The U.S.-North Korea Relationship after the 2004 Presidential Election

Dennis Florig
Hankuk University Division of International Studies

The Results of the Election

The 2004 U.S. election was a triumph for President Bush and the Republican Party.  Although the country remains deeply divided, not only was President Bush returned to office, but the Republicans increased their majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.  A slow but significant shift in the past 4 decades away from the formerly dominant Democratic Party reached its high water mark in 2004, with the Republicans retaining party control of the presidency and both houses of Congress in consecutive elections for the first time since the 1920s.  

Conventional wisdom would predict that a president who lost a million American jobs during his tenure and who initiated a war that was clearly not going well would have little chance of reelection.  Analysts agree that there were two key sources to Bush’s victory.  One was the high turnout of conservative Christians mobilized by social issues like gay marriage and traditional family values.  But probably much more important was the aura of trust and leadership built up by George Bush as he led the nation through the difficult time after the shock of 9/11.  Despite the disaster in Iraq, the all important national security issue worked to the advantage of the Republicans, as Bush was perceived as a more effective leader for the terrorism war.

The electoral success of the traditional values and hard-line against terrorism themes have consolidated ideological conservatives’ control of the Republican Party. Although 49% of the people voted for the other side, the Republican Party is united and the conservative Bush administration is moving quickly to take advantage of its perceived mandate.

The Changing Bush Foreign Policy Team

The most obvious immediate consequence of the election for U.S. foreign policy was the replacement of Secretary of State Colin Powell with former National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.  Secretary Powell was the leading moderate voice in the Bush Cabinet, an advocate of engagement with forces historically hostile to the U.S., from the Middle East to North Korea.  As Commander of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the first Iraq war, a skillful Washington insider, and a darling of the media, Powell was a heavyweight in the Republican Party even before his appointment to the top foreign policy post.  However, he was increasingly isolated in the Bush administration by the hard-liners who coalesced around the more hawkish Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney.

In contrast, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, the man most closely associated with the invasion of Iraq, appears to have survived for the time being.  Vice President Cheney is reported to have commented that replacing Rumsfeld now would be admitting that the U.S. is losing the war in Iraq, and the Bush administration is nowhere close to such a conclusion.  

Rice’s deputy at the NSC, Stephen Hadley, who once worked for Vice President Cheney, moves up to National Security Advisor.  Hadley, like Rice, has not aired his own views widely.  His most publicly circulated paper includes a call for the U.S. to be more willing to use nuclear weapons in future conflicts, even against non-nuclear states (

Secretary of State designate Rice conceived her role as National Security Advisor as coordinator rather than policy maker.  Rice’s personal views are not well known because in her effort to be a team player and advance the official administration line she consistently subordinated her own position, letting no distance between her and other key players emerge.  It is disturbing that loyalty to the party line rather than independent judgment seems to have been the Bush criterion for his top foreign policymaker.  Now that Rice’s loyalty has been rewarded it is unclear whether she will continue to defer to others or will more forcefully put her stamp on policy.  Rice enjoys a much closer personal relationship with George Bush and Dick Cheney than did Powell, but the key question is whether she will use these relationships to influence these men or simply protect these relationships by continuing to follow others’ direction.

Perhaps the best public statement of Rice’s own views comes in an article she wrote for the insider journal Foreign Affairs during the 2000 campaign on “promoting the national interest.”  (Rice’s official statements as National Security Advisor can be found at  Although this article has been superceded by events and was surely vetted by the Bush campaign team, it probably expresses Rice’s own perspective on a wide range of issues.  She calls for a military build-up and bolder U.S. leadership, pretty standard conservative themes.  She advocates cautious engagement with China and Russia (her original area of expertise), although she carefully does not use that word.  

