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Bush's Dangerous Failure in North Korea

In last month's Washington Monthly, Fred Kaplan treats us to a long article about the US government's attitude towards and action concerned with North Korea's nuclear weapons program. He argues with documented plausibility that Bush's foreign policy team dropped the ball after significant advances in the 1990s. And that this failure has led to ever more dangerous complications in the region.

Kaplan notes the North Koreans' constant search for nuclear technology, in the form of centrifuges and similar equipment. However, as he points out,

"the North Koreans had another route to nuclear weapons--a stash of radioactive fuel rods, taken a decade earlier from its nuclear power plant in Yongbyon. These rods could be processed into plutonium--and, from that, into A-bombs--not in years but in months. Thanks to an agreement brokered by the Clinton administration, the rods were locked in a storage facility under the monitoring of international weapons-inspectors. Common sense dictated that--whatever it did about the centrifuges--the Bush administration should do everything possible to keep the fuel rods locked up. Unfortunately, common sense was in short supply. After a few shrill diplomatic exchanges over the uranium, Pyongyang upped the ante. The North Koreans expelled the international inspectors, broke the locks on the fuel rods, loaded them onto a truck, and drove them to a nearby reprocessing facility, to be converted into bomb-grade plutonium."
This looks to me like a typical far-right issue of ideological stubbornness overriding reasonable judgement. Kaplan agrees, but more comprehensively:
"The pattern of decision making that led to this debacle ... will sound familiar to anyone who has watched Bush and his cabinet in action. It is a pattern of wishful thinking, blinding moral outrage, willful ignorance of foreign cultures, a naive faith in American triumphalism, a contempt for the messy compromises of diplomacy, and a knee-jerk refusal to do anything the way the Clinton administration did it."
Kaplan rehearses the 1994 scare during which Clinton was seriously considering war to stop the reprocessing of the rods, making on-the-ground preparations that persuaded Pyongyang he was serious. At the same time, he sent Jimmy Carter on a "private" mission to the country to negotiate on his behalf.
"Clinton's cabinet was divided over whether to let Carter go. Officials who had served under Carter--Clinton's secretary of state, Warren Christopher, and national security adviser, Anthony Lake--opposed the trip. Carter, they warned, was a loose cannon who would ignore his orders and free-lance a deal. Vice President Al Gore favored the trip, seeing no other way out of the crisis. Clinton sided with Gore. As Clinton saw it, Kim Il Sung had painted himself into a corner and needed an escape hatch--a clear path to back away from the brink without losing face, without appearing to buckle under pressure from the U.S. government. Carter might offer that hatch.

Both sides in this internal debate turned out to be right. Kim agreed to back down. And Carter went way beyond his instructions, negotiating the outlines of a treaty and announcing the terms live on CNN, notifying Clinton only minutes in advance.

Four months later, on Oct. 21, 1994, the United States and North Korea signed a formal accord based on those outlines, called the Agreed Framework. Under its terms, North Korea would renew its commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, lock up the fuel rods, and let the IAEA inspectors back in to monitor the facility. In exchange, the United States, with financial backing from South Korea and Japan, would provide two light-water nuclear reactors for electricity (explicitly allowed under the NPT), a huge supply of fuel oil, and a pledge not to invade North Korea."

The agreement unfortunately had a sorry history thereafter, with both sides failing to meet the basic terms. However, the nuclear rods stayed locked up. By 2000, relations had warmed again and Clinton felt he was close to a genuine agreement with the North Koreans. During the transition in the winter of 2000/2001,
"The Clinton team briefed Powell for two hours on the status of the North Korean talks. Halfway into the briefing, Condoleezza Rice, the new national security adviser, who had just flown in from meeting with Bush in Texas, showed up. One participant remembers Powell listening to the briefing with enthusiasm. Rice, however, was clearly skeptical. "The body language was striking," he says. "Powell was leaning forward. Rice was very much leaning backward. Powell thought that what we had been doing formed an interesting basis for progress. He was disabused very quickly."
BushThe new President's people made it clear to Powell that his public pleasure at the possibility of such an agreement had to be publicly disavowed. Powell was forced to tell the world that he had leaned "too forward in my skis." At the same time, Bush himself publicly bitch-slapped Kim Dae Jung, President of South Korea, who had developed an open "sunshine" policy toward his northern brethren, and who was therefore seen as left-wing and weak.
"So when Kim Dae Jung arrived in Washington, Bush publicly criticized him and his sunshine policy. Bush and his advisers--especially Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld--decided not only to isolate North Korea, in the hopes that its regime would crumble, but also to ignore South Korea, in hopes that its next election would restore a conservative.

Bush was the naïve one, it turned out. Kim Jong-il survived U.S. pressures. And Kim Dae Jung was replaced by Roh Moo Hyun, a populist who ran on a campaign that was not only pro-sunshine but also anti-American."

