With the U.S. Democratic National Convention taking place this week, Tim Beal examines what U.S. policy vis a vis Korea may look like in the first year of the next administration. The following is an expanded version of his previous article published in NK News and is part 2 of a 2-part series.  

A look ahead at US Korea policy after the election

By Tim Beal – for part 1 of this article, click here.

Wendy Sherman, Former Deputy Secretary of State

Wendy Sherman: Secretary of State in Waiting?

It seems certain that Wendy Sherman will play an important role in Clinton’s foreign policy team, especially in respect to Korea, and may even become Secretary of State. That makes her speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington on May 3, 2016 something worth careful scrutiny. Scrutiny is the appropriate word. It must be assumed that officials (past and future) in a public forum seldom wholly mean what they say or say what they mean. Speeches need to be decoded and interpreted. In addition, what is left out can be highly significant.

On the face of it, Wendy Sherman is the consummate global official. According to CSIS, as her last official role as Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, she oversaw the bureaus for Africa, East Asia and the Pacific, Europe and Eurasia, the Near East, South and Central Asia, the Western Hemisphere, and International Organizations. It is difficult to think what is left – Antarctica perhaps?  She has also flipped between government service in the State Department, where power is exercised and contacts made, and the private sector, where presumably money is made. In this case the private sector being the Albright Stonebridge Group. The Albright being Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State and Sherman’s former boss.  Sherman has had an unusual career trajectory. ‘… Wendy Sherman’s resume is diverse even by D.C. standards. Trained in social work, devoted early in life to helping battered women and the urban poor, the 50-year-old Baltimore native finds herself talking with North Korean Communists…’enthused the Baltimore Sun in 1999. The connection between the two was Democratic Party politics, where she had long been an activist and through this her relationship with Madeleine Albright whose protégé and confidante she became.

She enters this story from two directions. One is the Korean. She worked under Albright on Korea policy back in the 1990s. Most recently she led the US negotiations with Iran, signed in Vienna on July 14, 2015. Her speech at CSIS brought these two together. She starts off by discussing what she sees as the similarities and differences in the negotiations with Iran and North Korea before devoting the final part of her speech to the latter, presumably having in mind her possible involvement under the next administration. She highlights the differences – ‘each situation is sui generis, and the two countries are different in many important ways’ – foreshadowing her implied conclusion that the US will resort to force in Korea.

Iran and North Korea

She highlights the role of sanctions. In the case of Iran she argues:

While it has been subjected to severe U.S. and international sanctions for many years, Iran still had a basically functional economy, maintained significant external trade and investment ties, people-to-people links, and diplomatic relationships with many countries. Iran’s huge oil reserves gave the country a major incentive to seek sanctions relief.

She contrasts this with North Korea:

The isolation and economic dysfunction of North Korea also mean that choosing a path of denuclearization in exchange for greater engagement with the global economy is less desirable to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, as compared with Iran’s leadership.

Interestingly, Sherman’s analysis is in direct contrast with that of the Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz in May 2003, just after the invasion of Iraq. North Korea does have not oil, but Iraq and Iran do.

Look, the primarily (sic)  difference — to put it a little too simply — between North Korea and Iraq is that we had virtually no economic options with Iraq because the country floats on a sea of oil.  In the case of North Korea, the country is teetering on the edge of economic collapse and that I believe is a major point of leverage whereas the military picture with North Korea is very different from that with Iraq.

Sherman correctly identifies a key aspect of Iran that made it more vulnerable to economic pressures:

Iran still had a significant middle class [which] has become a source of pressure on the regime to improve an economy devastated by sanctions and mismanagement.

Iran was certainly more susceptible to sanctions, and oil offered an illusion of relief which may be fading as the Iran deal unravels.

However the main difference between the two situations is that there is only one Iran, but there are two Koreas.  If the US were to invade Iran it would have to construct a new indigenous administration – nation building or puppet government, take your pick – and that is no easy task as America’s recent track record in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya demonstrates. In Korea, Seoul claims sovereignty over the whole peninsula, has massive military capability, and President Park gives every indication that she would be happy to assume the mantle if the US gives the go-ahead.  North Korea thus faces a much greater danger, an existential one, than Iran.

Iran did not have a current nuclear weapons programme while North Korea has an existing, albeit incipient, nuclear deterrent. It is one thing to forego what you do not have and quite another to give something up.  From the American point of view Iran is a substantial market and the releasing of its oil exports would further drive down oil prices to the detriment of Russia, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia, the relationship with which is rapidly souring.

For these and other factors, US-North Korea negotiations are much more difficult.

