As I Say

by Peter Scoblic | October 4, 2004

The splotch that appeared on satellite photos of North Korea two weeks ago was like a Rorschach blot for foreign policy wonks. A cloud of smoke that would have been considered benign in almost any other country (it being in actuality just a cloud) was immediately feared the result of a nuclear explosion, showing just how anxious national security types have become about Pyongyang's weapons program. Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice had to reassure the Sunday morning talk shows that the North had not, in fact, tested a nuclear bomb.

Even if it had, the Bush administration's response probably would have been equally unconcerned. In September 2003, Powell said, "If they test, we'll take note of their test.... The president has already accepted the possibility that they might test. And we will say, `Gee, that was interesting.'" For his part, the president seems almost Buddha-esque about an increasingly aggressive and atomic Pyongyang. When a New York Times reporter asked him last month if he was concerned about the possibility that North Korea might have six to eight nuclear weapons, Bush simply turned up his palms and shrugged.

An odd reaction from a man who vowed that "[t]he United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons"--and who rarely fails to remind supporters that, "when the American president says something, he better mean what he says." But, when it comes to North Korea, the president seems to have meant very little of what he has said. In numerous speeches and documents, the administration has laid out a security strategy. It holds that weapons of mass destruction in the hands of rogue states and terrorists are the most serious threat we face today, that those threats should be preempted, that rogue states should not be bribed to comply with their international commitments, and that the United States will deal with them unilaterally if necessary. Yet, in his dealings with the Hermit Kingdom, Bush has abandoned each of these precepts, one after another.

`By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred." So Bush said of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea in his 2002 State of the Union address, extending the war on terrorism to rogue states. He and his advisers, of course, believed that Iraq required particular attention, and continually argued that, because of his weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein posed a special threat. In a major speech he gave in Cincinnati on October 7, the president himself made the case, calling the threat from Iraq "unique."

Yet, three days earlier, the administration had learned that Saddam wasn't unique at all. On October 4, North Korean diplomats admitted to Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly in Pyongyang that they had a uranium-enrichment program. Had the president been serious about confronting proliferation, this revelation should have immediately shifted the administration's focus from Iraq. Not because the North Koreans might build a uranium-fueled nuclear weapon (the program was only in its early stages), but because the program foreshadowed the death of a 1994 agreement with the United States that froze North Korea's other, much more dangerous, nuclear facilities: a reactor in the town of Yongbyon, 8,000 spent fuel rods from that reactor, and a facility for reprocessing those rods into plutonium, which can also be used to make nuclear weapons. If North Korea reopened those facilities and reprocessed the fuel rods, it would have enough plutonium for six nukes in six months. In comparison, according to a National Intelligence Estimate released that month, unless it acquired fissile material from abroad, "Iraq probably would not be able to make a weapon until 2007 to 2009."

But, while continuing to forecast Iraqi mushroom clouds, the Bush administration was not moved to address the North Korean threat. Just the opposite. With intelligence that was sure to raise questions about the wisdom of invading Iraq, the administration decided to keep Pyongyang's admission from the Democrats--at least for a while. After all, Congress was scheduled to vote the following week on whether to authorize the use of force in Iraq. So it was that Joe Biden, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, learned of the North Korean revelations on October 17, just two hours before the press did, and Tom Daschle, then the Senate majority leader, had to read about it in the papers the next day. By that time, the White House had its Iraq war resolution in hand.

Over the following months, the White House did everything it could to prevent North Korea's uranium program and the dissolution of the 1994 pact from being seen as a "crisis," going so far as to reprimand reporters who used the term. As the situation deteriorated, the administration engaged in champion understatement. When the president was first asked about the uranium-enrichment program, he called it "a bit of troubling news." When North Korea announced on December 12, 2002, that it was restarting its nuclear facilities, National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack called the move "regrettable." And when, on New Year's Eve, North Korea kicked out International Atomic Energy Agency (iaea) inspectors who were monitoring its nuclear facilities, and later announced its intention to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer called the developments "disappointing" but "no surprise."

`The war on terror will not be won on the defensive. We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge. In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action." When you've laid out this case for preemptive action, as Bush did in a June 2002 speech at West Point, treating a rogue state's rapidly accelerating nuclear weapons program as a matter of marginal importance requires some intellectual contortion. One of the most curious side effects of pooh-poohing the North Korean situation was that the proudly hawkish Bush administration began to sound rather dovish. Just days after the uranium program became public, the president reassured Pyongyang that "the United States has no intention of invading North Korea." He later said, "I believe this is not a military showdown; this a diplomatic showdown."

Seeking peaceful solutions to crises is, of course, admirable, but Bush's tack had a crucial flaw: It ignored the symbiotic relationship between force and diplomacy--the importance of which should have been manifest in late 2002. After all, it was the credible threat of U.S. force that convinced Saddam to readmit weapons inspectors that November. But, even as Bush threatened war if Iraq did not comply with inspections, he did nothing when North Korea actually expelled iaea personnel. As one senior administration official later acknowledged to a New York Times reporter: "I admit there appears to be more than a little irony here. But Iraq was a different problem, in a different place, and we had viable military options."