These were indeed tense days and nights. In January 2002, Bush linked North Korea with Iran and Iraq in his "Axis of Evil" State of the Union address. At the same same time, he was planning for a visit to South Korea. Charles "Jack" Pritchard, who had been director of the National Security Council's Asia desk under Clinton and was now the State Department's special North Korean envoy, went to Soeul with the advance team:
"The conversation in the streets of Seoul was, 'Is there going to be a war? What will these crazy Americans do?' Roh said to us, 'I wake up in a sweat every morning, wondering if Bush has done something unilaterally to affect the [Korean] peninsula."
KimJongIlBy September of 2002, it was clear that the west was never going to finance the reactors they had promised. At the same time, it became equally clear that the North Koreans werre making an end run arounf the Non-Proliferation Agreement by obtaining centrifuges from Pakistan. At this time, the North Korean situation became complicated with the developing situation in Iraq.
"On Oct. 4, Kelly flew to Pyongyang to confront North Korean officials with the evidence. The North Koreans admitted it was true. For almost two weeks, the Bush administration kept this meeting a secret. The U.S. Senate was debating a resolution to give President Bush the authority to go to war in Iraq. The public rationale for war was that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. If it was known that North Korea was also making WMDs--and nuclear weapons, at that--it would have muddied the debate over Iraq. Some would have wondered whether Iraq was the more compelling danger--or asked why Bush saw a need for war against Iraq but not against North Korea. The Senate passed the Iraqi war resolution on Oct. 11. The Bush administration publicly revealed what it had known for weeks about North Korea's enriched-uranium program on Oct. 17."
At this point, everything broke down.
"On Oct. 20, Bush announced that it was formally withdrawing from the 1994 Agreed Framework. It halted oil supplies to North Korea and urged other countries to cut off all economic relations with Pyongyang. The North Koreans, perhaps realizing that they had once again boxed themselves into a diplomatic corner, decided to replay the crisis of 1994: In late December, they expelled the international weapons inspectors, restarted the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, and unlocked the container holding the fuel rods. On Jan. 10, 2003, they withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty."
Howver, at the same time, Pyongyang agreed to halt all re-processing if the US would go back to something similar to Clinton's 1994 Framework Agreement. They also sought unofficial diplomatic channels, most notably through Governor and former Ambassador to the U.N. Bill Richardson. But none of these efforts were destined to work, partly because Richardson was a Clintonite (and therefore automatically anathema to the Bush camp) and partly because the warhawks -- Bush, Rumsfeld, Rice and Cheney -- believed that negotiating with such countries damaged their "moral clarity."

However, when push came to shove and Kim Jong-il felt obliged to go ahead and begin processing of the rods, the Bush regime did nothing.

"Specialists inside the U.S. government were flabbergasted. This was serious business. Once those fuel rods left the storage site, once reprocessing began, once plutonium was manufactured, the strategic situation changed: Even if we could get the North Koreans back to the bargaining table, even if they would agree to drive the fuel rods back, we could never be certain that they'd totally disarmed; we could never know if they still had some undeclared plutonium hidden in an underground chamber. (Even before this crisis, the CIA estimated that the North Koreans might have built one or two bombs from the plutonium it had reprocessed between 1989 and 1994.)

In March 2003, President Bush ordered several attack planes, as well as some B-1 and B-52 bombers, to the U.S. Air Force base in Guam, well within range of North Korea. The clear intent was to signal a possible impending air strike on the reactor. It was a feeble threat, a classic case of shutting the barn door after the horses escaped: By this time, the fuel rods were gone and possibly hidden away. Indeed, Bush made no moves to support, or otherwise prepare for, an air strike; there were no movements of ground or naval forces to deter or beat back a possible North Korean retaliatory strike or invasion. Nor was the movement of air forces accompanied by any diplomatic moves. In May, Bush ordered the aircraft back to their home bases."

The crazy guy -- Kim Jong-Il -- had scalded the tail of the paper tiger and got away with it. Kaplan puts the future situation clearly:
"Conservatives today portray Bush's unwillingness to negotiate with Kim as a virtue that will make the world safer, and Clinton's '94 framework as something that rewarded evil and therefore undermined our security. But the simple fact is that if Clinton hadn't signed it, North Korea could have built dozens of nuclear bombs by now--to store as a deterrent, rattle as weapons of intimidation, sell to the highest bidder for much-needed hard currency, or all three. And if steps aren't taken to ward North Korea off its current course, Kim Jong-il could build dozens of bombs over the next few years. This is why, ultimately, Bush's no-negotiations policy is not merely puzzling but irresponsible. Kim may be playing the nuclear card as a bargaining chip, but if the United States declines to bargain, he will gladly keep his chips and stack them high.

Nor does Bush, at this point, have a plausible military option for thwarting Pyongyang's ambitions before they spiral out of hand. A preemptive strike would be less effective than it might have been in Clinton's day. Bush could destroy the Yongbyon reactor, but the strike probably wouldn't destroy the plutonium or the enriched uranium, which intelligence officials assume is stored underground--precisely where, they don't know. Then there is the possibility of North Korean retaliation, if not with the one or two nukes that they may already have, then with the thousands of artillery shells on the South Korean border, many of them loaded with chemical munitions, most of them within range of Seoul. In short, we have little leverage; the North Koreans have a lot; yet Bush refuses to take the North Koreans up on their offers to trade their weapons away. "

Late last year, the North Koreans announced that they had completed re-processing the rods. In addition, they said, they had solved the technical problems of converting the material to bombs.
"Bush's failure to make a deal, while the fuel rods were still locked up, constitutes one of the great diplomatic blunders of our time ... The time is already late; at some point, it will run out."

June 7, 2004 in America Inc, History, North Korea | Permalink


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