Implementation of OPLAN 5029 would not be the end of the matter but rather the first stage in an unfolding catastrophe. The North would retaliate, and that would trigger – and provide an excuse for – the long planned US/SK invasion with awesome consequences for the peninsula and beyond.

OPLAN 5029 and the Collapse Myth

What then, might a Hillary Clinton administration do?  It is noticeable that Sherman makes no reference to what North Korea presumably wants – security and the lifting of the military threat, removal of physical and financial sanctions allowing trade and investment. Carrots in the familiar dichotomy. Instead she focuses on resolution by force arising from a putative collapse or coup:

But, it is becoming increasingly clear that the status quo likely is not sustainable, and unexpected changes — including sudden regime collapse or a coup — cannot be ruled out.

For Song Jiwon writing in NK News this meant that she

…spoke in favor of implementing Operation Plan 5029, which … provides concrete actions to take in case of a North Korean emergency, including mass defections, a coup, regime change, a hostage situation and so on.

Implementation of OPLAN 5029 would not be the end of the matter but rather the first stage in an unfolding catastrophe. The North would retaliate, and that would trigger – and provide an excuse for – the long planned US/SK invasion with awesome consequences for the peninsula and beyond.

‘Collapsism’ has been around for over a quarter century and it is striking that while officials and politicians invoke it – Sherman, Obama, Park Geun-hye – credible observers do not. Even Aidan Foster-Carter, who was predicting imminent collapse frequently from 1989 to 2009 and would clearly very much like the DPRK to disappear (gradually), has called it a ‘dodgy, discredited bandwagon.’

What does this indicate?  Does Sherman et al really believe collapse is imminent, or is it more a matter of wanting us to believe it? Is the collapse/coup scenario promulgated as a pretext for military action, somewhat like the WMD in Iraq in 2003 and the concerns about the ‘humanitarian crisis’ in Libya in 2011? The claimed fear of genocide in Libya was bogus and the concerns were fraudulent.

Sherman notes that ‘China has thus far been unwilling to contemplate’ collapse or coup, which really means that, despite so much wishful thinking, China has rejected invitations to participate in planning for a US/ROK takeover of the DPRK. Strange that.  Of course, if the US does invade North Korea, China may make pragmatic accommodations to a fait accompli to lessen the damage. Or it may intervene as in 1950.

Wendy Sherman provides a list of ‘very tough issues’ that would need to be addressed following the invasion, a word which she avoids but which is implied:

  • In the event of a regime collapse, what near term actions would US, ROK, and Chinese forces take?
  • How could conflict on the peninsula between those forces be avoided?
  • What steps would be taken and by whom to secure North Korea’s nuclear weapons facilities and materials?
  • What measures would be taken to manage migrant and refugee issues?
  • What assurances could be provided about the treaties that China has concluded with North Korea, including with regard to the border?
  • Would American troops stay on the peninsula after the immediate crisis ended and if so, in what numbers?
  • How would the Korean peninsula be governed – would there be immediate reunification or a period of confederation or some other arrangement?
  • What would replace the armistice if needed?
  • Who would cover the economic costs of reconstruction?


Overlooking the Consequences

What is missing from this list is the little question of North Korean retaliation, counter-attack and resistance.  This brings up a conundrum reminiscent of the medieval problem of evil (How can evil exist if God is omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent?).  If Sherman really believes in the ‘collapse scenario’ then she has not got the capability for high office; if she is thinking of collapse as a pretext for intervention then she needs to address the consequences.

The United States does have the habit – unfortunate for its victims but also for itself – of attacking countries without working out the possible consequences. It is not alone in that – the German army invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 with no provision for winter uniforms because they would be home by the autumn. For the US, Iraq 2003 is the classic but not the only example.

The reported assessment of a British general who was in Washington liaising at the time is significant:

The invasion was seen as a decapitation exercise. It was assumed the Iraqi state – under the control of returning exiles – would continue to function and would assume responsibility for running the country the day after the invasion was completed.

The failure to plan for the aftermath was one of the criticisms of the Chilcot Inquiry in Britain, released on July 6, 2016.

It will be recalled that ‘decapitation’ has been a prominent feature of recent joint US/ROK military exercises. There are important differences, of course. Instead of a rag-bag of self-interested Iraqi exiles with little standing at home, the US has South Korea, whose government has put a lot of thought and bureaucratic resource in building a capacity to administer the North after ‘unification’ and which has the largest reservoir of military manpower in the world, about 5.1 million. Nevertheless it seems unlikely that a conquest and pacification of North Korea would be the cakewalk that Iraq was anticipated to be (but wasn’t).

