North Korea’s failed launch of a long-range ballistic missile will further isolate the new regime from the global community, John Podesta, former chief of staff under U.S. President Bill Clinton, said in a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun in Tokyo.
“We’re going to go back into a period where both the intentions and the capacity to stick with their commitments are going to be in question again,” he said.
Regarding the recent U.S. strategy of rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region, Podesta explained, “Our alliance partners in the region are, first and foremost, the key pillars of building up the rebalance.”
He went on to say that the upcoming visit by Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to Washington will be an opportunity to highlight “the primacy of our partnership.”
Podesta visited Japan at the invitation of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.
Excerpts of the interview follow:
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Question: North Korea launched a long-range ballistic missile despite opposition from all regional states, including Japan and the United States. How should we read into this provocative action and respond to it?
Answer: The launch demonstrates complete disregard for regional security and international law. North Korea’s actions threaten the safety of its neighbors and will result in the further isolation of the backward regime in Pyongyang that disregards its diplomatic obligations, including its responsibility to account for Japanese abductees, and completely and utterly fails the needs of its people to provide the basics of life, including food and medicine.
What was supposed to be a grand tribute to the regime of Kim Il Sung failed in the first minutes of flight, with a catastrophic system failure of the rocket’s boost phase. The U.N. Security Council has censured the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) for this action and decided to tighten sanctions. And once again, Pyongyang has closed the door on an opportunity to take a step to join civilized nations in stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
Q: Did diplomacy fail?
A: It has been a highly frustrating moment. There was some anticipation or expectation that, perhaps, with a change of leadership, there would be a “turning of the page” and a recognition that these kinds of provocations got North Korea nowhere but further isolated.
I think there had been effective, both bilateral and trilateral with South Korea, diplomacy. The last minute diplomacy was warranted, but I didn’t have any high expectations that they haven’t made a decision to go ahead and launch this missile, which is threatening to their neighbors, provocative to the international community.
It is likely to further isolate the new regime from the global community, which is most profoundly sad because it completely ignores the needs of the population for no reasons that are apparent to anyone outside of Pyongyang. Particularly in light of the fact that there was seen to be some progress, on Feb. 29, with the agreements (with the United States) to suspend missile and nuclear programs in exchange for some food assistance. I think that’s all thrown into disarray.
I think we ought to react with a certain sense of determination without creating a cycle of further provocation. We have to work with all the regional partners, including the Chinese in particular, to demonstrate to the new government in the DPRK that they won’t benefit from these kinds of antics.
Q: Japan-U.S. Common Strategic Objectives, which were put together last year, has one article that says, “Deter provocations by North Korea.” But this missile launch has just proved that we cannot deter North Korean provocations.
A: Well, we can’t end North Korean provocation, but I’m not convinced that we can’t “deter” it. And I think we can deter the worst forms of it. And I think that, again, we have to work with, particularly, the South Koreans and the Chinese, to put as much pressure as we can, to try to get them to reverse course. But this is a long, slow, and frustrating process.
Now that they went ahead with the launch, I think we’re going to go back into a period where both the intentions and the capacity to stick with their commitments are going to be in question again. You know, we’re going to go through a negative period here.
Q: You visited North Korea in 2009 with former U.S. President Clinton and met Kim Jong Il. What can you share from that experience?
A: Well, I’ll give you a couple of impressions. I think that one is that may be, perhaps, relevant to Kim Jong Un.
I’ll start with a personal impression of Kim Jong Il. I found him more, in his own way, rational than I expected. I don’t know what I was expecting. But he certainly lived in a distorted world view, with self-selected information. But he was engaging and engaged in the dialogue.
I remember The Economist cover that depicted him as a mad lunatic. And while his actions might be described as those of someone who is, again, fully out of character with someone who is, in theory, in support of the people, he was rational.
The other impression I had was that the leadership in the DPRK was consolidated in its thinking about the strategic issues and that it wasn’t operating on simply the whim of what "The Dear Leader” was postulating. But that the military command was consolidated in its views about what was going on.
And if that judgment was correct, there’s sort of a “good news/bad news” parallel to that. The good news is that the new leader, as he consolidates his power, is living in a system that has its own kind of checks on it, and that, again, the whims of one individual may not be determinative. The bad news is this is a leadership group that has decided that it can brutalize its own people and keep control of its power in its country through the kind of tactics that it’s carried forward, and that there’s a kind of consolidated thinking among the Military Commission about that question.
Q: You didn’t see Kim Jong Un at that time, did you?
A: No. When we were there, there was beginning to be talk about him having been selected as the heir or the next leader. But he wasn’t there.
