nuclear plant
Credit: Tennessee Valley Authority/Flickr

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. After a few shrill diplomatic exchanges over the uranium, Pyongyang upped the ante. The North Koreans expelled the international inspectors, broke the locks on the fuel rods, loaded them onto a truck, and drove them to a nearby reprocessing facility, to be converted into bomb-grade plutonium. The White House stood by and did nothing. Why did George W. Bush—his foreign policy avowedly devoted to stopping “rogue regimes” from acquiring weapons of mass destruction—allow one of the world’s most dangerous regimes to acquire the makings of the deadliest WMDs? Given the current mayhem and bloodshed in Iraq, it’s hard to imagine a decision more ill-conceived than invading that country unilaterally without a plan for the “post-war” era. But the Bush administration’s inept diplomacy toward North Korea might well have graver consequences. President Bush made the case for war in Iraq on the premise that Saddam Hussein might soon have nuclear weapons—which turned out not to be true. Kim Jong-il may have nuclear weapons now; he certainly has enough plutonium to build some, and the reactors to breed more.

Yet Bush has neither threatened war nor pursued diplomacy. He has recently, and halfheartedly, agreed to hold talks; the next round is set for June. But any deal that the United States might cut now to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program will be harder and costlier than a deal that Bush could have cut 18 months ago, when he first had the chance, before Kim Jong-il got his hands on bomb-grade material and the leverage that goes with it.

The pattern of decision making that led to this debacle—as described to me in recent interviews with key former administration officials who participated in the events—will sound familiar to anyone who has watched Bush and his cabinet in action. It is a pattern of wishful thinking, blinding moral outrage, willful ignorance of foreign cultures, a naive faith in American triumphalism, a contempt for the messy compromises of diplomacy, and a knee-jerk refusal to do anything the way the Clinton administration did it.

Negotiating with the mad man

Few countries on earth are more difficult to deal with than North Korea. Since the end of the Korean War 50 years ago, the hermetically sealed regime—the first and the last of Stalin’s idolators—has brutalized its own people, threatened its neighbors, and stymied outsiders.

Bill Clinton, a president not known for hawkishness, nearly went to war against North Korea in the spring of 1994. Five years earlier, during the presidency of George Bush’s father, the CIA had discovered the North Koreans were building a reprocessing facility near their nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. It was this reactor that, when finished, would allow them to convert the fuel rods into weapons-grade plutonium. Now, barely a year into Clinton’s first term in office, they were preparing to remove the fuel rods from their storage site, expel the international weapons inspectors, and withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (which North Korea had signed in 1985).

In response, Clinton pushed the United Nations Security Council to consider sanctions. North Korea’s spokesmen proclaimed that sanctions would trigger war. Clinton’s generals drew up plans to send 50,000 troops to South Korea—bolstering the 37,000 that had been there for decades—as well as over 400 combat jets, 50 ships, and additional battalions of Apache helicopters, Bradley fighting vehicles, multiple-launch rockets, and Patriot air-defense missiles. Beyond mere plans, Clinton ordered in an advance team of 250 soldiers to set up logistical headquarters that could manage this massive influx of firepower. These moves sent a signal to the North Koreans that the president was willing to go to war to keep the fuel rods under international control. And, several former officials insist, he would have. At the very least, they say, he was prepared to launch an air strike on the Yongbyon reactor, even though he knew that doing so could provoke war.

Yet at the same time, Clinton set up a diplomatic back-channel to end the crisis peacefully. The vehicle for this channel was former President Jimmy Carter, who in June 1994 was sent to Pyongyang to talk with Kim Il Sung, then the leader of North Korea. Carter’s trip was widely portrayed at the time as a private venture, unapproved by President Clinton. However, a new book about the ’94 North Korean crisis, Going Critical, written by three former officials who played key roles in the events’ unfolding, reveals that Clinton recruited Carter to go.

Carter was an ideal choice. As president, he had once announced that he would withdraw all U.S. troops from South Korea. He retracted the idea after it met fierce opposition, even from liberal Democrats. But it endeared him to Kim Il Sung, who, after Carter left office, issued him a standing invitation to come visit.

