens both. A war on the Korean peninsula would generate a massive refugee crisis, with millions of impoverished and starving North Koreans attempting to cross into China. Beijing wants to avoid this scenario. Bush was correct; North Korea is also China’s problem.

    In the wake of the 2006 nuclear test, the partners in the Six-Party Talks supported the adoption of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718 that imposed harsh economic sanctions on North Korea. The U.S. also tightened its own sanctions.

    “The pressured worked,” Bush claims. “In Feb. 2007, North Korea agreed to shut down its main nuclear reactor and allow UN inspectors back into the country to verify its actions.” In exchange, the Six-Party states offered energy assistance to North Korea and agreed to take it off the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

    However, the threat remained. According to Bush, intelligence reports indicated that the rogue nation was “continuing its highly enriched uranium program, even as it claimed to be shutting down its plutonium reprocessing.”

    In the final analysis, Bush believes that the Six-Party talks were the best way in the short-run to keep the pressure on North Korea. But in the long-run, he is “convinced the only path to meaningful change is for the North Korean people to be free.”

  3. Rick Stryker

    Once I cautioned my high school son, Rick Stryker Jr, to take with a grain of salt what he was “learning” about post-war history from his AP US History book. These books are written by progressive professors. It’s not that anything is likely to be factually wrong. Rather, these books generally have a strong left-wing bias and typically will leave out important facts and context, presenting highly misleading versions of history. He didn’t believe me so I proved it to him. I closed my eyes, flipped to a random page, then pointed to a random paragraph. When I opened my eyes, I explained what had been left out to make the account misleading. He became a believer that night. Jeff’s Reagan example above is another great example of a highly misleading recounting of history.

    As Jeff recounts it:

    “A suicide bombing in 1983 killed 241. The President said that if the United States were to withdraw, “we’ll be sending one signal to terrorists everywhere: They can gain by waging war against innocent people…” Three days later he withdrew. Terrorists indeed saw the signal.”

    From this passage, you’d think that right after the bombing Reagan defiantly said that the US would not withdraw but 3 days later “cut and run,” sending a bad signal to the terrorists. Let’s fill in the relevant facts and context to see how wrong this is.

    The United States was not in Lebanon alone, but part of the UN multinational peacekeeping force. The truck bombings occurred on Oct 23, 1983 and were an attack on both US and French troop barracks. Right after the attack, Reagan and other members of his government did pledge to stay in Lebanon but it’s important to remember that French President Mitterand also pledged to stay. After that, Reagan consistently said the US intended to stay.

    However, the Democrats in Congress had other ideas. Just one month earlier than the bombing, the Democratically-controlled congress had approved the troops staying in Lebanon for another 18 months. However, as the NY times reported on Oct 28, House majority leader Tip Oneill, who had supported Reagan’s Lebanon policy, suddenly turned very critical, as did other Democrats. The Senate voted to apply the War Powers Act to Granada and Sen Byrd attempted to attach an amendment to replace US troops in Lebanon.

    Despite consistent opposition from Congress over the next few months, Reagan continued to argue that US troops should stay. The Reagan statement that Jeff quotes actually was made months after the bombing, on Feb 4, 1984 to be precise. Jeff leaves out important context around that quote. Just a few days before Reagan’s statement, as the NY Times reported on Feb 1,, Democrats in Congress drafted a resolution to promptly withdraw troops from Lebanon. They also said that if Reagan did not comply, they were prepared to follow up with more serious legislation. Reagan’s Feb 4th statement must be understood in that context. He was still trying to argue that the US should stay, despite congressional opposition. But by Feb 7, he concluded that the Democrats in Congress were serious and would not allow US troops to stay. So, Reagan began the withdrawal of the troops.

    Reagan did not “cut and run” as Jeff so misleadingly implies. If anyone “cut and run,” it was the Democrats, led by Tip Oneill. It was the Democrats who supported Reagan’s Lebanon policy, but just a few days after the bombing turned against it, while Reagan remained steadfast.

    And if anyone sent a signal to the terrorists, it was the Democrats, led by Tip Oneill, not Ronald Reagan.

  4. Rick Stryker

    Jeff is certainly right to note the importance of considering the point of view of other nations. But to truly understand how we got where we are with North Korea, that view has to be realistic. Jeff’s account of the history and geopolitics of the NK problem goes awry because he does not understand NK’s true motives or strategy (or China’s for that matter.) The situation with NK is a bipartisan failure, not the failure of one President of party.

    North Korea’s motive has always been to become a nuclear power. This is a difficult task, given that the US and its allies in Asia are strongly opposed to such a development and may preemptively attack to prevent it. North Korea’s strategy is long-term, and has been to start with an initial military threat, start the nuclear program, and then when met with resistance, present the choices as either bloody conflict or negotiation. The negotiation buys them time and resources to continue the program until they have created a bigger threat, in which case they break the deal, and demonstrate the greater threat. Now the temptation to negotiate is even greater, because the cost of military conflict is greater, which buys them more time to continue until they achieve their goal. NK has always understood that becoming a nuclear power is a long term process.