On North Korea, Rice does not fall clearly into the neoconservative “regime change” camp, although she does label the Clinton administration’s policy toward North Korea as “failed” and characterizes the DPRK as the “evil twin” of the ROK.  Rice writes

The 1994 framework agreement that attempted to bribe North Korea into forsaking nuclear weapons cannot easily be set aside.  Still, there is a trap inherent in this approach: sooner or later Pyongyang will threaten to test a missile one too many times, and the United States will not respond with further benefits…The possibility for miscalculation is very high…  

The United States must approach regimes like North Korea resolutely and decisively.  The Clinton administration has failed here, sometimes threatening to use force and then backing down…

The first line of defense should be a clear and classical statement of deterrence…Second, we should…deploy national and theater missile defenses as soon as possible.

Policy toward North Korea in the First Bush Term

Bush administration policy toward North Korea in the first term was paralyzed by two conflicting pressures.  On the one hand, neoconservatives openly speculated about regime change.  Visceral distaste could be seen in Bush’s own characterization of Kim Jong Il as a “pygmy” and of his regime as the worst government in the world.  Republicans hard-liners had never supported the Agreed Framework negotiated between a regime they despised and the Clinton administration they distrusted.  Old conservative anti-communists saw the continued existence of the Stalinist regime in North Korea as an affront to rationality and modernity in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reform of China.  After 9/11 the neoconservative desire to strike back at hostile regimes that might pass weapons of mass destruction on to terrorists only hardened the Bush administration’s attitude.

But on the other hand, every nation in the Northeast Asian neighborhood was unnerved to one degree or another by the breakdown of the Agreed Framework, the suspension of negotiations between the U.S. and the DPRK, and the second nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula.  The U.S.-ROK alliance was particularly stressed, with large-scale anti-American demonstrations sweeping South Korea and open policy squabbles emerging between Washington and Seoul.

The outcome of these countervailing pressures of conservative hostility toward the DPRK and the unwillingness of key allies to support a regime change strategy was a kind of “malign neglect” of North Korea during most of the first Bush term.  The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq not only consumed most of the attention of the national security apparatus, they left the U.S. stretched too thin to contemplate any serious action against the deteriorating but still dangerous DPRK.

Late in the first Bush term the conservative reluctance to deal with Kim Jong Il was trumped by the second nuclear crisis and intensified demand of countries in the region for renewed negotiations.  Six party talks began, allowing the Bush administration to respond to concerns in the region that negotiations be restarted while at the same time saving face and bringing the other nations in the region into the process in an effort to bring greater concerted pressure on the DPRK.  The Bush administration has come to recognize a leading role for China in particular, which because of its ideological and economic ties is the only state with any real influence on the DPRK.

The six party talks so far have made little concrete progress, with the U.S. and the DPRK far apart on the sequence of threat reduction and the other four parties as yet unable to move either of the antagonists toward agreement.  The original U.S. position was that complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of the North Korean nuclear program must come before progress on other issues would be possible.  Not surprisingly, the DPRK continues to demand simultaneous concessions from the U.S. before it abandons its crucial bargaining chip.  

The U.S. showed a bit more flexibility in the third round of talks in June 2004 when it put forward a two stage proposal in which South Korea, China, Russia, and possibly Japan would give economic and energy aid immediately upon a North Korean commitment to terminate all its nuclear programs and allow international inspections.  U.S. concessions would still be contingent upon the closing of North Korean nuclear programs, surrender of nuclear materials, and permanent monitoring of North Korean facilities although bilateral talks between North Korea and the U.S. would begin in the first stage.  However, Pyongyang gave little response to the new proposal, apparently choosing to wait out the U.S. elections hoping for a Kerry victory.  

It is expected that a new round will occur in the next few months, although the long term viability of the talks is in question.  At the recent APEC summit President Bush reassured South Korea that the U.S. remained committed to the six party talks and a peaceful resolution of the nuclear crisis.

