top of page

Old Obama hands on Korea policy could pose new problems for peace

By Tim Shorrock | December 16, 2020 | Originally published in Responsible Statecraft

Last week, Joe Biden nominated two veteran advisers, Antony Blinken and Avril Haines, to lead his foreign policy team as America’s chief diplomat and director of U.S. intelligence. Both will have their work cut out for them to meet the new president’s vow to repair relations with America’s allies and, as Biden has said, “lead the world and not retreat from it.”

But there is one part of the world where Blinken and Haines’ experience with multilateral solutions could prove to be problematic and even potentially destructive: the Korean Peninsula. Progressives have voiced considerable concern that Biden could repeat the mistakes of the previous Democratic administration, particularly its failed “strategic patience” policy towards North Korea.

In effect, the Obama national security team viewed the DPRK as an illegitimate, “rogue” state unworthy of being a negotiating partner. “Many of us believed that the most likely long-term solution to the North’s nuclear pursuits lay in the North’s collapse and absorption into a South-led reunified Korea,” Jeffrey Bader, a diplomat known as the “architect” of Obama’s Korea policies, wrote in his 2012 memoir.

Such views were also central to Biden’s nominees. “Too many hard-liners who do not have a proper and updated understanding of North Korea seem to be surrounding Biden,” a reliable source in South Korea who is close to President Moon Jae-in told me just after Biden’s election. He didn’t identify anyone by name, but could have been speaking about Blinken and Haines.

During Obama’s years in office, Blinken rose to the position of deputy secretary of state, while Haines moved from being the top legal adviser to the National Security Council to deputy director of the CIA. Together, they helped shape the administration’s attempt to stop North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, relying on a combination of military pressure, secret cyber-attacks, and sustained economic sanctions. At one point, Haines even visited Pyongyang as part of a “secret back channel” between the CIA and North Korean intelligence, the Wall Street Journal reported in 2019.

From a Korean perspective, however, there were two critical problems with their approach.

First, Blinken and Haines developed their policies in close consultation with the conservative South Korean governments of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, who are now disgraced and in prison for corruption. Lee, a former Hyundai executive, and Park, the daughter of the former dictator Park Chung Hee, had both opposed the pro-engagement “Sunshine Policies” followed by former Presidents Kim Dae Jung and Roh Tae Woo from 1997 to 2008.

They urged Obama — who developed an unusually close relationship with Lee — to take a harder line, and his team was happy to oblige. The shift could be seen in Obama’s rhetoric on Korea: In 2013, as the first U.S. president to attend the official armistice commemorations at the Korean War Memorial, he delivered a militaristic speech that revived an old right wing trope that the war, which ended in a bitter stalemate and left millions dead, was actually a “victory.”

But the new, get-tough approach backfired. While Lee and Park were in power, military tensions with the North spiked and inter-Korean relations reached their lowest ebb since the end of the Korean War. After Park was impeached, Moon, who had been chief of staff to President Roh, won the presidency. During his campaign, which I witnessed while living in Gwangju, he promised to reinvigorate the Sunshine policies of his predecessors and rejected the confrontational stance of Presidents Lee and Park — and by extension, their American counterparts.

Second, as part of their collaboration with Lee and Park, Blinken and Haines were instrumental in Obama’s initiative to create a de facto trilateral military alliance between the United States, South Korea, and Japan, Korea’s colonizer from 1910 and 1945. This occurred as Obama and his advisers sought to shift U.S. policy from the Middle East to the Pacific as part of their purported “Asia Pivot.” Blinken was key to this effort.

According to Frank Jannuzi, who was an East Asia specialist for Biden when he chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Blinken “helped lead a trilateral coordination mechanism on DPRK policy, consulting closely with Japan and the ROK.” Januzzi, now the president of the Mansfield Center in Washington, said in an interview with the Japan Times that Blinken’s initiative placed “a high priority on avoiding gaps” in the three-way relationship with Tokyo and Seoul.

It was successful, but only in the short term. In 2015, after direct intervention by Obama and Blinken, Park and Shinzo Abe, then Japan’s Prime Minister, signed an agreement that temporarily ended an acrimonious dispute over the Korean “comfort women” that the Japanese military had abducted to serve as sex slaves during World War II. As the Washington Post reported, the pact cleared the way for a “closer alliance” between Seoul and Tokyo that would limit China’s growing influence and “help keep North Korean aggression in check.”