A few years back Bennett and Lind calculated that:

Assuming that collapse occurs in a relatively benign manner, military missions to stabilize North Korea could require 260,000 to 400,000 troops.

The ‘benign’ supposition was predicated on the assumption

…that North Korean leaders are fleeing the country or hiding, rather than preparing for a fight; and that North Korea’s military does not offer significant resistance against stability forces.

Don’t think that a bookmaker would give good odds on that.  If a decision is taken to invade North Korea it would be prudent to budget for a much larger ‘stability force’ and to stock up on winter uniforms.

And invasion is, has to be, not merely devastation as with Libya and Syria. Firstly, North Korea would retaliate against any attack such as a precision strike on nuclear facilities, let alone a decapitation exercise. That would not mean a nuclear attack on the US mainland (yet), but there are plenty of American troops and civilians within range. Once started, the job would have to be finished. Secondly, South Korea could scarcely be restrained from seizing the opportunity to take over the North. Tying these together is the US wartime control of the ROK military.

Libya: Hillary’s War

Hillary Clinton voted for the invasion of Iraq but doesn’t bear responsibility beyond that. Libya is different. The attack on Libya was ‘Hillary Clinton’s ‘WMD’ moment.’  It is generally acknowledged that Obama was reluctant on this and other issues and that the Libyan adventure was very much ‘Hillary’s War.’  Obama has indeed expressed some regret; he is reported to have said ‘his biggest mistake was “probably failing to plan for the day after what I think was the right thing to do in intervening in Libya.”’ He does not regret the murder of Libya but that steps were not taken to remove the corpse before it started smelling. But in fact the consequences followed on inevitably from the mode of the removal of the Gadhafi government by enfranchising tribal discontents and jihadist resurgence.

If the US does decide to negotiate seriously with the DPRK, the Libya example would make it very difficult, but with the Secretary of State who reneged on the agreement as President, it will be well nigh impossible. If most Americans don’t trust Hillary Clinton it would be no surprise if that were mirrored in Pyongyang.

Impact of US-NK Negotiations

The attack on Libya is hugely important on two counts. Firstly it has special significance in the history of US negotiations with small, adversarial states, not least with North Korea. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came to an agreement with President Gaddafi that if Libya abandoned its WMD defences then the US would respect its sovereignty – ‘removing the threat of regime change’.  Libya became an ally of the US in its ‘war on terror’ and was praised for its human rights record. North Korea was told ‘follow Libya’. All this was forgotten under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. If the US does decide to negotiate seriously with the DPRK, the Libya example would make it very difficult, but with the Secretary of State who reneged on the agreement as President, it will be well nigh impossible.  If most Americans don’t trust Hillary Clinton it would be no surprise if that were mirrored in Pyongyang. There is little doubt, as the Chosun Ilbo put it, that ‘Libya Intervention Makes It Harder to Denuclearize N.Korea.’

What Libya tells us about Hillary Clinton

Secondly, Libya is an example of Hillary Clinton in action and perhaps a foretaste of things to come should she be in power again.  The ’regime change’ masked as ’humanitarian intervention’ in Libya was the key example of Hillary Clinton’s’ adventurism as Secretary of State. It is widely seen, even in the mainstream US media, to have had calamitous consequences.

Alan J. Kuperman, a mainstream scholar who has done much to document the disinformation behind the ‘humanitarian intervention’ also demonstrates the limitations of such scholarship in an article in Foreign Policy entitled ‘Obama’s Libya Debacle: How a Well-Meaning Intervention Ended in Failure’. Obama was president and so, in that sense, the buck stops with him. But it was Hillary Clinton who was the prime mover, and since he is the past while she may be the future that is important. However it is the juxtaposition of ‘well-meaning intervention’ and ‘failure’ which requires scrutiny.  It is a familiar, and presumably comforting, trope that all America’s wars (and coups, sanctions, etc.) are well-meaning and this is seen as justification for the destruction caused. Benign intent can be set aside for the purposes of analysis. For one thing it is not plausible given the long history of violent actions against other states with the resultant death and destruction; William Blum for one has compiled useful lists. By its nature intent cannot be proved. We cannot see into other people’s minds and we have great difficulty even looking into our own. Self-delusion seems to be very common, especially amongst politicians. Benign intent could conceivably be disproved on an individual basis by something like a deathbed confession, but that doesn’t appear to have happened yet.

