Obama’s 2011 State of the Union Address & North Korea

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address is a speech that is always listened to very carefully by North Korea watchers, and North Korea is particularly sensitive to the State of the Union Addresses. We watch for whether “North Korea” is mentioned and how it’s mentioned, which would then set the stage for how Pyongyang will react and the direction of diplomacy (or sometimes absence of diplomacy).

This year’s 2011 State of the Union Address is interesting and positive for several reasons.

President Barack Obama: “On the Korean peninsula, we stand with our ally South Korea, and insist that North Korea keeps its commitment to abandon nuclear weapons.”

First, this year’s State of the Union Address mentions North Korea, which has not always been the case in the past.

Second, it sends a very clear message – that Washington and Seoul stand firmly united, which also has not always been true in the past. Washington and Seoul have been deeply divided on North Korea in past administrations. Pyongyang has also consistently and constantly tried to drive a wedge between the allies and we have seen such movements recently.

Third, it does not condemn Pyongyang or use harsh language about the regime, which was heard in past American SOTU addresses and had aggravated Pyongyang to react with provocations. The absence of condemnation this year, despite recent revelations of a uranium enrichment program, may be seen as Washington’s way of trying to create an environment conducive to dialogue and avoid aggravating Pyongyang.

-The North has proposed on January 26th that the two Koreas hold military talks to discuss the Yeonpyeong attack and Cheonan sinking. Seoul reportedly countered that proposal on January 26th (25th U.S. time) that prior working-level talks be held on February 11, 2011 at 10:00 a.m. on the South Korean side of the truce village of Panmunjeom. Washington’s precondition for dialogue has been inter-Korean dialogue and sincere action toward denuclearization.

-U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg is currently in Seoul to debrief is ally on last week’s U.S.-China summit that called for dialogue, and reportedly to discuss ways to take the North’s uranium enrichment program to the UN Security Council.

Finally, it sends a clear message demanding Pyongyang to surrender its nuclear arsenal and ambitions. However, it does not mention consequences, which may be a way of avoiding confrontation.

Obama’s State of the Union Addresses & North Korea comments:

2009 – (not mentioned)
2010 – “Now, these diplomatic efforts have also strengthened our hand in dealing with those nations that insist on violating international agreements in pursuit of nuclear weapons. That’s why North Korea now faces increased isolation and stronger sanctions, sanctions that are being vigorously enforced.”
2011 – “And on the Korean peninsula, we stand with our ally South Korea, and insist that North Korea keeps its commitment to abandon nuclear weapons.”

Security Spending Conspicuously Absent from Budget Cut Proposals

By now, you’ve probably heard that the theme of tonight’s State of the Union will undoubtedly be the economy.  The President is expected to propose a five year freeze on non-security discretionary spending (déjà vu?) and a ban on earmarks, while Rep. Paul Ryan, who is no doubt practicing his best Reagan impression in front of the mirror as we speak, is gearing up to deliver the Republican response.

Meanwhile, House Republicans hoping to go into the evening with a little extra rhetorical firepower spent the day working to pass another bill because they said they would.  The measure, passed 256-165, would permit Rep. Ryan to reduce all non-security discretionary spending to fiscal 2008 levels or below, but it is another hortatory exercise that is not going anywhere.

Left or right, though, one thing is certain, most proposals have been carefully crafted to exclude “security spending”: Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs.

CBS News correspondent Mark Knoller reports via Twitter that the President will call for $78 billion in defense cuts over the next five years.  One would assume this means he will echo Secretary Gates’ recent announcement citing the same numbers.

The problem here is that the term “cut” is used very loosely in Gates’ plan for the defense budget.

Last year’s $100 billion efficiencies initiative was never meant to reduce the Pentagon’s budget, nor contribute to deficit reduction.  Rather, it was meant to reduce Pentagon waste and boost more important mission-critical projects, since the entire $100 billion would be reinvested in DoD.  More importantly, though, it was meant to stave off the harsh and inevitable reality that eventually, the Pentagon may have actually to reduce its budget.

Unfortunately for Gates, the Obama Administration was not satisfied.  When Jacob Lew took over as the new director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), he directed Gates to trim $150 billion more, and would not allow the Defense Department to keep the savings.

Gates eventually negotiated the $150 billion figure down to $78 billion, the same $78 billion President Obama is expected to discuss tonight, but as Gordon Adams points out in his remarks to The Cable, the math is a little fuzzy:

…because Gates’ $78 billion in cuts aren’t really cuts at all. $54 billion comes from the president’s announcement to freeze federal civilian worker pay. So Gates is capitalizing on Obama’s decision without making any additional sacrifices…

Another $14 billion comes from “shifts in economic assumptions… for example, decreases in the inflation rate and projected pay raises,” Gates said.  Adams explained that means the Pentagon simply changed its figure for projected inflation, which changes how much it predicts everything will cost in the future.

