The Cable

Few Korea hands on Obama administration’s Asia leadership team

As the world wakes up to the reality of a heightened crisis with North Korea following its latest nuclear test, the Obama administration finds itself with remarkably few Korea experts at the top of its Asia policy team.

North Korea confirmed Monday it had detonated a nuclear bomb for the third time, blatantly disregarding United Nations resolutions and the repeated warnings of the international community. The U.N. Security Council scrambled to call a Tuesday meeting on the incident and U.S. President Barack Obama issued a strongly worded statement of condemnation early Tuesday morning.

"This is a highly provocative act that, following its December 12 ballistic missile launch, undermines regional stability, violates North Korea's obligations under numerous United Nations Security Council resolutions, contravenes its commitments under the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement of the Six-Party Talks, and increases the risk of proliferation," Obama's statement said. "North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs constitute a threat to U.S. national security and to international peace and security."

Obama said North Korea's activities warrant "swift and credible action" by the international community but declined to specify what action he intends to pursue. North Korea is the most heavily sanctioned country in the world, and most experts believe only China has substantial leverage to bring to bear on the Hermit Kingdom run by the young dictator Kim Jong Un.

On the Obama administration's Asia team, almost all the senior officials handling the North Korea crisis have specialties outside of Korean affairs, a stark difference from the last two times Pyongyang exploded nuclear weapons in October 2006 and May 2009.

Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, who had extensive experience dealing with the North Korea issue, departed the government last week. His temporary replacement, Principal Deputy Secretary of State Joe Yun,  is a Southeast Asia specialist. Yun has served in the Seoul embassy but is not in a senior policy making position. The State Department's special representative for North Korea policy, Glyn Davies, is a nuclear technology and Europe expert, having most recently served as the U.S. permanent representative to the IAEA in Vienna. State's special envoy to the (defunct) six-party talks, Clifford Hart, is a longtime China hand.

Over at the National Security Staff, Senior Director for Asia Danny Russel (Campbell's potential successor at State) is a Japan hand with some Korea experience, while his right-hand man Evan Medeiros, is an expert on China. Syd Seiler, who also works at the NSS, is a Korea specialist and is reported to have traveled to Pyongyang last March. But Seiler is currently on detail from the CIA and is expected to return to his home agency soon.

Over at the Pentagon, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs Mark Lippert, a close friend of Obama's, has little Northeast Asia experience but served as a Naval reservist in Afghanistan. His principal deputy, Peter Lavoy, focuses on Pakistan. The position of deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia had been vacant for almost a year, ever since Japan hand Michael Schiffer moved over to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Dave Helvey was appointed to that job in late December. He is a China expert by trade.

"There are no people who work Korea at the top levels of the policy team," a senior Washington Asia hand told The Cable. "They've been in the driver's seat, but they don't know where they are going."

In 2006, the George W. Bush administration had former Ambassador to Korea Chris Hill as assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, current Ambassador to Korea Sung Kim as the special envoy to the six-party talks, and Korea hand Victor Cha at the White House.

"Basically, the team they had then -- everybody except Chris Hill was a Korean speaker so they could understand what the other side was saying without an interpreter," the Washington Asia hand said. "It's not like that this time. I think that makes a difference."

In 2009, the Obama administration had Campbell and Kim and State along with Ambassador Stephen Bosworth as the special representative for North Korea policy. It's true that current Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman served as State's North Korea policy coordinator under Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, but these days she is consumed with her role as the lead American official dealing with the upcoming nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Some outside experts link the lack of Korea experts at the highest levels of the policy process to an Obama administration North Korea policy that is widely viewed as standoffish and lethargic. Under the rubric "strategic patience," the administration has largely avoided direct interactions with Pyongyang, absent a Feb. 29, 2012 deal known as the "Leap Day Deal," under which the U.S. was going to give food aid to North Korea and receive assurances on missile and nuclear testing.

That deal, which was never clearly understood by both sides, blew up when Kim Jong Il died the day before it was to be announced. The Obama administration hasn't tried to engage North Korea in any serious way since. Experts say the Obama team, short on Korea expertise, has bungled the whole issue.

"You have a predominantly non-Korea expert group. They've been fundamentally wrong on how they thought this was going to unfold," one former North Korea negotiator told The Cable. "The idea that by standing away from North Korea, putting pressure on them when they did bad things, and thinking that was going to change their behavior was fundamentally mistaken. And now that's becoming painfully obvious. For those of us who have been involved in this for decades, this policy has been wrong headed from day one."

Not everyone agrees. One former administration official told The Cable that even when there were Korea experts in charge of Korea policy, there were no great successes in dealing with North Korea.

"The one interesting question is: When we've had great Korea experts at the top levels of the administration, how successful has that been?" the former official said. "I'm not sure you could draw a straight line between Korea expertise and better policy."

As the Obama administration shapes its national security leadership team for the second term, there is also a notable lack of Asia experts at the top, especially considering that the "pivot" or "rebalancing" of American attention to Asia was one of the hallmarks of Obama's first term foreign policy agenda.

There are few Asia experts among the president's top advisors. Secretary of State John Kerry, prospective Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Principal Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, Treasury Secretary nominee Jack Lew, CIA Director nominee John Brennan,  Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Jim Miller all have their expertise in other issues or regions.

Cha told The Cable that the senior leadership of the Obama administration needs to move the North Korea issue to the front burner before the crisis gets even worse and he said that leadership has to come from the very top.

"That sense of urgency is important because it pushes the Chinese to do more. The president has to say this is a serious threat to national security and we are going to do something about it," Cha said. "Obama has to set the tone."

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