Q: Toward the end of the Clinton administration, I understand the president was presented with a choice, whether he was going to work on either the Middle East or North Korea, and he chose the Middle East. Was it a right decision to choose the Middle East over North Korea?
A: Well, it was a complicated decision. I don’t think it’s as easily put as you’re describing. First of all, there was--this was in a moment--this was in December 2000 and January 2001, right at the moment that the U.S. Supreme Court was going to decide who the next president of the United States was (as the result of the contested presidential election).
And whatever decisions we made had to be carried forward by the next administration. I think that there was some possibility, or at least we entertained the possibility--Secretary (of State Madeleine) Albright had been to Pyongyang--there was some possibility that the president would go ahead and find a way to meet with Kim Jong Il, at that moment.
But that was, at the end of the day, not really a practical idea, in part because we were deeply engaged in Middle East peace process discussions that would lead to further negotiations in Taba, Egypt, but we were continuing to receive both the Palestinian and Israeli delegations in the United States, and so there was constant work on that. But, in part, because there was no support for moving forward with North Korea dialogue coming from the incoming administration.
So I think, all in all, while there was some consideration given to that, I don’t think it was really a practical option, so I wouldn’t set it up that we “chose the Middle East over North Korea.” I think it was just, at the end of the day, the option of moving forward with the North Korean diplomacy, which had some traction when we were there, beginning with Bill Perry and then ending with Secretary Albright, couldn’t be concluded. We had just run out of time.
Q: The recent U.S. decision of so-called “pivoting to Asia” or rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific is well received in the region. But the political reality in the United States does not necessarily seem to fully support such a change. You have a huge defense spending cut, vacancy of high-ranking positions at the Defense Department in charge of this region and no regional strategy spelled out. That makes some in the region wonder what we can really expect from this “rebalancing.”
A: Look, I think that, starting with the secretary’s (Secretary of State Clinton) first trip in 2009, and the president’s (President Obama) trip in 2011, it has been a constant through-line of the fact that this administration considers the 21st century key priority to be the Asia-Pacific. And I think that we’re still engaged deeply in Afghanistan. We still have interests, obviously, in the Middle East. We’re still dealing with the challenges that have been posed in North Africa and the “Arab spring,” and Syria and Iran. But there’s been a clear shift of prioritization back to the Asia-Pacific region.
And I think, when you look at budget, I would contest your formula. I think that the U.S. defense budget is under pressure, because the U.S. budget is under pressure. The “blank check” days are kind of long since passed. The consolidation, particularly of the ground force, by withdrawal of, first, our combat force and then our remaining forces, from Iraq has been undertaken. We’re on a trajectory to lower our footprint in Afghanistan.
The resources of the Pentagon are shifting towards a mission that I think is more oriented towards the challenges of the 21st century. There’s clearly going to be the need to deal with both counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation challenges, security challenges across the globe. But if you look at where you’re likely to see the preservation of program, budget, and the ability to rapidly react to changing events, it’s going to be here (the Asia-Pacific), and it’s going to be in the services that support that.
So I think, from that perspective, I guess, at least on the budget framework, it’s in a context where there’s no printing of free money any longer, which I think we experienced for a few years, and particularly post-9/11. And we still have very substantial resources deployed to the region, and I think we’ll continue to see them. The decision to deploy Marine forces to Australia, although a relatively small contingent force, is an indication of that.
I think our continued strong commitment here is a very important component of that, and I think you won’t see the constraint that other theaters are feeling, probably, operate here. You could make the same arguments about other places where already a decision has been made to downsize the combat brigades, in Germany and Italy and other places.
So, I mean, obviously a consolidation is taking place, but I think that strategy is clearly intact and the budget resources will follow from that.
Q: Japan’s prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, will soon visit Washington, D.C. What is the significance of this visit from the U.S. point of view? And how does Japan fit in this rebalancing strategy?
A: Well, I think that our security treaty with Japan remains the anchor of the strategy. And the other factor that I didn’t mention is an important component of this was the recognition. And I think President Obama first raised this when he came here and spoke, that our alliance partners in the region were, first and foremost, the key pillars of building up the rebalance.
They’ve, obviously, met before, in New York and during the president’s trip more recently, in Hawaii.
But I think that, in the Washington context, to both publicly establish the critical nature of our strategic partnership and to make clear not only to the people in the region but probably, also, to people on Capitol Hill, that that strategic relationship, again, is the linchpin to our engagement in the Asia-Pacific is critical.
So I think it’s a very important trip, and I think that--I know the president is looking forward to it--the primacy of our partnership here will be highlighted when he’s there.
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