Clinton’s cabinet was divided over whether to let Carter go. Officials who had served under Carter—Clinton’s secretary of state, Warren Christopher, and national security adviser, Anthony Lake—opposed the trip. Carter, they warned, was a loose cannon who would ignore his orders and free-lance a deal. Vice President Al Gore favored the trip, seeing no other way out of the crisis. Clinton sided with Gore. As Clinton saw it, Kim Il Sung had painted himself into a corner and needed an escape hatch—a clear path to back away from the brink without losing face, without appearing to buckle under pressure from the U.S. government. Carter might offer that hatch.

Both sides in this internal debate turned out to be right. Kim agreed to back down. And Carter went way beyond his instructions, negotiating the outlines of a treaty and announcing the terms live on CNN, notifying Clinton only minutes in advance.

Four months later, on Oct. 21, 1994, the United States and North Korea signed a formal accord based on those outlines, called the Agreed Framework. Under its terms, North Korea would renew its commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, lock up the fuel rods, and let the IAEA inspectors back in to monitor the facility. In exchange, the United States, with financial backing from South Korea and Japan, would provide two light-water nuclear reactors for electricity (explicitly allowed under the NPT), a huge supply of fuel oil, and a pledge not to invade North Korea.

The accord also specified that, upon delivery of the first light-water reactor (the target date was 2003), intrusive inspections of suspected North Korean nuclear sites would begin. After the second reactor arrived, North Korea would ship its fuel rods out of the country. It would essentially give up the ability to build nuclear weapons.

Other sections of the accord—which were less publicized—pledged both sides to “move toward full normalization of political and economic relations.” Within three months of its signing, the two countries were to lower trade barriers and install ambassadors in each other’s capitals. The United States was also to “provide full assurances” that it would never use, or threaten to use, nuclear weapons against North Korea.

Initially, North Korea kept to its side of the bargain. The same cannot be said of our side. Since the accord was not a formal treaty, Congress did not have to ratify the terms, but it did balk on 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 landed on South Korean shores; in reaction, Seoul suspended its share of energy assistance; Pyongyang retaliated with typically inflammatory rhetoric. Somewhere around this time, we now know, the regime also secretly started to export missile technology to Pakistan in exchange for Pakistani centrifuges.

By the middle of 2000, relations started to warm somewhat. Kim Jong-il—who had taken over after his father’s death in 1994—invited Clinton to Pyongyang, promising to sign a treaty banning the production of long-range missiles and the export of all missiles. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made the advance trip in October.

Kim Jong-il is clearly one of the world’s battier leaders. Tales are legion of his egomaniacal extravagance and his weird ambitions. Yet those who saw him negotiate with Albright say he can behave very soundly when he wants. Robert Einhorn, who was Clinton’s chief North Korea negotiator (and is now an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a conservative think tank in Washington), took part in the 12 hours of talks with Kim. “He struck me as a very serious, rational guy who knew his issues pretty well,” Einhorn recalls.

Wendy Sherman, who was Albright’s North Korean policy coordinator, came away with the same impression. “There were 14 unresolved issues,” Sherman says, “and he sat with the secretary, answering all her questions.” Einhorn elaborates: “When Albright presented him with the questions, at first he looked a little puzzled, as if he hadn’t known about them. Albright offered to give him time to look them over, but he said, ‘No, no, I can do this.’ He went down the list, one by one, and gave specific explanations. For example, on the question of missile exports, ‘Yes, I mean no exports of missiles of any range.’ And ‘Yes, I mean to ban the export of missile technology, not just the missiles.’ On issues where it was clear he didn’t want to be drawn out yet, he skipped over them. He understood where he wanted to be clear and where he wasn’t going to be.”

After the Albright-Kim talks, Einhorn and his staff, working at a frantic pace with North Korean diplomats, hammered out the beginnings of a deal. But time ran out. Clinton devoted the final weeks of his second term, futilely as it happened, to a peace treaty in the Middle East. The unsettled nature of the 2000 presidential election, especially the prolonged Florida recount, suspended all other diplomatic activity. There were still disagreements between the two sides over a missile deal. However, as Clinton left the White House, the stage was set for diplomatic progress—and, in the meantime, the fuel rods remained under lock and key.