    NK started this process in 1994, when they violated the NPT treaty by not allowing inspections of the Yongbyon nuclear waste sites. People may be shocked by Trump’s rhetoric today, but Clinton made similar threats against NK back then and was seriously looking at military options. NK understood that and so needed to negotiate to buy time. For that purpose, NK used Jimmy Carter, certainly one of the most naive Presidents on foreign policy in American history. Carter went to NK thinking that he was going to make peace. As is typical of Carter, he made a foolish deal and then went on tv to announce the terms, without consulting the Clinton Administration, which directly led to perhaps the most serious foreign policy blunder with NK, the so-called Agreed Framework.

    Bill Clinton wanted to stop NK using military force and he should have done so at that time. However, he was rightly concerned about the risk of a large loss of life in a military action, as NK might have attacked Seoul. When Carter undercut Clinton by presenting what appeared to the public to be a reasonable solution, the temptation to take it was irresistible, especially with the elections coming up.

    The Agreed Framework bought NK the time it needed. In exchange for allowing its Yongbyon nuclear facility to be inspected, the US and its allies agreed to build for NK two reactors plus supply 500,000 tons of oil annually. Both sides complied with the agreement and it’s on that basis the Clinton foreign policy people continue to congratulate themselves, arguing that by diplomacy they stopped NK’s nuclear weapons program, an achievement they claim was subsequently torpedoed by Bush. But all this self-congratulation shows that they fundamentally misunderstood NK’s goal and strategy. The Yongbyon facility could be used to create weapons grade plutonium, but only in limited quantities, since spent fuel rods needed to be processed. Even today, the much upgraded Yongbyon facility can only produce about 6 kg of weapons grade plutonium per year, good for about 1 bomb per year. NK needed production capacity for many bombs to become a full fledged nuclear power. The US and its allies would never allow them to build more reactors to process plutonium. NK therefore needed to also start a uranium enrichment program to get a larger supply of bombs, which would be a long, involved, expensive process. By shuttering the Yongbyong facility temporarily under the Agreed Framework, NK didn’t give up much, since when they are ready they could always break the agreement and start the facility back up very quickly. The Agreed Framework gave them the time to make progress on Uranium enrichment while getting oil from the US and its allies in the mean time. NK’s manipulation of Carter and blackmail of Bill Clinton had worked well.

    When Bush took office, he had no illusions about NK’s true motives, having included them in the “axis of evil.” The Bush Administration discovered that NK had been cheating on the Agreed Framework with a secret uranium enrichment program. Bush said that they must stop or he would not send any more oil. NK reacted predictably. Since the jig was up, they made accusations to justify themselves and then pulled out of the Agreed Framework, which they always intended to do at some point anyway. The timing was perfect for NK, since the US was distracted in Iraq. NK fired missiles and pulled out of the NPT. NK then jerked the US and its allies around for several years during the six-party talks, sometimes seeming to want to join talks, sometimes seeming to come to an agreement, only to blow it up soon after, all to buy time. This culminated with NK’s first nuclear test in 2006, which of course increased the costs dramatically of any military action. By 2008, NK seemed to have entered a new version of the Agreed Framework in order to get sanctions lifted. NK had successfully hoodwinked the Bush Administration, just as they did with the Clinton Administration.

    When the Obama Administration came in, NK realized that it could jettison the agreement again, as they expected no real opposition from Obama. And they were right. Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” should have been called “strategic neglect.” NK made enormous progress in its nuclear weapons program during the Obama years, with essentially no interference from the Obama Administration other than support for completely ineffectual sanctions. During this time, NK completed its Uranium enrichment program and can now produce about 150 kg of highly enriched uranium, about 7 bombs per year besides the 1 per year from Yongbyon. It upgraded the Yongbyon facility and can produce tritium for fusion bombs. NK also made great progress in its short and medium range missile technology during the Obama years. It may be 5-10 years from a nuclear armed ICBM capable of hitting the US. The Obama Administration’s strategic patience policy was a disaster.

    But this is a bipartisan disaster. The best time to stop all this was in 1994, when the cost was lowest. The Agreed Framework in my view was the most serious blunder that put NK on the road to eventual nuclear power status. To be fair, as the NK threat grew, it was harder for the Bush Administration to do anything about it and even harder for Obama. It will be harder still for Trump.

  5. PeakTrader

    North Korea is testing the Trump Administration. I think, the next time there’s a potential missile launch, the U.S. should destroy the platform before the launch to see what North Korea will do.

    I doubt the regime will risk war, because it will be utterly destroyed. The leadership should know if it attacks South Korea, it will be executed or thrown in prison. 25 million North Koreans are already reduced to eating grass, frogs, and bugs. Sanctions won’t help them. They need to be freed.

