North Korea’s Bombs

NORTH KOREA’S BOMBS….White House spokesman Tony Snow offered up an analysis of Bill Clinton’s policy toward North Korea today:

I understand what the Clinton administration wanted to do. They wanted to talk reason to the government of Pyongyang, and they engaged in bilateral conversations. And Bill Richardson went with flowers and chocolates…and many other inducements for the “Dear Leader” to try to agree not to develop nuclear weapons, and it failed….We’ve learned from that mistake.

Indeed. But perhaps some facts are in order here. North Korea first began reprocessing plutonium during the administration of George Bush Sr. and may even have built one or two nuclear bombs during that period. Then, in 1994, they began preparations to remove plutonium fuel rods from their storage site, expel international weapons inspectors, and build more bombs. Clinton threatened the North Koreans with war if they went down this road, and then, after sending Jimmy Carter to Pyongyang for negotiations, signed a deal to keep North Korea’s plutonium under international control in return for the delivery of two light water nuclear reactors, shipments of heavy fuel oil, and normalization of relations.

For the next six years that agreement held together and North Korea built no more bombs. North Korea even made some promising overtures about missile development late in Clinton’s term, but there was no time to conclude the negotiations and the Bush administration showed no interest in following up on anything that it associated with the Clinton era. Fred Kaplan tells the rest of the story in “Rolling Blunder” from our May 2004 issue:

On Oct. 4, 2002, officials from the U.S. State Department flew to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, and confronted Kim Jong-il’s foreign ministry with evidence that Kim had acquired centrifuges for processing highly enriched uranium, which could be used for building nuclear weapons. To the Americans’ surprise, the North Koreans conceded. It was an unsettling revelation, coming just as the Bush administration was gearing up for a confrontation with Iraq. This new threat wasn’t imminent; processing uranium is a tedious task; Kim Jong-il was almost certainly years away from grinding enough of the stuff to make an atomic bomb.

But 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.

Read the rest to get the whole story. And then ask yourself just who it was who really failed here.