On whose watch? Three presidents saw North Korea develop bomb
Amid the burgeoning debate and partisan finger-pointing over North Korea's weapons program, former U.S. national-security officials say missed...
The Baltimore Sun
WASHINGTON — Amid the burgeoning debate and partisan finger-pointing over North Korea's weapons program, former U.S. national-security officials say missed opportunities over the past three administrations — Republican and Democratic — could have ended, or significantly stunted, Pyongyang's nuclear drive.
"It doesn't mean it's our fault, but it means we have missed opportunities to head it off," said Jon Wolfsthal, a former Department of Energy monitor at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear complex during the Clinton administration.
President Bush defended his diplomatic efforts to contain North Korea's nuclear operations Wednesday, arguing that then-President Clinton's strategy "did not work" and countering Democratic charges that his own policy had failed.
Bush's comments were a gentler variation of Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain's remarks Tuesday calling Clinton's approach to North Korea "a failure."
Within an hour of Bush's Rose Garden news conference, Democrats were countering him via conference call.
"It is not a time for partisan finger-pointing," said Wendy Sherman, who was Clinton's adviser on North Korea.
"We quite understand why some in the Republican Party have decided to lash out at the Democrats," she said, describing Clinton's policy as "very tough, constructive engagement" with North Korea.
After World War II, development of a nuclear bomb spelled survival for then-leader Kim Il Sung. His son and successor, Kim Jong Il, sees the "nuclear scepter" as key to keeping his family in power, Wolfsthal said.
In the 1950s and 1960s, North Korea entered into nuclear-cooperation agreements with the Soviet Union and built a research center in the town of Yongbyon, 60 miles north of the capital, Pyongyang.
In 1965, the Soviet Union gave North Korea its first research reactor, and North Korea built a modest nuclear reactor that became operational in 1986.
As it watched these developments, the U.S. government pressured the Soviet Union to coax North Korea into joining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which would subject it to international weapons inspections. North Korea joined in 1985, but a squabble over paperwork delayed the implementation of safeguards and inspections until 1992.
In 1989, the North Koreans took their reactor offline for about 100 days, and U.S. intelligence officials believe the North Koreans separated out plutonium for reprocessing. Estimates vary, but specialists believe the North Koreans obtained enough plutonium at that point to make one or two bombs.
The U.S. "didn't do anything," Wolfsthal said. "History is going to show that was a tremendous turning point."
Had the United States used its knowledge of what the North Koreans were up to, he said, it could have used international pressure to force the regime to suspend nuclear activity or put it under safeguards, such as international inspections. At the time, there was considerable debate within the first Bush administration over whether to take action, he said, but ultimately the White House rejected calls for action.
The next opportunity came five years later.
In 1993, North Korea refused to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to conduct special inspections of some of its facilities and threatened to withdraw from the treaty.
Tensions escalated, and in 1994, Clinton began making contingency plans for a possible military strike on the nuclear facility, said Matthew Bunn, who worked on nuclear-security issues in the Clinton White House.
The secretary of Defense had traveled to China to alert leaders there of America's plans. Clinton sent bombers to Guam, said Bunn, who is now a nuclear-security specialist at Harvard.
But those plans were set aside when former President Carter flew to North Korea in June 1994, Bunn said. Even though Carter's trip was opposed by some members of the Clinton administration, the talks led to an agreement that was signed in Geneva in October.
Under that deal, North Korea agreed to halt its existing nuclear program and the United States said it would help North Korea replace its nuclear reactors with light-water power plants. They also agreed to move toward normalizing political and economic relations.
But, Bunn said, "both sides failed to fulfill their obligations."
Toward the end of the Clinton administration, the United States came close to reaching another deal to stop North Korea's development of ballistic missiles, said Mark Fitzpatrick, former assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation in the Bush administration. Fitzpatrick left the administration last year.
Meanwhile, North Korea began acquiring centrifuge equipment to enrich uranium from Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, which violated the 1994 agreement — at least in spirit, Fitzpatrick said.
Nuclear bombs can be made with either plutonium or highly enriched uranium. U.S. intelligence agencies reached consensus in 2002 that North Korea was trying to enrich uranium.
"Axis of evil" declaration
The third turning point former officials pointed to was Bush's famous "axis of evil" declaration in his 2002 State of the Union address.
That speech gave North Korea strong reason to be concerned about its national and regime security, and it "couldn't deal with Bush," Fitzpatrick said. "By then, North Korea probably already had a weapon, but maybe they would have been willing to keep it on ice or trade it away for a comprehensive peace settlement with the United States."
Then, in October 2002, James Kelly, assistant secretary of State for East Asia, confronted North Korea with the knowledge that it had been developing the means to enrich uranium. That resulted in the dissolution of the 1994 agreement and opened the door for North Korea to restart its plutonium program, quadrupling its plutonium stockpile, Fitzpatrick said.
National Security Council spokesman Frederick Jones said Bush's "axis of evil" designation did not choke off diplomatic channels.
"We were continuing to work with them after the speech," Jones said.
Multiple rounds of negotiations with six countries ultimately led to a Sept. 19, 2005, agreement on "principles" for North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, he said.
After the deal was announced, North Korea and the United States almost instantly clashed over its true meaning, and North Korea has since walked away from the talks.
Other former officials see the declaration of the "axis of evil" as a different kind of turning point — one in which Bush could have backed up his words with much stronger pressure on North Korea to shut down its nuclear program, but chose not to.
"That was a moment when there might have been an opportunity to push further," said Aaron Friedberg, a former security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney.
But between 2002 and 2003, "the situation sort of stalled," said Friedberg, now a professor at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. "We had a lot of momentum going into that because people were really concerned about our reaction coming out of 9/11."
Friedberg cited a few other examples since 2003 when the United States might have used provocations by North Korea to try to build momentum for international pressure to get North Korea to back down.
"We're at one now again, and the question is: Will others join us in applying some pressure?" he said. "It's harder now than it was before. It's not completely out of the question."
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.