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Hamilton Society hosts first debate

| Friday, April 28, 2017

In the inaugural Alexander Hamilton Society (AHS) debate — held in the Hesburgh Center Auditorium — Notre Dame faculty member David Cortright and Georgetown professor Matthew Kroenig debated whether or not “Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is correct in saying that the policy of strategic patience with North Korea should end.”

AHS is an “independent, non-partisan, not-for-profit, membership organization dedicated to promoting constructive debate on basic principles and contemporary issues in foreign, economic and national security policy,” according to the organization’s website. The national organization was founded in 2010, and this is the Notre Dame chapter’s first year as a group on campus.

During the debate, Kroenig, a national security expert who worked on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012 and Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign in 2016, argued that it was time to move on from strategic patience.

Kroenig’s opening statement centered on three points: the definition of strategic patience and why it failed, what a new approach would look like and what a new policy specifically would entail.

“Throughout the 1990s, North Korea’s nuclear program continued to advance,” he said. “The outside world engaged with North Korea, they would agree to halt the program and pocketed concessions, then North Korea would make threats, we’d negotiate, they’d get goodies and the cycle would continue. North Korea was blackmailing the U.S. and international communities, and using negotiation to extract concessions.”

Kroenig described President Barack Obama’s administration’s decision to halt this strategy and essentially do nothing, hoping that North Korea would collapse on its own.

“The result is that the threat has continued to grow,” he said.

Kroenig discussed North Korea’s growing nuclear stockpile and increasing capabilities, saying there is a broad bipartisan consensus that something needs to be done or else the U.S. will be living under the threat of a North Korean nuclear attack.

He said a new policy would need a diplomatic and defense component. In this regard, Kroenig cited the 2015 agreement with Iran regarding its nuclear program as an example.

“We need to give them the choice of either making a deal, or economic sanctions and a potential military engagement,” he said.

Kroenig alluded to a problem with applying this strategy to North Korea, and said the United States and its western allies do little business with the reclusive regime. One solution to this problem would be increased engagement with China, North Korea’s closest ally, Kroenig said, but this strategy presents challenges because China prioritizes North Korea’s existence as a buffer state over its denuclearization. To get around this problem, Kroenig suggested sanctions against firms that do business with North Korea as a potential way around the problem and a way to get North Korea to the negotiating table, given that such an approach worked with Iran.

Finally, Kroenig said the U.S. must work with regional allies currently faced with the threat of North Korean nuclear aggression in the meantime.

“Until negotiations pay off, we have to defend ourselves and our allies,” he said.

Next, Cortright took the podium.

“I don’t agree with strategic patience, I don’t think it’s worked and I don’t think doing nothing is a viable option,” he said.

However, Cortright said the threat from North Korea is not currently as dire as it is often made to sound.

“Yes, North Korea has a couple small grade nuclear weapons, but they have not refined technologies for more complex weapons,” he said. “While patience is not the answer, neither is panic, paranoia or provocation. Pressure [is] not enough.”

Cortright laid out a plan incorporating cooperation with the Chinese, sanctions and inducements designed to get North Korea to the negotiating table. He cited a 1994 agreement between Pyongyang and outside powers, the Agreed Framework, where North Korea agreed to halt its program in exchange for concessions and which eventually broke down. Cortright also floated the Iran Deal as a possible model. He said there was a great need for clear American objectives for its dealing with Pyongyang, questioning Tillerson’s “surrender, then we’ll talk” attitude.

Cortright said the United States first needs to “sit down calmly with China and make a plan with them.” Next, the so-called Six Party Partners, including South Korea, Japan and Russia, need to be brought into the process. This group, Cortright said, should agree to a new set of sanctions in advance, but only implement them if North Korea refuses to negotiate.

Once negotiations have commenced, Cortright said the U.S. should implement a set of “sanctions and inducements,” including cutting off North Korea from international financial markets, suspending joint American military exercises with South Korea, opening up the possibility of diplomatic normalization with North Korea and other objectives in a similar vein.

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