Experts Blame Obama for North Korea's New Nukes

Usually, smart political observers ignore opposing presidential candidates clamoring to blame the sitting president for an international crisis. This time, however, it's not mere partisanship.

01.10.16 5:15 AM ET

News of a North Korean nuclear test earlier this week set off an explosion of finger-pointing by Republican presidential candidates—Barack Obama, they say, is to blame for the American failure to halt the hermit state's progress on developing weapons.

Normally such a rabid rush to pin a crisis on Obama could be shrugged off as partisanship, but in this case. Nuclear nonproliferation experts agree: Obama, they claim, is responsible for the failure of America to prevent North Korea from expanding its nuclear program. America's strategy on North Korea in the first years of the Obama administration, was led by the White House and National Security Council.

The Obama administration concept of 'strategic patience' emerged early on in the administration after the scathing experience of North Korea’s 2009 nuclear test. The strategy essentially demanded that North Koreans recommit to concrete steps towards denuclearization—such as allowing inspectors and freezing fissile material production—as a precondition of any future talks. 

"It meant that the administration didn’t want to be driven by a DPRK-orchestrated sense of crisis, and would respond in its own time to North Korean initiatives," said Scott Synder, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"The Obama administration came into office with a healthy skepticism of North Korea's ability to follow through on its commitments.,” explains Daryl Kimball, publisher of Arms Control Today. Given the breakdown of the denuclearization agreement reached under Bush, the Obama administration “came in with the view that before talks began again North Korea should recommit to taking steps to show that they were committed to meeting that pledge."

It is a strategy that has proven to be a failure, giventhe most recent nuclear test. North Korea has simply accepted sanctions and international isolation as the cost of a slow and steady expansion of its nuclear weapons program.

"The problem with this approach, while it is well intentioned and principled, it has not worked. The talks have not begun, the Obama administration did want those talks to happen, but they have not begun," said Kimball. Today North Korea has enough fissile material for roughly 10 to 16 nuclear bombs, Kimball added. "That's certainly up from where it was a decade ago.. it was perhaps roughly half of that in 2006, 2007, 2008." 

By demanding that North Koreans take denuclearization steps before talks that would focus on denuclearization, it put the onus for talks on the authoritarian state, thereby buying them time to creep towards strengthening its nuclear arsenal. 

"Given that North Korea equates its nuclear weapons with the survivability of its regime, it is extremely unlikely that Pyongyang will take steps toward denuclearization absent assurances of the state’s security," said Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association. "The overthrow of Qadhafi, several years after Libya gave up its nuclear program, likely increased North Korea’s concerns that absent a nuclear deterrent, its regime would be at risk." 

Every nuclear nonproliferation expert The Daily Beast spoke to pointed at the White House and the National Security Council as the main driver of the 'strategic patience' strategy.

"I believe the initial thinking on strategic patience came from the White House," Davenport said. Snyder added, "It is hard for me to attribute authorship for policies on foreign affairs issues like this one to anyone but the White House/NSC.  If you were observing DPRK policy in 2009-2011, you would not be focused on State." 

"It was the White House that was pushing it, because they felt that the North Koreans dissed them by conducting a nuclear test in 2009," said Joel Wit, who worked in the Clinton administration to resolve the North Korean nuclear weapons crisis in the 1990s. 

So when presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio says that “North Korea is run by a lunatic who has been expanding his nuclear arsenal while President Obama stood idly by,” and Jeb Bush blamed the “Obama Clinton foreign policy,” they’re on the mark.

The National Security Council declined to comment on the development of the ‘strategic patience’ policy. “We are constantly evaluating what more we and our key allies and partners can do,” NSC spokesman Myles Caggins said. “Our policy has not changed.  Denuclearization remains our top priority.  We remain in close touch with our allies in Seoul and Tokyo as well as the other Five-Party partners on our shared goal of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner.”

On the growth of North Korea's nuclear program, there is certainly some blame to spread around across administrations. Multiple strategies of engagement, then disengagement, have been helpless in halting the North Korean march to more nukes. The hermit state’s first nuclear weapons test, for example, happened during the Bush administration.

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"You can say [strategic patience is] a failure and you can also say engagement is a failure. All of the approaches we've used—first to prevent, then eliminate, North Korea's nuclear weapons program have failed. When we've negotiated it's failed and when we haven't negotiated it's failed," said Gary Samore, who served for four years in the Obama administration as the White House's Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction. "There are some problems that can't be solved by diplomacy. This is one." 

One thing is for sure: North Korea's nuclear program has dramatically expanded over the past decade—during the course of the Obama administration—and the threat is now greater than it has ever been.

"I think that Secretary Clinton and the Obama administration had a false estimation of the behavior of the adversary, they are deluded to believe that they have the same standards and commitments that we do—they are outlaw nations," Sen. John McCain told The Daily Beast. "They now pose a greater threat now than at the beginning of the Obama administration. That is irrefutable." 

To address the North Korean nuclear weapons program, more than finger-pointing will be required. The response among presidential candidates of both parties was to condemn the nuclear tests—but so far the seeming intractability of the problem has not been addressed with a viable proposal to confront it.

"When we're talking about Hillary Clinton or any other presidential candidate, one thing that is absolutely clear is that each one of them, if they want to be president, will have to develop a more effective approach to deal with North Korea. They will inherit this problem, it's not going away," Kimball warned. "It's simply not enough to say we need to get tougher… if there isn't a more sophisticated approach, at the end of their first term they'll be looking at a North Korea with dozens of nuclear weapons."