North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons: Another Result of the Wrong Policies

It seems that North Korea may be close to its first test of a nuclear weapon. Some news reports this morning suggested that they may already have done so, though it is now looking increasingly like the large explosion in North Korea over the weekend was not nuclear.

If North Korea does indeed perform a nuclear weapons test, I hope that there will be some public review of how we arrived at this point. This piece by Slate reporter Fred Kaplan, which appeared in the Washington Monthly in May 2004, presents a thorough history of the efforts to keep North Korea’s nuclear and long-range missile ambitions unfulfilled. I’ve tried excerpting some highlights, but you really should read the whole thing.

On Jan. 10, 2003, [North Korea] withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. However, they also said they would reverse their actions and retract their declarations if the United States resumed its obligations under the Agreed Framework and signed a non-aggression pledge.

…Bush had no desire to negotiate with North Korea over its nuclear weapons, much less its energy needs. To Bush and those who agreed with him, this refusal was a matter of principle. Pritchard recalls reading an NSC memo early on in the Bush administration, stating this no-negotiations policy explicitly. The rationale for the policy, according to the memo: to preserve “moral clarity.”

When their overtures to Richardson led nowhere, the North Koreans escalated tensions again. Over the next two weeks, U.S. spy satellites detected trucks pulling up to the site where the fuel rods were stored, then driving away toward the reprocessing facility. When Kim Il Sung threatened to take this step back in 1994, Clinton warned that it would cross a “red line.” When Kim Jong-il actually did it in 2003, George W. Bush 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.

…What explains Bush’s inaction before North Korea crossed the red line–and his weak response afterward? Historians will surely debate that question for decades. Part of the answer probably lies in the administration’s all-consuming focus on Iraq. Military mobilization toward the Persian Gulf was in full swing; the invasion would start in March. It would have been a bit much–in money, matériel, and mental concentration–to start mobilizing for northeast Asia, too. In January, a senior administration official told The New York Times, “President Bush does not want to distract international attention from Iraq.”

In short, Bush took no serious military action because, in a sense, he couldn’t. And he took no serious diplomatic action because he didn’t want to.

…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.

…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. It may not be too late to avert the coming disaster. The question is whether the president–whoever he might be–recognizes that a disaster is coming, decides to deal with it, and does so fairly soon. The time is already late; at some point, it will run out.

Yet another failure by “W stands for Wrong”: it appears that time has indeed run out.