While lobbying from nations in the neighborhood brought renewed negotiations as a response to the second Korean nuclear crisis, neoconservatives in Washington won the Proliferation Security Initiative in 2003.  PSI is a proactive interdiction program designed to interrupt trade in WMD and related materials, primarily through boarding of ships suspected of carrying WMD materials.  PSI gives the appearance of forceful action against nuclear proliferators without great cost or risk, although it is unlikely to reassure skeptics that WMD trade is under effective control, and if invoked frequently PSI could rekindle fears of U.S. preemptive strikes.

Future Policy toward North Korea

The early days of the second Bush term will likely see more temporizing and malign neglect because the contradictory policy pressures apparent in the first term endure.  Neoconservatives will still seek greater confrontation and eventual regime change.  The realities of the region are that South Korea and China in particular will exert strong pressures to avoid confrontation and pursue negotiation.  The U.S. will still be distracted by the conflict in Iraq and perhaps by new developments in Palestine and/or Iran as well.

There are reasons to fear a deterioration of conditions in the region.  The consolidation of the position of conservatives in the revamped Bush Cabinet has strengthened the hand of those who advocate ratcheting up tensions.  The sobering situation in Iraq has quieted open talk about regime change, but those who never wanted to negotiate with the DPRK in the first place will brand the stalled six party talks a failure and push for new initiatives to try to force the North Korea to capitulate.  

That is highly unlikely.  Collapse of the DPRK can never be ruled out, but 15 years after the fall of the Soviet Union it seems less probable than it once did.  Moreover, it is only from the geographical isolation of Washington that collapse of the regime in the North can be seen as a positive outcome.  Governments in the region that would be flooded with refugees and could be drawn into civil conflicts in an imploding North do not look favorably upon rapid regime change in the North.

Serious ratcheting up of the military pressure on the DPRK would be even more dangerous. The effect of a hardening of the U.S. position and moves toward greater confrontation would have unpredictable effects on the already strained alliance with Seoul, and to a lesser extent Tokyo.  The cooperation with China that has been carefully built up would be undermined.  And a cycle of escalation and miscalculation might spin out of control.  The DPRK does not want a war it cannot win.  The U.S. is stretched too thin by the Iraq war to want another major conflict.  But escalation of tensions could bring unanticipated reactions from the reclusive and volatile regime in Pyongyang, setting off a sequence of events no one could control.  Those who contemplate turning up the heat on the DPRK should be honest enough to admit that such a policy increases the probability of real hostilities breaking out.  

However, there is a glimmer of hope for positive developments.  The six party talks may yet bear fruit.  The Bush administration conceived of multilateral negotiations as a way to gather together the other powers in the region to express their shared determination for a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula and to intensify pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear programs.  The process has demonstrated to the DPRK that the demand for it to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons comes not only from the Bush cowboys, but from every state in the neighborhood.  However, the six party process has also had a kind of “rebound effect” on the U.S.  The other four parties have also consistently joined to cajole the U.S. to take a more reasonable stance.  

On the global level, if the debacle in Iraq drags on, it may eventually lead to a strategic rethink in Washington.  The American defeat in Vietnam led hard-line anti-communist Richard Nixon to fly to Moscow and Beijing to reposition the U.S. and to articulate the Nixon Doctrine which recognized limits on U.S. power to shape events around the world.  Changing political conditions in Europe led conservative Republican Ronald Reagan, the author of the “new cold war,” to open up to Gorbachev and a reforming Russian regime in his second term.  Presidents in their second term often give great attention to foreign policy and turn to international agreements as an historic legacy.  Although George W. Bush is not yet under the same kind of pressure from a domestic peace movement and an opposition party with a majority in Congress as Nixon and Reagan were, international reality has a way of intruding on even the most ideological administration.

If the Iraq war proves a continuing debacle, a second Cabinet reshuffle, whether it comes in a few months or a year or two, could see the departure of the war’s architects and the regime change strategy such as Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and his allies at the Pentagon and the White House.  Because Condi Rice lacks the independent stature of Colin Powell, if the terrorism war goes badly and she fails to put her own stamp on policy, her tenure at State could be short.  Hard-liner Vice President Cheney’s influence may be diminished either by the procurement scandals around his former company Halliburton and/or declining health.  A more independent, moderate foreign policy establishment “star” might need to be imported to Defense, State, and/or the National Security Council to help rescue administration foreign policy if it is widely perceived as strategically flawed.

