Obama Administration Says Its Response to N. Korea’s Provocations Is Tougher Than Bush’s

By Patrick Goodenough | April 17, 2012 | 4:56 AM EDT

In this Sunday, April 15, 2012 file photo, a North Korean vehicle carrying a missile passes by during a mass military parade in Pyongyang to celebrate the centenary of the birth of late North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder, File)

(CNSNews.com) – The Obama administration said Monday that the U.N. Security Council’s response to North Korea’s abortive missile launch was stronger than its reaction to Pyongyang’s last such action three years ago, although it still opted for a non-binding “presidential statement” rather than a resolution.

The statement read out by U.S. ambassador Susan Rice – the U.S. holds the council’s rotating presidency this month – condemned Friday’s attempted rocket launch, which North Korea carried out in defiance of international appeals.

The council directed its “sanctions committee” – effectively itself, since the committee is composed of the council’s 15 members – to designate additional North Korean companies that will face an asset freeze, and name additional nuclear and ballistic missile technology that will be banned for transfer to and from North Korea.

It also threatened unspecified further “action” should the North Korea conduct another launch or nuclear test.

Rice called the council statement “stronger and more explicit” than one issued after North Korea fired a long-range rocket in April 2009. “It was also adopted with unprecedented speed.” (The statement came three-and-a-half days after the launch, compared to the eight days it took to produce a statement in 2009.)

The council’s response, however, is not a binding resolution.

Asked during a Monday briefing why the U.S. had chosen to go the way of a presidential statement rather than a resolution, Rice replied, “We thought this was the appropriate vehicle, given the circumstances, and it has been something that the council has been able to come together around swiftly and forcefully.”

Negotiating a resolution would have involved getting China and Russia onboard – or risking a veto from either or both.

In this election season – and facing accusations of “incompetence” from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney – the administration has characterized its approach to North Korea as tougher than that of its predecessor.

“What this administration has done is broken the cycle of rewarding provocative actions by the North Koreans that we’ve seen in the past,” Deputy National Security Adviser for Communications Ben Rhodes told reporters after Friday’s launch.

“Under the previous administration, for instance, there was a substantial amount of assistance provided to North Korea,” he said. “North Korea was removed from the terrorism list, even as they continued to engage in provocative actions. Under our administration we have not provided any assistance to North Korea.”

In February, the Obama administration did offer North Korea 240,000 metric tons of food aid, in exchange for a commitment not to carry out long-range missile launches or nuclear tests, to suspend uranium enrichment, and to admit U.N. weapons inspectors.

Just 16 days later Pyongyang announced its plan to shoot a satellite into orbit, effectively signaling its intention to violate that Feb. 29 agreement, since the process uses ballistic missile technology.

At first, administration officials insisted there was no link between the food aid and the North Korean pledges – even though they were announced on the same day, and even though North Korea’s statement on the agreement linked the two.

“Whenever I see these headlines that this is a food-for-nukes deal, I wince, because it’s really important to be clear that the United States doesn’t link the provision of humanitarian assistance – in this case nutritional assistance – to essentially political questions, this issue of, in this case, these nuclear pre-steps,” a senior administration official briefing reporters said on the day the deal was announced.

“This was not a food-for-nuke deal,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland added the following day. “I want – just wanted to dispel any sense that these things were linked from the U.S. perspective.”

In his comments on Friday, however, Rhodes seemed to back away from that stance, saying that the food offer came “as a part of” the agreement on the nuclear steps.

“When this new regime took power after the death of Kim Jong-il,” he said, “we had discussions with them about potentially an agreement where they would freeze their enrichment activities and take some other steps towards denuclearization, and that we as a part of that might provide food assistance.”

The food deal is now off, Rhodes said.

“We have not provided them with any assistance, and it’s impossible to see how we can move forward with the February agreement given the action that they’ve taken.”


The Bush administration removed North Korea from the list of terror-sponsoring states in 2008, after it pledged in a 2007 agreement to declare “all” of its nuclear programs and to “disable” three nuclear facilities in exchange for economic and diplomatic concessions.

Within months of the delisting, however, negotiations had stalled yet again, amid fresh disagreements over verification of the promised actions.

The decision to remove North Korea’s terror-sponsor designation came during the latter stage of the 2008 presidential campaign.

Then-Sen. Barack Obama at the time called the move “a modest step forward” and “an appropriate response, as long as there is a clear understanding that if North Korea fails to follow through there will be immediate consequences.”

Republican candidate Sen. John McCain voiced skepticism, saying he would not be able to support the move before the administration explains “exactly how this new verification agreement advances American interests and those of our allies.”

After North Korea’s 2009 long-range rocket launch and its nuclear test two months later, Republican lawmakers led calls for the regime to be returned to the terror-sponsor list.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at the time the administration would look into it, noting however that the reinstatement process requires evidence of recent support for international terrorism.

In December 2009, Thai authorities searched a plane in Bangkok and seized 35 tons of weapons which, according to the Israeli government, originated in North Korea and was headed to Hezbollah and Hamas. The U.S. government has designated both Arab groups as “foreign terrorist organizations” and any government proven to be aiding them would therefore be sponsoring terror.

The following March, North Korea was implicated in the sinking a South Korean navy ship, an act that killed 46 sailors.

The incident bought new appeals to relist North Korea. In a letter to Clinton, Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), who then chaired the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, cited the ship sinking as well as arms sales to Hezbollah and Hamas, as reasons to act.

In June 2010, the State Department said it had determined that the ship sinking was not an act of international terrorism and – in the words of then spokesman Philip Crowley – “by itself would not trigger placing North Korea on the state sponsor of terrorism list.”

In another incident cited in calls to redesignate Pyongyang, North Korean agents detained in South Korea in April 2010 admitted having been sent to assassinate the highest-ranking North Korean ever to have defected.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow