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The Candidates on North Korea Policy

October 23, 2008

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Issue Trackers trace the positions of candidates from the 2008 presidential campaign on major issues related to foreign policy.

For much of the Bush administration’s tenure, the White House took an uncompromising approach to Pyongyang and, in 2002, President Bush listed North Korea in the “Axis of Evil” along with Iran and Iraq during his 2002 State of the Union address. Washington refused to hold bilateral negotiations with the North, opting instead for Six-Party Talks to try to control tensions on the Korean peninsula. In the months after North Korea conducted an October 2006 nuclear test, the administration shifted position, signing a February denuclearization deal and holding bilateral meetings. In June 2008, North Korea handed over an account of its nuclear program to Chinese officials as part of the Six-Party Talks. The Bush administration responded by lifting the provisions of the Trading with the Enemy Act and moving to remove North Korea from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. The remaining 2008 presidential candidates have responded to changing circumstances in the U.S.-North Korea relationship with caution, and advise sanctions to be kept in place if North Korea fails to meet its obligations under the Six-PartyAgreement.

Democratic Ticket on North Korea Policy

Barack Obama
Democratic Party Nominee - President

President Obama advocates for developing an "international coalition" to handle nuclear North Korea, calls the Six-Party Talks "ad hoc," and says he supports "sustained, direct, and aggressive diplomacy." In a September 2008 presidential debate, Obama said a lack of diplomatic engagement with North Korea led the country to significantly increase its nuclear capacity, and said the Bush administration's eventual reengagement with the regime led to "some progress."

Within weeks of Pyongyang's October 2006 nuclear test, Obama appeared on Meet the Press and said the United States had no leverage over North Korea because of Washington's refusal to hold bilateral negotiations. He also clarified a passage from his book Audacity of Hope (in which he posed the question "Why invade Iraq and not North Korea or Burma?") and said he did not consider invading the communist country an option to resolving the nuclear issue.

In May 2005, Obama named North Korea as one of the "biggest proliferation challenges we currently face." Obama has called for the strengthening of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty so that countries like North Korea "that break the rules will automatically face strong international sanctions."

Obama said in September 2008 he believes the United States needs a missile defense system in part because of the nuclear threat North Korea poses.

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Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Democratic Party Nominee - Vice President

Sen. Biden (D-DE), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, supports a policy of direct engagement with Pyongyang, as well as sea-based anti-missile defense against North Korea's growing ballistic missile arsenal. After Pyongyang launched missile tests in July 2006, he referred to the reclusive state as a "paper tiger" (CBS) incapable of doing direct harm to the United States. He repeated that sentiment after the North Korean nuclear test, which he called a "deliberate and dangerous provocation" that could spark an arms race in East Asia.

During a June 2007 Democratic debate in New Hampshire, Biden said he considers defusing tensions on the Korean Peninsula one of "the three most important things that the next president is going to have to deal with" along with shaping Iraq and Iran policy.

In 2006, he joined Senators Harry Reid (D-NV) and Carl Levin (D-MI) in proposing a requirement for the Bush administration to appoint a special coordinator on North Korea. The legislation passed as part of the Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2007.

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Republican Ticket on North Korea Policy

John McCain
Republican Party Nominee - President

Sen. McCain (R-AZ), has said North Korea has the "most repressive and brutal regime probably on Earth." In a September 2008 presidential debate, McCain called North Korea "a huge gulag." McCain says he would not negotiate with the regime without preconditions. He also objected to the Bush administration's removal of North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terror. In an October 2008 interview with the Weekly Standard, McCain said the move "basically contradicted Ronald Reagan's great dictum of trust but verify."

McCain, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been highly critical of the Agreed Framework negotiated with North Korea during the Clinton administration. In the wake of the North Korean nuclear test, he called the pact a "failure" (AP) that allowed money for food assistance to be siphoned into funds for Pyongyang's weapons program. In 2003, he cosponsored an amendment to an appropriations bill stating that the Senate considered the Agreed Framework void because of North Korea's nuclear weapons development. The amendment was approved.

During a February 2007 speech to the Seattle World Affairs Council, McCain expressed concern that North Korea would not meet the denuclearization requirements set out in that month's Six-Party Talks deal. He also described North Korea as the "foremost security challenge" in Asia.

In a November 2007 article in Foreign Affairs he wrote, "It is unclear today whether North Korea is truly committed to verifiable denuclearization and a full accounting of all its nuclear materials and facilities, two steps that are necessary before any lasting diplomatic agreement can be reached. Future talks must take into account North Korea's ballistic missile programs, its abduction of Japanese citizens, and its support for terrorism and proliferation."

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Democratic Primary Candidates on North Korea Policy

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Democratic Primary Candidate

In January 2006, Sen. Clinton said failure to hold direct talks with North Korea gave Pyongyang an “open invitation” to process plutonium. She advocates direct contact with North Korea and, in a letter she cosigned to President Bush in June 2006, described multilateral Six-Party Talks as “fruitless” (PDF) in their goal of controlling North Korea’s nuclear program. Still, in February 2008, Clinton said she would not meet with leaders from North Korea and other U.S. adversaries "without preconditions." (USA Today)

During a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations held weeks after the nuclear test, the senator said UN sanctions against Pyongyang are “not as tough as I would want.”

Editor's Note: Sen. Clinton withdrew her candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on June 7, 2008.

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Christopher J. Dodd
Democratic Primary Candidate

Sen. Dodd (D-CT), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, favors direct contact with Pyongyang. After a July 2006 missile test by North Korea, he expressed support on CBS' Face the Nation for bilateral talks with Pyongyang as a “subset” of the Six-Party process. He also said the possibility of a North Korean nuclear sale to terrorists serves as the biggest concern.

Dodd has stressed working closely with China and South Korea on the North Korean nuclear issue. During a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations held shortly after the October nuclear test, he said “we’ve spent too much time probably worrying about bilateral or six-party talks” and that China should play a more central role in negotiations.  

Editor's Note: Sen. Dodd withdrew his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 3, 2008.

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John Edwards
Democratic Primary Candidate

As a 2004 presidential candidate, Edwards advocated dealing with North Korea “firmly and directly.” He supported pressuring Pyongyang into full disarmament in exchange for aid incentives, including food and energy.

Edwards supports bilateral direct talks with North Korea, as he stated in an Asia Society speech in October 2006, held weeks after the nuclear test. In a September 2007 Foreign Affairs article, Edwards said North Korea's willingness to shut down the Yongbyon reactor is "a sign that the carrots-and-sticks approach can work," and that the United States should continue to engage North Korea through the six-party framework.

Editor's note: Edwards dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination on January 30, 2008.

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Mike Gravel
Democratic Primary Candidate

On his campaign website, Mike Gravel describes his North Korea approach as “unambiguous”; he supports bilateral talks in addition to multilateral efforts, and says, “[A]ggressive diplomacy can be even more lethal but less dangerous than the use of military force.”

Editor's Note: Mike Gravel ended his bid for the Democraticnomination on March 26, 2008. He then ran for the LibertarianParty's presidential nomination before announcing the end ofhis political career on May 25, 2008.

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Dennis Kucinich
Democratic Primary Candidate

Rep. Kucinich (D-OH) supports direct engagement with North Korea and for the President to “meet personally with [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-Il.” He advocates working closely with South Korea to pursue a “permanent peace settlement” with the goal of reunifying the peninsula.

Editor's Note: Rep. Kucinich withdrew his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 25, 2008.

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Bill Richardson
Democratic Primary Candidate

The governor of New Mexico, who supports bilateral negotiations (NPR), says “What [North Koreans] respond to is dealing with them directly.” He has visited North Korea six times, beginning with a trip in 1994 when he secured the release of the remains of a U.S. serviceman. He also traveled to Pyongyang while U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. As energy secretary during the Clinton administration, he oversaw the delivery of fuel assistance under the terms of the 1994 Agreed Framework.

Richardson joined a U.S. delegation to North Korea in April 2007, where the trip involved securing the remains of six U.S. soldiers who served in the Korean War. He also pressed North Korean officials to meet a sixty-day deadline to shut down the country’s main nuclear reactor to comply with a February 2007 denuclearization agreement signed by Six-Party Talk members. (The deadline was not met due to the stalled release of North Korean funds from a Macao bank.)

Days after returning from Pyongyang, Richardson gave a speech at the Asia Society focusing in which he voiced opposition to decreasing the U.S. military presence in South Korea near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) and depending on China to negotiate for the United States.

Editor's Note: Richardson withdrew his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 10, 2008.

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Republican Primary Candidates on North Korea Policy

Sam Brownback
Republican Primary Candidate

Sen. Brownback (R-KS) has centered his North Korea policy on human rights issues as a means to destabilize the Kim regime, and he sponsored the North Korean Human Rights Act passed by Congress in 2004. The law made it easier for North Koreans to apply for refugee status with the U.S. State Department and provided funds supporting economic reform, human rights, and democracy movements in the communist country. In 2006, six people gained refugee status and arrived in the United States in Washington’s first ever acceptance of North Korean refugees.

In 2006, Brownback cosponsored the North Korea Nonproliferation Act of 2006 which allows for sanctions against companies and businesses that provide North Korea with equipment, services, or technology for its weapons program.

Editor's Note: Sen. Brownback withdrew his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination on October 19, 2007.

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James S. Gilmore
Republican Primary Candidate

Gilmore’s stance on North Korea is unknown.

Editor's note: Gilmore withdrew his candidacy for the Republican nomination in July 2007.

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Rudy Giuliani
Republican Primary Candidate

The former mayor of New York City supports the Bush Administration’s North Korea policy, with emphasis on a Chinese role in placing pressure on Pyongyang. “I think the strategy has produced enough results so far that you have to stick with it,” said Giuliani at an April 2007 event in New Hampshire, the New York Times reports. At that time he indicated it remains unclear whether Iran or North Korea is further along in developing a nuclear weapons program.

Editor's note: Giuliani dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 31, 2008.

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Mike Huckabee
Republican Primary Candidate

Huckabee’s stance on North Korea is unknown.

Editor's Note: Huckabee withdrew his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on March 4, 2008.

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Duncan Hunter
Republican Primary Candidate

After the North Korean nuclear test, Rep. Hunter (R-CA) wrote a letter to President Bush advocating for a missile defense system “capable of addressing the full range of North Korean missile-based threats to the United States, our deployed forces, and our allies.”

Editor's note: Hunter dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 19, 2008.

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Ron Paul
Republican Primary Candidate

Rep. Paul (R-TX) has voiced opposition to sanctions against North Korea. He believes the country could serve as a market for U.S. goods, saying, "Every market we close to our nation's farmers is a market exploited by foreign farmers."

Editor's Note: Rep. Paul withdrew his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on June 12, 2008.

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Mitt Romney
Republican Primary Candidate

Romney expressed doubts about the Six-Party Talks' February denuclearization agreement, saying inspectors must gain full access to North Korean nuclear facilities to ensure the deal's success, as well as to make sure Pyongyang is not "cheating."

Editor's note: Romney dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on February 7, 2008.

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Tom Tancredo
Republican Primary Candidate

Rep. Tancredo (R-CO) opposed the February denuclearization deal with North Korea and supports a stronger approach. In a March 2007 piece for the Denver Post, he calls North Korea an “economic vassal” of China. For that reason, says Tancredo, the United States should pressure Beijing to push Pyongyang to end its nuclear program. He suggests making it clear to China that if North Korea fails to abandon its program, Washington will deploy theater missile defense systems in South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.

Editor's Note: Congressman Tancredo formally withdrew his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination on December 20, 2007.

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Tommy Thompson
Republican Primary Candidate

Thompson’s stance on North Korea is unknown.

Editor's note: Thompson dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on August 12, 2007.

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