Tactics for Moderating Bush Administration Policy toward North Korea

The election results assure that hard-liners will be in the ascendancy in Washington for a while.  It is unlikely that the victorious Bush administration will give much credence to critics from the Democratic Party, NGOs, or even moderates in the foreign policy establishment.  The highly partisan Bush administration might be more inclined to listen to Republican Senators with foreign policy expertise such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Lugar of Indiana or Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.  Senator John McCain of Arizona is a formidable figure and a potential 2008 Republican presidential candidate, known for toughness in foreign policy but also skepticism about ideological dogma.  If Republican Senators respected for their judgment on international issues could be persuaded that a new approach to North Korea is needed, they could possibly gain the president’s ear.  Particularly as the 2006 midterm election approaches and the Republican gains in Congress in the past few years have to be defended, congressional counsel might have some impact on Bush administration policy and personnel.

But just as in the first term, the most important pressure to moderate Bush’s policies toward North Korea will likely come from nations within the region.  It was not the political opposition at home but the pressure from South Korea and China, and to a lesser extent Russia and Japan, which led the Bush administration to finally begin negotiations with the North through the six party talks.

South Koreans who believe the current U.S. policy is off track should stand their ground.  It has proven to be expression of doubts by its allies that has had the most impact in modifying U.S. North Korean policy.  The attempt of the hard-liners in the Bush administration to isolate the DPRK in the immediate aftermath of the controversy over its uranium enrichment program failed because Seoul and Tokyo would not rally to simply punish the North, but demanded that negotiations over nuclear issues be restarted.

The foreign policy establishment in South Korea has historically been reluctant to open up too much distance between Seoul and Washington for fear of offending its crucial superpower ally.  Disagreements have risen to the surface in recent years as the Bush hard-line clearly diverged from the engagement policies of Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun.  Yet the South Korean political establishment has become increasingly worried about such open divergence, as seen by the decision to deploy South Korean forces to Iraq against not only large-scale public opposition but also widespread doubts among Korean experts that it serves Korean national interest in any way except to curry favor with the U.S.

Yet principled disagreement is natural between allies with different interests and different positions within the international system.  The U.S. and France have openly bickered about a wide range of issues almost from the launching of the NATO alliance.  Yet as the 60th anniversary celebrations at Normandy showed, the fundamental friendship between France and the U.S. remains undiminished.  Through all their numerous disagreements on strategy and policy, there has been little doubt that the U.S. and France have remained and will remain close allies.

The Bush administration hard-line has left the situation on the Korean Peninsula more dangerous than it was four years ago.  There is little reason to be optimistic that in the short term the U.S. will moderate its policy enough to move negotiations forward.  Of course, North Korea’s intentions and willingness to bargain are also in question.  But the opening of the six party talks and the improvement of relations with China have shown that the Bush administration is capable of learning and has not lost touch with the realities of the Northeast Asian region.  The nations in the neighborhood have a continuing obligation to help the U.S. save face and help North Korea and the U.S. to find a way out of their confrontation.

Appendix on Victor Cha

In mid-November a rumor that Victor Cha of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service would be appointed as National Security Council deputy responsible for East Asian affairs appeared in a couple of Korean newspapers.  In brief research on the internet I have not been able to track down any U.S. source for that rumor or any subsequent evidence confirming it, other than a few U.S. websites repeating the story a few days after it appeared in an English language version of a Korean paper.  