To Blinken, the agreement was a big win for America. “This wasn’t just a question of wanting our two friends to get along; it mattered strategically,” he told the Post. But in Korea, the agreement was widely condemned, largely because the victims themselves — the courageous women who had come forward to tell their stories about Japan’s crimes — weren’t even consulted. Not long into his presidency, Moon repudiated the pact as a “political agreement that excludes victims and the public” and demanded new negotiations with Abe. Obama’s (and Blinken’s) hopes for a trilateral alliance were a failure, and South Korea’s rupture with Japan widened even more during the Trump administration.

Finally, there’s another, more sinister element to Obama’s “strategic patience” that’s also been rejected by the present government in Seoul: regime change.

It’s often forgotten that, under Obama, joint military planning to bring about the end of the Kim government in Pyongyang in case of a war was a key part of U.S. policy. Haines made this abundantly clear in 2017, when she was the keynote speaker at a Brookings conference on U.S. strategy on North Korea. In her speech, Haines argued that the U.S. pressure campaign of “robust” sanctions against the North to prevent it from becoming a “nuclear weapons state” must be accompanied by “intensive contingency planning” in preparation for a “collapse” of the Kim regime. Such planning, she emphasized, “must be done not only with the Republic of Korea, but also with China, and of course Japan.” The U.S. partners, she added, “should have a clear expectation in the event the situation deteriorates of what each country’s military will do in order to avoid miscalculations and unintended escalation.”

Contingency planning, of course, is what militaries do, and remains a central focus of the U.S.- South Korean Combined Forces Command. In 2015, U.S. and Korean generals signed off on “OPLAN 5015” that, in case of a North Korean attack, called for strikes on the North’s “core military facilities” as well the removal of its top leaders; it updated the previous “OPLAN 5027” that had been in place since the 1970s (in his recent book “Rage,” the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward reported that, in 2017, the Pentagon “carefully reviewed and studied OPLAN 5027 for regime change in North Korea,” adding ominously that the U.S. response could have included “the use of 80 nuclear weapons.”)

Haines’ proposal at the Brookings conference, however, seemed to go much further than these bilateral plans. The fact that a U.S. intelligence officer would think Japan — with its sordid history in Korea as a colonial power — had any military role on the peninsula at all is astounding. Beyond that, the contingency plans drawn up under Obama were both risky and rash; in 2016, U.S. and South Korean forces carried out military exercises that included “decapitation raids” by special forces targeting Kim and other leaders, sparking an angry reaction from the North.

It seems likely that these actions contributed to Kim Jong Un’s fears of a Libya-style regime change operation in North Korea and solidified his determination to complete his deterrent “nuclear force” in 2017. Moreover, President Moon explicitly rejected the regime change strategy when he made his historic outreach to Kim Jong Un in 2018 and publicly warned the United States not to launch a unilateral strike on the North.

We’ll have to wait for the Biden administration confirmation hearings to see if Blinken and Haines have changed their views. But in one of his last interviews before Biden’s election, Blinken seemed to suggest a return to the Japan-focused multilateralism of the Obama years. “We have to work closely with allies like South Korea and Japan and press China to build genuine economic pressure to squeeze North Korea to get it to the negotiating table,” he told Mike Morell, the former CIA Deputy Director, on CBS News (ironically, Morell could soon be working for Biden as well). “We need to cut off its various avenues and access to resources – something we were doing very vigorously at the end of the Obama-Biden administration.”

That may sound both tough and multilateral, but it’s exactly what President Moon and South Korean progressives hope to avoid. Americans hoping for a constructive relationship with South Korea and a peaceful resolution to the nuclear crisis with North Korea should be concerned, too — and hoping that Blinken and Haines have learned from their mistakes. South Korea is an independent, sovereign country that has seen too much violence, and deserves our support and respect as it tries to make the peace after 75 years of war.

Tim Shorrock is a Washington, DC–based journalist and the author of Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing and a Korea Policy Institute Associate.


bottom of page