    1. PeakTrader

      What is the end game of the path we’ve been on? North Korea pointing dozens of nuclear missiles at the U.S. and its allies, while it extracts concessions from the West to build-up its military and strengthen its horrible hold on its people. Exactly what the U.S. and its allies don’t want. It’s high time to make drastic changes to change course.

  6. Erik Poole

    Amusing. Thanks.

    I don’t want to de-partisanize the discussion but US credibility on nuclear weapons proliferation was already in tatters long before Trump took office.

    Canada, France, the UK and the USA have effectively gifted nuclear weapons to Pakistan, India and Israel during the second half of the Cold War.

    The USA appears to have adopted a ‘good guy versus bad guy’ policy on nuclear proliferation. Not much different from the tone and style of Team Trump.

    Israel’s nuclear arsenal is particularly disturbing as Israel uses its nuclear shield to protect itself while it slowly establishes “facts on the ground” ownership to resources taken at gun point in 1967. So much for the MAD doctrine or at least the way public interprets it.

    On the bright side of the equation, a limited, regional war will make obsolete the current anthropogenic climate change issue and replace it with another one — a nuclear autumn scenario where rich, educated folks might make out OK but poor, uneducated folks, particularly in poor, developing economies could suffer and die in the millions.

    1. Bruce Hall

      Your little aside … Israel’s nuclear arsenal is particularly disturbing as Israel uses its nuclear shield to protect itself while it slowly establishes “facts on the ground” ownership to resources taken at gun point in 1967. So much for the MAD doctrine or at least the way public interprets it… is an interesting example of historical bias. What, in your opinion, would have been the “facts on the ground” if Israel had lost the 1967 war?

      1. Erik Poole


        By lose the war, what exactly do you mean? Find itself invaded and occupied by foreign Arab armies?

        Or simply fight to a standstill and not take the Golan Heights, the West Bank and Jerusalem from Jordan?

        The Oslo Peace Accords would not have ended in abysmal failure. (Recall that Israel refused to stop the flow of settlers.) The USA would not have been attacked in 2001 by a former ally from the Afghanistan theatre.

        Fewer traditional, conservative left-wing groups around the world would have used Israel’s nation building process as Exhibit A of the kill-and-take philosophy of western capitalism.

        Fewer people would wonder if the US sponsorship of Israel would lead to some wondering if Israel would ultimately weaken US hegemony.

        Perhaps the USA would not have invaded and occupied Iraq. At the time, Saddam Hussein was providing cash compensation to the families of suicide bombers.

        Bruce: Do you think that Israel did the USA a favour by encouraging it to invade and occupy Iraq? Are you happy with the bill? i.e., the dead and maimed American soldiers, the billions of dollars in cost, the risk premium baked into the price of oil, etc.?

        The fundamental problem here is that educated liberal thinkers in the USA support the right to self determination/secure economic property rights with significant ethnic and sectarian exceptions. That is the philosophy that ideally should change.

  7. Ben

    How else would NK guarantee its own security and survival against attacks from US and US allies? Hasn’t any country learn anything from US attacks and invasions of Iraq, afghan, Syria,..coloured or seasonal revolutions around the world.?

    1. PeakTrader

      Saddam and his sons were removed, because it was believed they had weapons of mass destruction. We should’ve changed the regime of Syria for using chemical weapons, Afghanistan shouldn’t be a breeding ground for terrorists, including potential WMDs.

      1. Ben

        Any country threatened or attacked by US or others should have the right for self defence or to fight back.

        1. PeakTrader

          So, you don’t mind a barrage of nuclear missiles from North Korea, aggressive and constant saber-rattling, and there’s nothing you can do about it, except pay the extortion, out of fear, to strengthen the regime, the potential of selling a mobile nuclear missile to a rich terrorist, or to Iran, which is now a lot richer.

          1. Ben

            You ignored the facts that US military led Korean War that caused the deaths of millions, after the war, the subsequent constant military presence and threats, war games, sanctions,.. of US and its military in and around Korea. You also ignored how US strained to look for excuses to attack, invade and destroy sovereign states like Iraq not kow-towing to US. Iraq was destroyed using an excuse of non existent WMD.

            There is nothing to doubt here that NK will respond to anything that the US could throw at it. It is informative to note how many times the US needs to be ‘informed’ by NK or just continue to behave like an ostrich?

  8. Rick Stryker

    NK just tested another bomb that is significantly more powerful than the bomb tested last year. Here again I think the NY Times is not giving its readers the best information.

    The article says that the weapon just tested is thought by some experts to be a boosted fission device rather than a true fusion device. I am pretty confident that will turn out to be true but that doesn’t mean we should relax, dismissing the significance of the test as NK propaganda. The tritium I mentioned in my previous comment was likely used by NK to create fusion, which then enhances the power of the fission explosion. So, NK is not really wrong if they are saying that they have achieved fusion. Moreover, boosted fission is an essential step to increase the yield of fission bombs as well as to miniaturize them, which is needed if you want to put them on missiles.

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