Even the brightest policy minds – minds animated by the best of intentions – make mistakes.
The past decade has been particularly unkind to the idea of bringing change to dictatorships by engaging with them, or through their engagement with one another
Perhaps the hardest change for those who idealized “engagement” – left-of-center policy wonks, libertarian opponents of wars and the national security state, academics who saw enemies of the United States as having some genuine historical grievances – has been what the past decade showed us about North Korea and China.
In the early years of the Barack Obama administration, it was very easy to assume most of our problems regarding North Korea stemmed from actions taken by predecessor President George W Bush.
Bush was perhaps a sincere president, if ultimately unprepared for the job. Certainly he was unprepared to carry out the unattainable foreign policy agenda he had set for himself.
North Korea called Bush’s bluff early on, placing its bets on a nuclear weapons program and daring the outside world to stop it. As Bush’s world-changing ambitions stumbled in the Middle East, one could readily pronounce his “Axis of Evil” rhetoric a similar failure in Korea – undoing the “Agreed Framework” that had ended the first Korean nuclear crisis of 1994.
But it was not only North Korea. China – an experiment in US engagement since Richard Nixon met Mao Zedong in 1972 – also loomed as a challenge to the United States as the 2010s dawned.
At the time, Beijing looked like living proof that dictators could be pragmatists, using their iron hands to mold modern economies. There was a risk, we knew, that one day China might surpass the US as an economic and military power through sheer effort, especially if the US kept squandering resources between the Tigris and the Euphrates.
But we held out hope that getting richer would make China more liberal, more like us.
And in 2010, it was not uncommon to hope that America’s articulate, cosmopolitan, citizen-of-the-world president could work with China to convince North Korea to take the same Dengist development path that had made Beijing richer.
It made perfectly logical sense. If the North Koreans were smart enough to follow the Chinese path, they’d be better off in the long run. Divisions between the two Koreas would gradually fall away, and America would have one less problem abroad.
That accomplished, the US could then focus on winning the economic struggle with our rivals – but not enemies – in the CCP.
We should have known better. The evidence, after all, was already there.
Britain did not return Hong Kong to Chinese authority in 1997 because the Chinese asked nicely or because the occupants of 10 Downing Street were wracked with colonial guilt.
Rather, the “pragmatic” Deng Xiaoping rejected any outcome other than a return of Hong Kong to PRC control and told Margaret Thatcher in 1982 that an invasion of the territory was a genuine possibility if Britain did not return it.
Seven years later, Deng authorized the Tiananmen Square crackdown. And in the years that followed, the government in Beijing foreshadowed its policy toward the Xinjiang region with its ruthless suppression of Tibet.
For these misdeeds, China was punished with World Trade Organization membership.
As for North Korea, Bush’s “Axis of Evil” declaration may have been foolhardy bravado and his Iraq invasion a tragic misstep, but even if he had done neither it is difficult to imagine us arriving at a fundamentally different state of play on the peninsula.
The Agreed Framework, under which interested countries provided North Korea with light-water reactors, while North Korea abandoned weaponizable nuclear facilities, may have prevented war in 1994. However, later revelations suggested North Korea was actively and secretly pursuing nuclear technology, despite the agreement.
Likewise, the North Korea of the ’00s may have been savvy enough to recognize that it stood to gain from South Korean governments eager to provide unconditional aid, but the “Sunshine Policy” of Seoul administrations in that decade did not impart a fundamental change in the North’s behavior.
How could it have?
The policy’s intentions – a friendly posture leading to more exchanges and, ultimately, the disappearance of differences between the two governments culminating in a united democratic Korea – were telegraphed.
The leaders in Pyongyang were happy to take food aid and cash generated from inter-Korean projects, tourism at Mount Geumgang and industry at Kaesong, but they were not going to be charmed into surrendering their power as East Germany had done.
North Korea, therefore, is still hostile, not because George W Bush was a warmonger, not because Barack Obama lacked the courage to negotiate with Pyongyang directly and not because the conservative South Korean administrations of the 2010s were US toadies.
North Korea has reached multiple agreements with both the US and South Korea over the past 30 years. These ranged from the Inter-Korean Basic Agreement of 1991 to the Leap Day Deal of 2012 to the 2018 deal that created the liaison office at Kaesong.
Pyongyang has violated every one of them.
Explanations vary, but the one thing clear thinkers surely should agree on at this stage is that North Korea does not consider good ties with the US and South Korea an overarching priority.
Meanwhile, rather than becoming more liberal or democratic, China is now more authoritarian and openly hostile than ever, not only to the US, but also to Australia, India, South China Sea-bordering Southeast Asian nations and Hong Kongers who have the nerve to insist on the autonomy they were promised in 1997.
Not all of this can be blamed on Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Xi certainly has towering ambitions for his country and, since coming to power in 2012, has seemed determined to assert China’s status even when it means provoking conflict with former partners.
However, at least some hostility has happened independently of him. Analysts have suggested that China’s confrontational “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy is actually rooted in their country’s surpassing of Japan as the world’s No 2 economy, in 2010, ironically enough.
Furthermore, a recent comment by a hardline former PLA general – saying now is not the time to invade Taiwan – suggests that nationalist hawkishness is blooming more broadly across the land. The Communist Party may, in fact, be struggling to contain it.
It certainly isn’t easy admitting one was wrong – but I was.
I was among those, ten years ago, who believed the North Koreans could change if we gave them a way out. Moreover, if the US worked closely with Beijing, some of us thought, we could together offer the North that path, via a Deng-like development model.
But now we can see that engaging North Korea did not make it more cooperative. And treating China like a partner did not make it one, long-term.
But at least now, as Chinese set off border clashes with India, carries out cyberattacks on Australia and moves to silence critics in Hong Kong, with a recalcitrant North Korea cheering them on, it’s clear that one thing we hoped for in 2010 did come to pass.
North Korea is like China after all.
Rob York, program director for regional affairs at the Pacific Forum, is also a PhD candidate in Korean history at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Prior to joining the Forum, he was a production editor at the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and a chief editor at NK News in Seoul.