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Why Donald Trump was right about Barack Obama’s North Korea policy

Donald Trump's recent description of the Obama administration's handling of North Korea as a failure is correct. The problem, experts argue, is that the current US president has offered no better alternatives.

When President-elect Donald Trump met President Barack Obama in the White House shortly before the former's swearing-in, Obama reportedly told him that North Korea would be one of the most pressing issues he would face.

It turned out that Obama was right. Seven months into the Trump presidency, an aggressive North Korea is openly threatening to attack the United States and has thus catapulted itself near the top of the new administration's list of most vexing foreign policy headaches.  

That it came to this has much to do - as Trump said - with the Obama administration's unsuccessful policy towards North Korea - generally described as "strategic patience." Obama officially gave his foreign policy approach that label in a national security paper in 2015, stating that "the challenges we face require strategic patience and persistence."

While the concept of strategic patience did not pertain to North Korea alone, but to Obama's approach to foreign policy more generally, the administration's stance toward Pyongyang certainly fit under the rubric.

Failed approach

Having ruled out military options early on, the Obama administration over the course of eight years patiently tried various paths towards pushing North Korea to slow down or halt its missile and nuclear arms development programs. Among them were increased diplomatic and economic pressure, dialogue and "naming and shaming" the regime through an UN report that highlighted its grave human rights violations.

North Korean Hwasong-14 (Getty Images/AFP/KCNA)

Obama's efforts to halt North Korea's nuclear arms development ultimately fell short

None of it worked.

"The Obama administration's approach to North Korea was a failure," said Kelsey Davenport, the director for non-proliferation policy at the Arms Control Association. "If anything it gave North Korea time to continue to advance its nuclear missile programs."

"By pretty much any measure, strategic patience was a failure," concurred Celeste Arrington, a Korea scholar at George Washington University.

The administration's effort at dialogue with North Korea, explained Davenport, failed because Washington demanded that Pyongyang take steps toward denuclearization before the Obama administration would be even willing to sit down for talks with the regime.

Cart before horse

"That approach was really putting the cart before the horse," she said. "It required North Korea to commit to the end state of negotiations and take steps toward that without the US committing to anything. The preconditions for negotiations were onerous and excessive."

As for its efforts of ratcheting up the pressure on North Korea, the Obama administration would typically respond with increased sanctions, either unilaterally or via the UN, to Pyongyang's provocations. But here too, noted Davenport, the policy was carried out haphazardly. 

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"These measures have been poorly enforced," she said. The administration did not spend enough time on the proper implementation of the sanctions and failed to pair its punitive measures with realistic proposals for engagement with North Korea. As a consequence, said Davenport, there was no "off-ramp" for Pyongyang to take action to ease the sanctions pressure.

Low priority

More generally, the Obama administration's approach to North Korea suffered from a lack of commitment to the issue as well as from a misunderstanding of Pyongyang's intentions.

"Just waiting for North Korea to respond is a reactive and passive stance," said Arrington. "Maybe the Obama administration could have pushed more forcefully for dialogue or try to get back to the 2005 and 2006 six party talks."

Instead, Washington missed and misconstrued several signals from North Korea about the country's willingness to talk, said Davenport, citing Pyongyang's offer in 2014 and 2015 to freeze ballistic and nuclear missile tests, in return for a freeze on US-South Korean military exercises. While the Obama administration could not accept a quid pro quo that would completely halt US-South Korean exercises, Davenport faults the US for not following up on the offer and trying to test the waters to see whether dialogue was possible.

South Korea-US war games (picture-alliance/dpa/Kyodo)

Pyongyyang wanted Washington to templorarily halt joint US-South Korea military exercises

"When North Korea opened the door for talks the US quickly shut it again," she said. Instead, added Davenport, like with the nuclear agreement with Iran, the Obama administration should have made a concerted effort to develop a diplomatic proposal of their own with less onerous preconditions and pursued that path with the same intensity with which it worked towards the deal with Tehran.

Is 'strategic patience' still alive?

As a result of the failed policy, North Korea - throughout the course of the Obama administration - restarted the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons, began a more ambitious missile testing program and made strides in its ballistic missile development. "The Obama administration's approach gave North Korea time to continue to advance its program," said Davenport.

"Trump is right that strategic patience failed," she noted. But the problem is, added Davenport, that beyond criticizing his predecessor, the current president has not done anything to improve the situation and offer a better alternative.

"If anything, the Trump administration has repackaged strategic patience under a different title - 'maximum pressure and engagement' - and paired that with irresponsible threats of military force," said Davenport. "Their approach is not any better and if anything is more dangerous."

"When you get down into it, I don't see a real measurable difference in terms of policy," said Arrington. "Maybe there is more rhetoric and tweeting and unclear signalling and mixed messages going on, but ultimately it looks a lot like what we were seeing from the Obama administration. Maybe strategic patience is still alive."

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