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What Would Cheney Advise Trump on North Korea?

November 8, 2017

Presidents George H.W. Bush and Roh Tae Woo exchange toasts at a state dinner in Seoul in January 1992.

As President Trump hopscotches across East Asia hoping to develop a viable strategy on North Korean nukes with the regional powers, newly posted declassified documents from the George H.W. Bush administration offer some valuable context on the challenges of dealing with Pyongyang.

Trump’s preferred m.o. may be to blow up every strategy, concept, and approach any predecessor ever conceived, but it’s likely his aides are angling diligently for policy options grounded in real world experience.  It’s one thing to pillory the Democratic Clinton administration, but harder for most Republicans to do the same with Bush 41, for many the standard-bearer of stolid, pragmatic, New World Order foreign policy-making.

According to an insight-filled trove of records National Security Archive Senior Fellow Bob Wampler obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the senior Bush administration went through many of the same kinds of questions in the early 1990s that U.S. strategists still wrangle with today.

Top on the list of conclusions?  North Korea might be inclined to deal in bad faith but the best way to resolve the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula was to continue to negotiate.  Bush had already taken a ground-breaking step (one the current commander-in-chief would have Tweeted mercilessly about) of pulling back all U.S. short-range tactical nuclear weapons deployed overseas, including the ones in South Korea.

Briefing Book, Deputies Committee Meeting, ca. 12/13/1991 (Secret)

In line with this initiative, American policy-makers focusing on North Korea insisted that the use of force should not be on the table, at least at first.  No less a hawk than Defense Secretary Dick Cheney told South Korean and Japanese leaders they shouldn’t even consider “military measures” since merely discussing the possibility could put their initial diplomatic strategy in jeopardy, according a Deputies-level briefing book from December 1991.

A key to the U.S. approach two decades ago was recognizing the need to balance the interests of the major regional players – South Korea, Japan, and China.  South Korea was already on essentially the same plane as the White House in terms of prioritizing negotiations – which no-one was under the illusion would be soft.

Seoul’s idea was that the North’s vast economic problems would let the allies “continue to tighten the screws” on Pyongyang to get it to loosen its grip on its population and begin to come to terms on a range of bilateral agreements including on nuclear issues.  U.S. strategists used a similar metaphor – contriving “nooses” to put around North Korea if it tried to delay.  Multilateral coercive measures were very much an option for the Bush administration.

As for China, American policymakers admitted they didn’t quite know how to judge its motives, but they knew enough to be sure Beijing was not going to act in a way that would fundamentally undermine the regime in Pyongyang.

Today’s e-book by Bob Wampler is the latest in a series on U.S. policy toward the two Koreas posted over the years.  (Links are provided in the posting.)  See also the two major digitized collections of thousands of documents on the U.S.-Korea policy published as part of the growing Digital National Security Archive (DNSA). The series is subscription-based through the academic publisher ProQuest, and is available through many major public and university libraries.


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