That suggests we had no military options in North Korea. But in truth, the threat of force played an important role in resolving the last North Korean nuclear crisis, which was sparked in 1993 when the iaea demanded special inspections at two suspicious nuclear facilities. As negotiations over iaea access to the sites made fitful progress, the Pentagon beefed up its forces in South Korea, sending batteries of Patriot missiles, Bradley fighting vehicles, and Apache attack helicopters. That buildup encouraged the North to compromise. Robert Gallucci, who led the American negotiating team, says the threat of force was an "essential" component of Washington's strategy. "[The North Koreans] started looking at this, I'm pretty sure, and didn't like what they saw--and they shouldn't have, because we were actually doing things that would help us be in a better position to launch a strike," he says. Joel Wit, another American negotiator, learned that workers at North Korean hotels were "sleeping with guns underneath their pillows because they thought there was going to be an American attack." Indeed, President Clinton was prepared to authorize the deployment of 50,000 troops to the region, and he considered a strike on Yongbyon. Had the North Koreans begun to reprocess the spent fuel rods--thereby crossing one of the administration's "red lines"--Gallucci believes Clinton would have ordered an attack.

By contrast, there's no sign Bush has seriously considered military action. Though Powell and others insist that all options remain "on the table," Kelly acknowledged in July that the Bush team has not defined red lines of its own. Certainly, it did nothing in April 2003, when the North Koreans announced they had reprocessed their spent fuel rods. To be sure, there is the very real risk that even a targeted strike on Yongbyon would escalate into a full-scale war with horrific casualties. But, by foreclosing even the threat of force early in the crisis, Bush gave away his biggest stick. (Gallucci calls the move "plain dumb.") He also lost an opportunity. At this point, a strike would be ineffective, because it's unclear where the plutonium from the fuel rods is. It could still be at Yongbyon, but it could also be in a cave somewhere in the North Korean countryside--or on a ship bound for the United States.

It is difficult, to say the least, to square the administration's pacific attitude toward North Korea's nuclear activities with its ostensibly muscular approach to foreign policy. Preventing North Korea from reprocessing its fuel rods was a classic example of the need for the preemption Bush preached. But, instead of taking "the path of action," the administration has gone to the other extreme, adopting the very policy Bush said was untenable post-September 11: containment. In his West Point speech, Bush said, "Containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies." North Korea was a case in point, having exported missile parts and technology to Pakistan, Iran, Libya, and others. It would be foolhardy to believe North Korea might not do the same with nuclear material. But, since North Korea now has two dozen more kilograms of plutonium, the administration has been reduced to closely monitoring the country's trade and trying to interdict its ships. Despite the flimsiness of this strategy--the grapefruit-sized sphere of plutonium needed for a weapon could easily slip through the U.S. net-- containment has actually become the preferred strategy of many administration hard-liners.

`People say, `Well, are you willing to talk to North Korea?' Of course we are. But what this nation won't do is be blackmailed." Besides military action and containment, the administration's other option has been diplomacy, Bush's stated preference. But engaging in give-and-take with North Korea had one serious flaw: It was the approach Clinton pursued. Bush vowed that he would not pay off a dictator as he felt his predecessor had done. It is difficult to understate the influence Clinton-avoidance has had on the administration. Indeed, aside from an Iraq fixation, it is the only explanation for Bush's North Korea policy. According to Jack Pritchard, who served as both Clinton's and Bush's special envoy to North Korea until August 2003, the policy was "ABC--Anything But Clinton. ... If it looked or smelled or quacked like it was a Clinton policy, then the hair on the back of their neck went up."

This meant that, while the Bush administration said it wanted a diplomatic end to North Korea's nuclear program, it didn't actually want to negotiate with Pyongyang: Bush insisted there would be no "quid pro quo," no trading carrots for compliance. The result was that, for 20 months, nothing happened. For three months after the North admitted to the uranium program, the Bush administration simply refused to talk to Pyongyang. Then, in January 2003, the White House said it would be willing to talk, but not negotiate, with the North about how that country could "meet its obligations to the international community." Bush did suggest that, if North Korea eliminated its nuclear programs, he might address the North's demands for a nonaggression pact and normalized relations. But, when American negotiators met with their North Korean counterparts, they would not define the U.S. offer or budge from their insistence that North Korea denuclearize first. Not surprisingly, little progress was made.

But this June, under pressure both from its allies and John Kerry, the Bush administration suggested that, if North Korea agreed in principle to forgo its uranium and plutonium programs, it would agree to the resumption of oil shipments that had been cut off in 2002. Furthermore, once the North declared its nuclear facilities and prepared to dismantle them, the United States would draft security assurances, discuss lifting sanctions, and survey the North's energy needs. In the end, the North's facilities would be dismantled, all nuclear material would be shipped out of the country, and relations between the two countries might be normalized. This step-by-step approach, testing North Korean intentions and providing incentives for progress, is prudent--but it's also very Clintonian.

`I assure you, I will never turn over America's national security decisions to leaders of other countries." Bush says this at nearly every campaign stop. But, when administration officials are asked exactly what progress they have made with North Korea, given that the country now has enough plutonium both to fuel its own small arsenal and to sell some to Al Qaeda, they all give the same answer: The negotiations are multilateral, involving not just the United States and North Korea (as was the case during the Clinton administration) but also China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea. This, they say, gives the talks greater force.

It's a rather process-oriented accomplishment for a president who said, in his 2003 State of the Union address, "In all of [its nonproliferation] efforts, ... America's purpose is more than to follow a process--it is to achieve a result." But the strangest thing about the Bush team's pride in its multilateralism is that, contrary to Bush's reassurances, it has effectively put U.S. security in the hands of other countries. China, for instance, has different interests from the United States, yet the Bush administration has insisted on using Beijing as its mediator in the talks. Perhaps unsurprisingly, China now increasingly sides with North Korea to pressure the United States, making Bush's decision to conduct only multilateral talks seem distinctly disadvantageous. Then again, little about the administration's North Korea policy seems to have been anything but.

J. Peter Scoblic is The New Republic's executive editor and author of U.S. vs. Them, an intellectual history of conservative foreign policy.

By J. Peter Scoblic

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