Moreover, in Gates’ proposed cuts, the Pentagon’s base budget will not actually go down at any point in the next five years.  It will instead amount to slower growth that will eventually stop, and then begin to grow again.  This is considered a reduction only because the budget will eventually stop growing with the rate of inflation, so further waste will have to be cut.

The president’s fiscal 2012 budget request, to be released on February 14 or 15, is expected to include $554 billion in base Pentagon funding (not including the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), $12 billion less than the Pentagon had planned before negotiating with the White House, but $5 billion more than last year’s request.

What does this all mean in reality: domestic discretionary programs are told to go on a strict diet to lose 30 pounds while the Pentagon is supposed to cut down from two cupcakes a day to one.

U.S.-China Summit & North Korea

As expected, the joint statement produced by Presidents Obama and Hu was not ground-breaking on the North Korean issue. It is hard to say that there were any substantially new achievements. However, it was still a positive outcome with some meaningful points because it reflected both sides’ positions on contentious issues (regardless of an agreement), and it generally kept in line with the position of Washington’s allies.

Washington and Beijing agreed on some key points in general and in principle, but many of those key points are reaffirmation of each other’s original positions. The language is also heavily nuanced, which is normal in public diplomatic rhetoric. It appears Beijing has not steered far away from its original stance, and we can still see that Washington and Beijing hold differing views on those same key points.

Here’s a run-down of some initial thoughts on points that stand out: (Click “read more”)

(1.) “The United States and China emphasized the importance of an improvement in North-South relations and agreed that sincere and constructive inter-Korean dialogue is an essential step.”

It’s clear South Korea’s position was reflected in the joint statement because Seoul, Washington and Tokyo are pushing for inter-Korean dialogue to precede the Six Party Talks in the wake of consecutive North Korean attacks.

(2.) “(In this context), the United States and China expressed concern regarding the DPRK’s claimed uranium enrichment program”

This is perhaps the most eye-catching because the joint statement specifically mentions “uranium enrichment program,” which is a term President Hu avoided in the joint press conference. This sentence is significant because it’s clear that Washington’s (and its allies’) position has been reflected in the joint statement, and it’s significant because it the term “uranium enrichment program” is specifically mentioned. It also shows Beijing is concerned about Pyongyang’s nuclear developments.

At the same time, however, the language has been left a bit vague to reflect Beijing’s main position with the phrase “claimed” uranium enrichment program. Just days before the summit, China’s foreign ministry made a public comment that failed to acknowledge the existence of a uranium enrichment facility shown to an American scientist last November. So it’s clear there are fundamental differences here.

Still, “the United States and China reiterated the need for concrete and effective steps to achieve the goal of denuclearization and for full implementation of the other commitments made in the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement of the Six-Party Talks.” Hopefully this will translate into real action to jumpstart dialogue.

(3.) The joint statement did NOT specifically condemn North Korea’s attacks on South Korea: “Both sides expressed concern over heightened tensions on the Peninsula triggered by recent developments.”

However, President Obama said in their joint press conference that the two sides “agreed that North Korea must avoid further provocations.”

What’s most important is how North Korea will respond, and how Washington and Beijing will follow up on their joint statement.

The joint statement says, “The two sides called for the necessary steps that would allow for early resumption of the Six-Party Talks process to address this and other relevant issues.” However, Washington and Beijing still disagree on the mechanics of moving forward. The U.S., South Korea and Japan want inter-Korean dialogue first, then the Six Party Talks. China, on the other hand, wants the Six Party Talks first and THEN deal with all outstanding issues. The concern surrounding Beijing’s proposal is that Pyongyang’s attacks will remain unresolved and overshadowed by six party nuclear negotiations, which many argue is exactly what North Korea wants.

The allies want the road to dialogue to generally look something like this:

Some gesture of taking responsibility for attacks ==> Inter-Korean dialogue ==> Genuine action reflecting a sincere will to denuclearize ==> U.S.-North Korea dialogue ==> Six Party Talks.

Washington will be debriefing Seoul on the summit by sending a senior official to South Korea. But aside from the summit’s results, we’ll likely see a flurry of diplomacy among the six parties in the weeks and months to come.  While it’s always tough to make predictions about diplomacy, we may see some real action as early as February, which is after President Obama’s State of the Union address next week.

Center Statement on U.S.-China Summit

The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation released a statement yesterday prior to today’s U.S.-China summit prodding the two sides to jumpstart dialogue on the North Korean nuclear issue. Click here or here. (Some of you may know we’ve had s…