However, unlike many of the more prominent National Security figures currently in the Bush administration, Cha’s views on North Korea are widely published, so if he does receive the appointment, the perspective he would bring can be analyzed.  Below are abstracts and quotes of some of Cha’s more widely circulated writings:

“Korea’s Place in the Axis,” Foreign Affairs, May/Jun 2002, v 81, n 3

President Bush's condemnation of North Korea as part of the "axis of evil" caused confusion worldwide, as allies and enemies alike tried to discern his administration's constantly shifting policy toward Pyongyang. But there is method to the madness. Look closely, and a consistent strategy emerges: "hawk engagement." Although Bush's team may use tactics seemingly similar to those of Clinton's, the administration wants to engage Kim Jong Il for very different reasons: to set him up for a fall.

“North Korea’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: Badges, Shields, or Swords?” Political Science Quarterly, Summer 2002, v 117, i 2
If evidence emerges about the DPRK that confirms the existential deterrent (shields) hypothesis, then the threat is not nearly as bad as we believe. Security dilemmas can be averted through engagement. Moreover, the potential for denuclearization is real, provided that the North's survival can be guaranteed. If evidence does not support this view, then the next step is to discern whether the evidence validates a prestige-based or badges argument for DPRK weaponization. If so, then the threat is resolvable if status incentives on the part of Pyongyang can be satisfied. This could be accomplished through engagement, particularly in the economic arena such that the DPRK could, as Sam Kim argues, validate its state identity through economic rather than military avenues.72 The third and most worrying outcome is if evidence surfaces confirming the denial strategy (swords hypothesis). In this case, not only is the threat real (and the regime "evil" in Bush's axis of evil verbiage), but nuclear rollback is highly unlikely, because DPRK intentions are zero-sum and aggressive. Engagement, though well-intentioned, will not work.73 At best, the policy will build consensus among the United States and its allies that once Pyongyang reveals it true intentions, more coercive measures might be required.*
“The Debate over North Korea,” Political Science Quarterly, Summer 2004, v 119, n 2
with David Kang.  This article is a shortened version of Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies also with David Kang, Columbia University Press, 2003

There are still god reasons for engaging such a dangerous regime.  The primary point of departure…would be the withholding of such a negotiation until the North Koreans first resolve international concerns about the HEU program and restore the status quo ante at Yongbyon.  To engage with Pyongyang in the face of such a blatant breakout from the Agreed Framework would be tantamount to appeasement.  However, maintaining a coalition of allies to impress upon Kim Jong Il in the strongest terms the need to first come clean in order to return to a path of engagement with the outside world appears to be the most prudent course of action.  From a hawk engagement perspective, such a strategy also puts the cooperation ball clearly in the North’s court, and in this sense, also contributes to a coalition for isolation and containment should Kim Jong Il drop this ball.

Alignment Despite Antagonism: The U.S.-Korea-Japan Security Triangle, Stanford University Press, 1999

Interaction between Japan and Korea offers a vexing anomaly for the Realist school of international relations…Given…general commonality of friends, enemies, political values, and economic systems, logic as well as simple application of balance-of-threat theory suggests that cooperative relations should ensue…However, this has been far from the case.  The Japan-ROK relationship has been marked by highly volatile behavior throughout its postwar history.  This has ranged from intense friction to reluctant cooperation.

Product description from (The relationship of) Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK)…has fluctuated markedly and unpredictably. Despite the existence of a common ally in the United States and common security threats from the former Soviet Union, China, and North Korea, bilateral relations between Japan and South Korea have been persistently marred by friction.
In the first in-depth study of this puzzling relationship in over fifteen years, the author compares the commonly accepted explanation for this relationship-historical enmity-with one that focuses on policies of the United States as the key driver of Japan-ROK relations. He finds that while history and emotion certainly affect the ways in which Japanese and Koreans regard each other, cooperation and dissension in the relationship are better understood through what he calls a "quasi-alliance" model: two states that remain unallied but have a third party as a common ally.
This model finds that the "normal" state of Japan-ROK relations is characterized by friction that stems not only from history, but also from fundamental asymmetries in Japanese and Korean expectations of support from each other.