Sunshine and moral clarity

A few days before Bush took office in January 2001, a half-dozen members of Clinton’s national-security team crossed the Potomac River to the Northern Virginia home of Colin Powell. President-elect George W. Bush had named the former general as his secretary of state, a choice widely viewed, and praised, as a signal that the new president would be following a moderate, internationalist foreign policy.

The Clinton team briefed Powell for two hours on the status of the North Korean talks. Halfway into the briefing, Condoleezza Rice, the new national security adviser, who had just flown in from meeting with Bush in Texas, showed up. One participant remembers Powell listening to the briefing with enthusiasm. Rice, however, was clearly skeptical. “The body language was striking,” he says. “Powell was leaning forward. Rice was very much leaning backward. Powell thought that what we had been doing formed an interesting basis for progress. He was disabused very quickly.”

In early March, barely a month into Bush’s term, Kim Dae Jung, South Korea’s president, made a state visit to Washington. On the eve of the visit, Powell told reporters that, on Korean policy, Bush would pick up where Clinton had left off. The White House instantly rebuked him; Bush made it clear he would do no such thing. Powell had to eat his words, publicly admitting that he had leaned “too forward in my skis.” It was the first of many instances when Powell would find himself out of step with the rest of the Bush team—the lone diplomat in a sea of hardliners.

If Powell was embarrassed by Bush’s stance, Kim Dae Jung was humiliated. KDJ, as some Korea-watchers called him, was a new kind of South Korean leader, a democratic activist who had spent years in prison for his political beliefs and had run for president promising a “sunshine policy” of opening up relations with the North. During the Clinton years, South Korea’s ruling party had been implacably hostile to North Korea. Efforts to hold serious disarmament talks were obstructed at least as much by Seoul’s sabotage as by Pyongyang’s maneuverings. Now South Korea had a leader who could be a partner in negotiating strategy—but the United States had a leader who was uninterested in negotiations.

In Bush’s view, to negotiate with an evil regime would be to recognize that regime, legitimize it, and—if the negotiations led to a treaty or a trade—prolong it. To Bush, North Korea’s dictator was the personification of evil. He told one reporter, on the record, that he “loathed” Kim Jong-il. It was no surprise that Bush would distrust anyone who wanted to accommodate his regime. Bush not only distrusted Kim Dae Jung but viewed him with startling contempt. Charles “Jack” Pritchard, who had been director of the National Security Council’s Asia desk under Clinton and was now the State Department’s special North Korean envoy under Bush, recalls, “Bush’s attitude toward KDJ was, ‘Who is this naive, old guy?’” Kim Dae Jung had also committed what Bush regarded as a personal snub. Shortly before his Washington trip, the South Korean president met Russian president Vladimir Putin, and issued a joint statement endorsing the preservation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Everyone knew that Bush placed a high priority on scuttling the ABM Treaty.

So when Kim Dae Jung arrived in Washington, Bush publicly criticized him and his sunshine policy. Bush and his advisers—especially Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld—decided not only to isolate North Korea, in the hopes that its regime would crumble, but also to ignore South Korea, in hopes that its next election would restore a conservative.

Bush was the naïve one, it turned out. Kim Jong-il survived U.S. pressures. And Kim Dae Jung was replaced by Roh Moo Hyun, a populist who ran on a campaign that was not only pro-sunshine but also anti-American. Relations were soured further by Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address, in which he tagged North Korea, Iran, and Iraq as an “axis of evil.” A month later, in February, Bush made his first trip to Seoul. James Kelly, his assistant secretary of state for Asian affairs, went in advance to set up the meeting. Pritchard, who accompanied Kelly, recalls, “The conversation in the streets of Seoul was, ‘Is there going to be a war? What will these crazy Americans do?’ Roh said to us, ‘I wake up in a sweat every morning, wondering if Bush has done something unilaterally to affect the [Korean] peninsula.”