If ‘well-meaning’ has no meaning, what about ‘failure’? If the intention was humanitarian then the result was failure. But if the real objectives were something else then failure is not self-evident. These possible objectives are of course hidden but are susceptible to deduction.

Why the attack on Libya?

It is still unclear why Hillary Clinton was so keen to ally with jihadists to topple the Libyan government of Gaddafi. Why the terrorists who had been portrayed as the prime target of US foreign policy after 9/11 were ‘Recast in Role of Ally?’

There have been a number of interrelated explanations put forward.   Was it because of oil and China? One only has to read the strategic briefings in U.S. AFRICOM documents to realise the true endgame in Libya: ‘the control of valuable resources and the eviction of China from North Africa.’ If so that appears to have been successful.  China’s $20 billion investment in Libya is lost, and despite some wishful thinking it is not likely that the foreseeable future offers many prospects. China ‘temporarily’ closed its embassy in Libya in May 2016 ‘amid the worsening conflict in the country’ but when it will actually reopen is uncertain. China’s response to the Libyan situation was similar to its policy in Korea.  It appeased the US, acquiescing to American moves in the UNSC and hastening to make up to the post-Gaddafi  ‘government’ the  National Transition Council (NTC).

Was Russia a subsidiary target?  If so, that also seems to have been successful, although one very important result has been a stiffening of Russian resolve over Syria.

A more intriguing hypothesis revolves around Gaddafi’s plans to move away from the petrodollar (as Saddam Hussein did) and go further and build an autonomous financial system based on the gold dinar, which might offer Africa an escape from Western financial dominance. If putting an end to that was the objective it clearly worked.

The Fantasy of ‘Smart Power’

What is Hillary Clinton’s assessment of the Libya intervention?  This is very important because if she considers it a failure then she will be reluctant to replicate it elsewhere, and in Korea. If she considers it broadly a success then she will be inspired to do it again. Is the ‘Libya model’ the new template for extending US power?  The New York Times thought it might well be just that: ‘U.S. Tactics in Libya May Be a Model for Other Efforts.

But this is not necessarily how Clinton sees it.

She saw it as an exercise in ‘smart power’:

This is exactly the kind of world that I want to see where it’s not just the United States and everybody is standing on the sidelines while we bear the cost, while we bear the sacrifice.

She was right in saying that the US did not ‘bear the sacrifice’. There were no American casualties during the military action and only the Benghazi four afterwards – the four US diplomats/CIA killed in circumstances not fully explained but involving the supply of arms to jihadists for onward transmission to Syria. The Libyans did – one estimate was up to 25,000 in the bombing alone, but there is no definitive figure – but since the victims don’t count they are not counted. The human, physical and political devastation of Libya was immense and the repercussions were felt through North Africa, in Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia and Mali. And on to Syria.  The impetus given to jihadists in Africa may have been unintended, though AFRICOM may have seen a silver lining in that it gave justification for deepening American military presence in Africa.  The burden of the flood of refugees, from Africa through Libya, and from Syria, is born by the refugees themselves, neighbouring countries such as Turkey and Jordan, and the EU – not by the US which has taken very few.

No US sacrifice, and in particular no US casualties, is but one part of this ‘smart strategy,’ and it hinges on others providing the boots on the ground. Ideally this is supplemented by massive airpower to degrade the armed forces of the target state and make them vulnerable to ground attack. The problem is that these others have different – and often incompatible – objectives to the US. Whilst the US may talk about bringing about ‘a Dictator’s Fall’ the real objective is to remove an independent state which seeks to put its own interests before that of the US. But for the others – the proxy forces, direct and indirect, which the US utilises – the reasons and objectives are diverse and seldom aligned with America’s. Then there are the countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, funders and facilitators of the proxies but which have their own agendas.  In countries with tribal antagonisms, such as Libya, the enemy may be the state itself. In other places, such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, where sectarian and ethnic divisions are utilised the enemy is the secular, multi-ethnic state – often a product of previous European colonialism by example or direct intervention. None of this is likely to lead to a new coherent functioning state, especially a democratic one. The situation is further complicated by the fact that in the Islamic world those most likely to be willing to bear the sacrifice to destroy the nationalist secular state are jihadists of various persuasions. What they have in common is their hatred for their local enemies, which is matched only by their hatred of the United States. Smart power? More a case of lighting the blue touch paper, retiring to a safe distance and watching the fireworks.

The US has for a long time been hoping that Chinese economic pressure on North Korea would cause it to collapse. If those hopes are seen to be dashed then it is possible that the military option, however foolish and catastrophic it may in reality be, might be seen as the only solution.

