John Kerry’s Words Don’t Match Obama Administration Actions on North Korea

Bruce Klingner /

State Department/Sipa USA/Newscom

State Department/Sipa USA/Newscom

During his trip to South Korea, Secretary of State John Kerry affirmed that the United States “will, if necessary, defend our allies and defend ourselves” against North Korean aggression. Yet, he appears more eager to defuse a crisis than pledge unequivocal support to an ally threatened with military attack. It is a pattern previously seen with lukewarm Obama Administration support for U.S. allies Japan and the Philippines during their territorial disputes with China.

In recent months, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has threatened nuclear strikes against the U.S. and South Korea, abrogated the armistice ending the Korean War, nullified all inter-Korean non-aggression pacts, recommended diplomats leave the country, and severed communications with South Korea. In the face of this unprecedented aggression, the Obama Administration initially demonstrated resolve—augmenting forces to an annual U.S.–South Korean military exercise. The Administration even reversed its policies by augmenting missile defense forces it had previously cut.

But Kerry revealed that, as the crisis continued, the Obama Administration changed course and yielded in the face of North Korean threats. Kerry stated during a press conference in Seoul that “President Obama ordered a number of exercises not to be undertaken. We have lowered our rhetoric significantly.”

Rather than identifying North Korean threats as the cause for escalating tensions and the most likely catalyst for a military clash, Kerry instead asserted the greatest danger “is for a mistake.” The secretary believes that an allied response to another North Korean act of war or terror would lead to “things somehow inadvertently get[ting] out of control.” White House spokesperson Jay Carney earlier explained that the U.S. show of force in Korea was in part to “reduce pressure on Seoul to take unilateral action.”

Kerry also declared that the U.S. would not accept North Korea as a nuclear power. But what is the Obama Administration’s plan for achieving denuclearization? Kerry appears eager to return to negotiations, although the Obama Administration has repeatedly tried that route with no success. Pyongyang firmly rejected President Obama’s extended hand of dialogue in 2009 by initiating a series of provocations. And North Korea undermined the February 2012 Leap Day Agreement only two weeks after its inception.

Secret meetings by Six-Party Talks participants in 2010 didn’t prevent Pyongyang’s two deadly attacks on South Korea that year. Nor did reported secret talks between the Obama Administration and North Korea in 2012 and March 2013 deter the regime from denouncing denuclearization and initiating the latest ratcheting up of tensions.

Absent from Kerry’s comments were any indication that the Administration is considering more comprehensive sanctions against North Korea for its repeated violations of U.N. resolutions. Congress is contemplating additional measures against North Korea, with some advocating a resurrection of the strategy used against North Korean financial targets in the mid-2000s.

Rather than standing up to blatant belligerence, the Obama Administration has stepped back. And the reason for the capitulation? As Secretary Kerry explains, “Let’s face it. Everyone here knows this, we’ve got enough problems to deal with around the world.” One can only imagine the glee in Pyongyang and the trepidation in Seoul for the U.S. to prioritize other regions over defending our Korean ally.

So much for the Asia Pivot.