By this time, Clinton’s Agreed Framework was unraveling. The light-water reactors, it was clear, were never going to be built. Normalization of relations was another non-starter. The CIA got wind that North Korea may have been acquiring centrifuges for enriching uranium since the late 1990s, most likely from Pakistan. By September 2002, the conclusion was inescapable. It was debatable whether this literally violated the Agreed Framework, which dealt with the manufacturing of plutonium, but it was a sneaky end run and a violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

On Oct. 4, Kelly flew to Pyongyang to confront North Korean officials with the evidence. The North Koreans admitted it was true. For almost two weeks, the Bush administration kept this meeting a secret. The U.S. Senate was debating a resolution to give President Bush the authority to go to war in Iraq. The public rationale for war was that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. If it was known that North Korea was also making WMDs—and nuclear weapons, at that—it would have muddied the debate over Iraq. Some would have wondered whether Iraq was the more compelling danger—or asked why Bush saw a need for war against Iraq but not against North Korea. The Senate passed the Iraqi war resolution on Oct. 11. The Bush administration publicly revealed what it had known for weeks about North Korea’s enriched-uranium program on Oct. 17.

On Oct. 20, Bush announced that it was formally withdrawing from the 1994 Agreed Framework. It halted oil supplies to North Korea and urged other countries to cut off all economic relations with Pyongyang. The North Koreans, perhaps realizing that they had once again boxed themselves into a diplomatic corner, decided to replay the crisis of 1994: In late December, they expelled the international weapons inspectors, restarted the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, and unlocked the container holding the fuel rods.

On Jan. 10, 2003, they 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.

Another sign that Pyongyang was looking for a diplomatic way out came on that same day, when delegates from North Korea’s U.N. mission paid a visit to Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico and a former U.N. ambassador in the Clinton administration. Richardson had bargained with North Korea before. As a congressman, he once traveled to Pyongyang to retrieve the body of a constituent whose Army helicopter had been shot down after drifting across the DMZ. He later negotiated the return of an American hiker who was arrested as a spy after inadvertently crossing the North Korean border.

Since President Clinton had used Jimmy Carter as an “unofficial” intermediary to jump-start nuclear talks in ’94, North Korean officials may have inferred that this was the Americans’ way of “saving face” in dealing with out-of-favor regimes—to have middlemen do behind the scenes what presidents could not do publicly.

Richardson seemed willing to serve as an intermediary. During the two days of talks in Santa Fe, he stayed closely in touch with the State Department. Richardson was no showboat, had no partisan animus, and—unlike Carter in Clinton’s day—probably could have played middleman to Bush without going beyond his instructions. But nothing came of the Richardson gambit. As Pritchard recalls it, “The North Koreans were grasping for straws, looking for any friendly face. But they forgot to do the math. Richardson was a Democrat, a Clinton guy. No way would Bush have anything to do with him.” Einhorn agrees. In the Bush administration, as he delicately puts it, “The default mode was skepticism about anything involving Clinton.”

On Jan. 13, two days after the New Mexico meetings, Jim Kelly tried to keep a positive line open. At a press conference in Seoul, Kelly signaled that he understood what the North Koreans were doing and that a negotiated settlement was possible. “Once we get beyond nuclear weapons,” he told reporters, “there may be opportunities—with the United States, with private investors, with other countries—to help North Korea in the energy area.”

But Kelly seemed to be speaking out of turn. Washington made no subsequent overtures. Kelly, like his boss Powell, may have believed that the crisis could be resolved by diplomatic means. But the revelation about North Korea’s secret enriched-uranium program strengthened the hand of the administration’s hawks—especially Cheney and Rumsfeld—who felt that North Korea couldn’t be trusted in negotiations and, more to the point, that negotiations were the wrong way to deal with such regimes in the first place.

Unlike Kelly, 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.”

Crossing the red line

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. (Even before this crisis, the CIA estimated that the North Koreans might have built one or two bombs from the plutonium it had reprocessed between 1989 and 1994.)

In March 2003, President Bush ordered several attack planes, as well as some B-1 and B-52 bombers, to the U.S. Air Force base in Guam, well within range of North Korea. The clear intent was to signal a possible impending air strike on the reactor. It was a feeble threat, a classic case of shutting the barn door after the horses escaped: By this time, the fuel rods were gone and possibly hidden away. Indeed, Bush made no moves to support, or otherwise prepare for, an air strike; there were no movements of ground or naval forces to deter or beat back a possible North Korean retaliatory strike or invasion. Nor was the movement of air forces accompanied by any diplomatic moves. In May, Bush ordered the aircraft back to their home bases.

