Thursday, October 19, 2006

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (10/19/06)


"Mugged by reality" aptly describes the reason for the sudden and abrupt shift in public sentiment away from the Bush administration. Beset by scandal and obsessed with pursuing the chimera of victory in the remote sands of Iraq, it has allowed North Korea and Iran to pursue nuclear dreams. Another result is verbose excesses by nervous politicians like Sen. John McCain, who calls his campaign bus the "Straight Talk Express."

Straight talk was not what he was peddling one day after North Korea's nuclear weapon test. At a campaign event in Michigan, he reminded "Senator Clinton and other Democrats critical of the Bush administration's policies that the framework agreement her husband's administration negotiated [with North Korea] was a failure. Every single time the Clinton administration warned the Koreans not to do something--not to kick out the IAEA inspectors, not to remove the fuel rods from their reactor--they did it. And they were rewarded every single time by the Clinton administration with further talks."

Not so fast, Senator. The facts of what really happened after North Korea's secret nuclear weapons program was disclosed in 1993 tell a completely different story. Bill Clinton had been president for little more than a year when North Korea announced it was preparing to remove the fuel rods from their Yongbyon nuclear reactor, withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty it had signed in 1985 and expelling the weapons inspectors who had been keeping tab on the rods. Uncontrolled, the rogue country could soon be building about 30 Nagasaki-sized nuclear weapons annually.

Far from rewarding North Korea for its actions, Clinton urged the U.N. Security Council to consider sanctions. North Korea announced that sanctions would trigger war, a threat still echoed today. Although not known for being hawkish, Clinton instructed the Pentagon to draw up plans to meet the threat. These included the dispatch of 50,000 troops to South Korea to beef up the 37,000 stationed there since the 1950s, and over 400 combat jets, 50 warships, and additional battalions of Apache helicopters, Bradley fighting vehicles, multiple-launch rockets, and Patriot air-defense missiles. Clinton also ordered an advance team of 250 Army logistical specialists to set up headquarters in Korea to manage this massive influx of troops and equipment. His actions sent a clear signal to the North Koreans he was willing to go to war to keep the fuel rods under international control. Clinton let it be known that removal of the fuel rods meant crossing a "red line," and he was prepared to launch an air strike on the Yongbyon reactor even if it provoked war.

Simultaneously, Clinton set up a diplomatic back channel to resolve the crisis peacefully by sending former President Jimmy Carter to Pyongyang to talk with Kim Il-Sung, then the leader of North Korea and the father of the present "dear leader," Kim Jong-il. Carter was an ideal choice for this mission. As president, he had once announced he would withdraw all U.S. troops from South Korea. He quickly backpedaled when the idea met stiff opposition--but it endeared him to Kim Il Sung. After Carter left office, the dictator issued a standing invitation for him to visit. Carter's trip was widely portrayed at the time as a private venture, unapproved by President Clinton.

It is now known that Clinton quietly recruited Carter to make the trip. The Clinton administration was divided over Carter. Those who had served under him--Warren Christopher, Clinton's secretary of state, and Anthony Lake, his national security adviser--opposed the trip. Carter was a loose cannon who would ignore orders and freelance a deal, they warned. Vice President Al Gore was for the trip as the only way out of the crisis. Clinton sided with Gore. As Clinton saw it, Kim Il-Sung needed a way to save face, Oriental style, and Carter might be able to offer that. As it turned out, both sides in the internal debate were right: The dictator backed down, and Carter negotiated the framework of an agreement, announcing its terms live on CNN, only minutes after telling Clinton.

Kim Il-Sung abandoned his threats, the fuel rods were not moved and the inspectors were not evicted. Four months later, on Oct. 21, 1994, the United States and North Korea signed a formal document called the Agreed Framework based on those terms. In it North Korea renewed its commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, agreed to lock up the fuel rods and to allow the inspectors to return and monitor the facility. In exchange, with financial backing from South Korea and Japan, the U.S. would provide two light-water nuclear reactors to generate electricity, supply fuel oil, and pledge not to invade North Korea.

This document effectively clamped a lid on North Korea's nuclear program until 2002. Honoring its terms, Pyongyang kept the fuel rods locked up and the inspectors monitored the site. Gradually, Washington and Pyongyang were to set up diplomatic and trade relations. In an annex to the accord, all parties agreed the nuclear fuel from the light-water reactors would be shipped to a third country for recycling--a course President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed recently for Iran's nuclear fuel. The agreement fell apart in 2002--but not for the reasons advanced by Senator McCain. Initially, North Korea kept its side of the bargain. The same cannot be said of our side.

Because the accord was not a formal treaty, Congress did not have to ratify the terms, but balked at the financial commitment. So did South Korea. The light-water reactors were never funded. Steps toward normalization were never taken. In 1996, one of Pyongyang's spy submarines washed up on the coast of South Korea; Seoul reacted by suspending its share of energy aid, and Pyongyang retaliated with typically inflammatory rhetoric. We now know that about this time the North Koreans also secretly started to ship missile technology to Pakistan in exchange for Pakistani centrifuges.

Compare Clinton's decisiveness with wishy-washy George W. Bush. Beginning his first term in office in January 2001, he proclaimed the Agreed Framework to be dead and announced that he had no interest in talking with the North Koreans. A few months later, intelligence revealed that North Korea had been enriching uranium--a much slower method of achieving a bomb than by reprocessing plutonium. (The bomb the North Koreans set off last week was not a uranium bomb but a plutonium bomb--a bomb created on Bush's watch--not Clinton's.) After the discovery of North Korea's uranium enrichment, Bush toughened his stance against negotiations even more.

The North Koreans tried to replay the 1994 scenario, threatening to unlock the fuel rods, expel the inspectors and renounce the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Through former ambassadors Bill Richardson and Donald Gregg, however, they exhibited willingness to back off their threats if the Agreed Framework were reinstated--but George W. Bush wasn't interested in playing the negotiating game. Stymied, toward the end of 2002 the North Koreans unlocked the rods and evicted the inspectors, thus crossing the "red line" Clinton had drawn. Bush, famous for belligerence and saber rattling, took no military action. He called for no sanctions. He tried no diplomacy. It was George W. Bush who did nothing--not Bill Clinton.

And while we're assessing blame for Bush's total inaction, the record shows that soon after George H.W. Bush, the president's father, moved into the White House, the CIA discovered that near their nuclear reactor at Yongbyon the North Koreans were building a reprocessing facility to manufacture weapons-grade plutonium from the fuel rods. Five years later, Bill Clinton stopped the North Koreans from moving the rods into this facility. Eight years after Clinton's decisive action, George W. Bush passively allowed the North Koreans to move them. Welcome to reality, Mr. President.


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