President of South Korea, Park Geun-hye (left); Hillary Clinton (right)

Hillary Clinton, Park Geun-hye and the year 2017

What does all this signal about Hillary Clinton’s Korea policy?

As described above, the Korean situation is very different from the Middle East and the Maghreb. Devastation of states through airstrikes and proxies to punish them for independent policies and to deprive peer-competitors such as China and Russia of investment opportunities is not a sufficient, self-contained policy. North Korea can retaliate. South Korea will be impelled to attempt the takeover of the North and this will surely be resisted. The US will not be able to watch from a safe distance since, by treaty, the US is in charge of the ROK military. This in turn means that a Chinese intervention in some form is extremely likely.

Obama has used the collapse myth as an excuse for inaction- the policy of strategic patience. Might Hillary Clinton use that myth as a pretext for military action? Rationally we might say no. Military outcomes are not affected by the degree to which a humanitarian situation is inflated or misrepresented, but collapse is another thing. Many a war has been started on false expectations of swift and easy victory.

The possibility of US military action in Korea must be set against the canvas of the geopolitical situation at the end of the Obama era and the prevailing climate of US global strategy. Just as Park Geun-hye came into office having proclaimed a less abrasive policy towards North Korea than her predecessor – the so-called Trustpolitik – and yet has brought inter-Korean relations to their lowest level in decades, so to with Obama. In assessing Barack Obama’s ‘foreign policy legacy’ Patrick L Smith notes:

Barack Obama, the peacenik president, turns out to be highly proficient at cultivating enemies.

The most important of those enemies are, of course, Russia and China. Smith is by no means alone in pointing out:

The Warsaw summit [of NATO 8-9 July 2016] confirms Russia as implacable enemy No. 1, while Defense Secretary Carter’s recent campaign to up the military ante in the western Pacific casts China as a close No. 2.

Besides their global importance, both China and Russia abut the Korean peninsula and are inextricably affected by US Korea policy and interact with it. For instance the stationing of a THAAD missile defense battery in South Korea, widely seen, not least in Beijing and Moscow, as really aimed at China and Russia, is reportedly causing China to rethink its own Korea policy, to great concern in Seoul, and presumably relief in Pyongyang. American moves in the South China Sea, in Syria or on the Russian border will bring Russia and China closer together and force them to re-assess their Korea policy, which for some time has been based on conciliating, even appeasing, the US. This is evidenced by their actions in the United Nations Security Council, accepting US resolutions condemning North Korea whilst attempting to tone them down. As general relations with Washington deteriorate then we can expect to see a less conciliatory approach in respect to Korea. The US has for a long time been hoping that Chinese economic pressure on North Korea would cause it to collapse. If those hopes are seen to be dashed then it is possible that the military option, however foolish and catastrophic it may in reality be, might be seen as the only solution.

As Secretary of State for four years in the Obama administration, Hillary Clinton bears much, but of course not all, of the responsibility for Obama’s foreign policy legacy. We have examined her role in Libya, and there are other instances where she was the one at the helm. It is reported for example that she was instrumental in pressuring the Philippines to abandon bilateral negotiations on territorial disputes with China and embark on legal confrontation. Indeed, Hillary Clinton can lay claim to initiating the whole confrontation with China in the South China Sea. She has a reputation of being strongly hawkish on Russia. The Obama administration has refused to engage with North Korea and has brought relations with China and Russia close to Cold War levels. Part of that is due to Hillary Clinton, and there seems little doubt that she will be more aggressive than Obama.

2017 might be a particularly dangerous year. It will be Park Geun-hye’s last full year in office. Her successor may not be willing to take such risks for the unification jackpot. It might be Hillary Clinton’s first year, and she will be keen to differentiate herself from her predecessor. It also, as Stratfor has pointed out, falls within a period of enhanced but diminishing vulnerability for North Korea as it rushes to develop an effective nuclear deterrent, which would make an invasion too costly for the US in the future – in other words, the ‘last chance to stop the country from becoming a ‘nuclear weapons state’.

The year 1917 was a tumultuous one, particularly with the October revolution in Russia, commemorated by the 12th symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich. A century later a President Hillary Clinton might well overshadow that, with a war in Syria involving Russia and a war in Korea involving China. That would be a catastrophe no composer would be likely to want to commemorate.

For part 1 of this article, click here.


Tim Beal is a New Zealand-based scholar whose area of expertise is the geopolitics of Asia. He is the author of North Korea: The Struggle against American Power (2005) and Crisis in Korea: America, China and the Risk of War (2011) and an occasional columnist for the Washington-based website NK News.

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