Highway chicken

What explains Bush’s inaction before North Korea crossed the red line—and its 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. In April, in the flush of the U.S. military’s lightning victory over the Iraqi army and the toppling of Saddam Hussein (or at least his statues), Rumsfeld wrote a memo to Bush, calling for “regime change” as a policy toward North Korea. Bush seemed to agree. In a public speech in May, the president said, as if he were addressing Kim Jong-il, “You’re hungry and you can’t eat plutonium.”

The fallacy, of course, is that, although the North Korean people are hungry (a famine in the mid ’90s killed as many as two million of them), Kim Jong Il personally eats quite well. He doesn’t care about the welfare of his people, only about the survival of his regime. And since he has sealed off his country as hermetically as the 21st century allows, he could sustain a crisis far longer than other leaders might.

Kim Jong-il’s father, Kim Il Sung, had risen to power through guerrilla warfare—and conducted governance in the same manner. As an ancient national proverb has it, Korea is “a shrimp among whales,” and both Kims—the only two leaders in North Korea’s history—mastered the art of playing the large countries around them off one another. Their approach to diplomacy is to foster an atmosphere of “drama and catastrophe” as the scholar Scott Snyder puts it in his book Negotiating on the Edge: a prolonged cycle of crisis, intimidation, and brinkmanship.

In the game of highway chicken, North Korea is the shrewd lunatic who very visibly throws his steering wheel out the window, forcing the other, more responsible driver to veer off the road.

At first glance, Bush might be excused for refusing to play this game. At second glance, though, what choice does he have? The whole world travels on that road. And the game can be played—has been played, as the Clinton administration showed. Indeed, by April 2003, Bush realized he had to convey at the least the appearance of talking with the North Koreans. It is not entirely clear what brought this on: a brief bureaucratic victory for Colin Powell or diplomatic pressure from the major powers in the region—Japan, China, and South Korea. Either way, Kelly was sent to Beijing to engage in preparatory talks. However, according to Pritchard, who also attended, Kelly was under strict instructions not to hold even informal chats with the North Korean delegate unless the other countries’ delegates were present.

During this meeting, Li Gun, North Korea’s very experienced deputy foreign minister, announced that his country now had nuclear weapons—he referred to them as a “deterrent”—and said the weapons would not be given up unless the United States dropped its “hostile attitude” toward the regime. Kelly returned from this trip, saying the North Koreans had offered a “bold, new proposal.” Its gist: North Korea would drop its nuclear weapons program if Washington signed a non-aggression pact. But President Bush reacted dismissively, telling one reporter, “They’re back to the old blackmail game.” This was the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld line: As long as the North Koreans were pursuing nuclear weapons, even to sit down with them would be “appeasement,” succumbing to “blackmail,” and “rewarding bad behavior.”

By August, it was becoming clear that efforts to destabilize North Korea were not succeeding. Nor were North Korea’s efforts to lure the United States into bilateral negotiations. In a compromise, both sides agreed to attend “six-party” talks in Beijing, involving the United States, China, Russia, Japan, and the two Koreas. Pritchard says that at these talks, Kelly was permitted for the first time to meet one-on-one with his North Korean counterpart—but only for 20 minutes and only as long as delegates from the other four powers were in the same room. (Kelly and Li could chat alone in a corner.) Kelly was also forbidden from making any offers or suggesting even the possibility of direct negotiations. Pritchard recalls that Kelly was under instructions to start the private chat by saying, “This is not a negotiating session. This is not an official meeting.”

For the previous year-and-a-half, the State Department had favored a diplomatic solution to the Korea crisis while the Pentagon and key players in the NSC opposed it. The August meeting in Beijing was Bush’s idea of a compromise—a middle path that constituted no path at all. He let Kelly talk, but didn’t let him say anything meaningful; he went to the table but put nothing on it.

Even so, the bureaucratic warring persisted. Just before the talks took place, Undersecretary of State John Bolton—who, throughout the administration, has served as a sort of hawks’ mole inside Foggy Bottom—gave a speech in which he called North Korea “a hellish nightmare” and Kim Jong-il “a tyrannical dictator.” True enough, but not the sort of invective that senior officials generally issue on the eve of a diplomatic session.

Around this time, Pritchard resigned in protest from the Bush administration. “My position was the State Department’s envoy for North Korean negotiations, yet we were prohibited from having negotiations,” Pritchard recalls. “I asked myself, ‘What am I doing in government?’” He also got word that key officials in the White House and the Pentagon did not want him involved in the talks, lest he take them too seriously. Pritchard was told that they referred to him as “the Clinton guy.” Powell, Pritchard’s sole high-level backer, asked him not to quit—or at least not to do so publicly. Pritchard helped set up the six-party talks, left at the end of August, and went to work at the Brookings Institution. He did nothing to keep secret his reasons for quitting.

One-note sonata

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. This is why, ultimately, Bush’s no-negotiations policy is not merely puzzling but irresponsible. Kim may be playing the nuclear card as a bargaining chip, but if the United States declines to bargain, he will gladly keep his chips and stack them high.

The worry isn’t merely that this strange, totalitarian power will have nuclear weapons—it’s also what other powers may do as a result. If North Korea gets a handful or more of atom bombs, many believe that Japan will drop its historical restraints and build atom bombs, too, as a deterrent. A nuclear Japan could galvanize China to restart its long-dormant nuclear weapons program. China’s buildup could trigger escalation by India, which would compel Pakistan to match warhead for warhead. All Asia could find itself embroiled in a nuclear arms race.

Nor does Bush, at this point, have a plausible military option for thwarting Pyongyang’s ambitions before they spiral out of hand. A preemptive strike would be less effective than it might have been in Clinton’s day. Bush could destroy the Yongbyon reactor, but the strike probably wouldn’t destroy the plutonium or the enriched uranium, which intelligence officials assume is stored underground—precisely where, they don’t know. Then there is the possibility of North Korean retaliation, if not with the one or two nukes that they may already have, then with the thousands of artillery shells on the South Korean border, many of them loaded with chemical munitions, most of them within range of Seoul. In short, we have little leverage; the North Koreans have a lot; yet Bush refuses to take the North Koreans up on their offers to trade their weapons away.

Even now, though Kelly is allowed to talk with North Koreans routinely, he is still forbidden from holding out any negotiating positions, any incentives for the North Koreans to give up their weapons program—which is after all their sole instrument of power, the only thing that is making the United States talk with them, not bomb them, in the first place.

As recently as last month, Dick Cheney traveled to Asia to talk with U.S. allies about how to deal with North Korea’s nukes. His campaign amounted to a one-note sonata—a renewal of Bush’s earlier pleas for a unified campaign to isolate North Korea in order to topple Kim Jong-il. The allies—South Korea, Japan, and China—have no interest in such a policy. They fear the possible consequences: an onslaught of refugees, a vacuum of power, or—the worst case—a ferocious lashing-out by Kim Jong-il in his final spasms of decline. China has become so agitated about the dangers—and America’s refusal to deal with them—that it has opened up an independent avenue of diplomacy, urging Kim Jong-il personally to break all precedents and take the first step in backing down.

Meanwhile, the catastrophe continues to unfold. Last October, the North Koreans announced they had reprocessed all 8,000 of their fuel rods and solved the technical problems of converting the plutonium into nuclear bombs.

Last January, a (genuinely) private delegation—which included Jack Pritchard and Sig Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos nuclear weapons lab—flew to North Korea for a tour of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor. It was the first time since the crisis began that any Westerner had been inside. Hecker came away convinced that the North Koreans had indeed reprocessed the fuel rods; he saw the plutonium. But he saw no sign that they had actually converted the stuff into weapons. In hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Hecker made clear: This doesn’t mean they don’t have any bombs—just that he was shown no evidence that they do.

Nobody knows precisely what North Korea has. This is what makes negotiations both difficult and necessary. 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.

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Fred Kaplan writes the "War Stories" column for Slate.