The Magazine

Fool Us Once . . .

The North Koreans get ready to shake us down again.

Nov 11, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 09 • By HENRY SOKOLSKI
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AS THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION ponders how to respond to North Korea's defiant admission of having violated every nuclear nonproliferation pledge it ever made, it's worth recounting how we got into this mess.

Certainly, Pyongyang--currently armed with one or more nuclear bombs and a set of uranium and plutonium production facilities--is as keen to negotiate (read, to extort us again) as it ever was. Talks this time, though, won't be about denuclearization. North Korea insists it now has a right to atomic weapons and that giving up its nuclear arms would be tantamount to suicide. Instead of disarmament, what Pyongyang wants to secure is a nonaggression pact, after which it would be more than willing to "clear" the United States of "its security concerns"--whatever that means.

Is the United States up to dealing with an out-of-the-closet nuclear North Korea? If history is any guide, we are in for a rough ride. As far back as 1987, North Korea circumvented its 1985 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations while the world--and Washington--blinked. Instead of allowing International Atomic Energy Agency inspections when the NPT required, Pyongyang put the inspections off as it continuedconstructing a military production reactor that had no connection to its electrical power grid. It then violated its bilateral 1992 commitment with South Korea not to build a plutonium chemical separation plant (a commitment Washington had bought by withdrawing its tactical nuclear weapons) and almost immediately was caught by international nuclear inspectors lying about how much nuclear weapons material it had produced. Finally, in 1993--with at least a bomb's worth of separated plutonium in hand--Pyongyang simply blocked further nuclear inspectors and announced it was bolting from the NPT.

All too anxious to kick the can down the road rather than confront North Korea's nuclear cheating, the Clinton administration cut a weirdly generous deal that Pyongyang proceeded, once again, to violate almost immediately. Essentially Clinton caved to Pyongyang's demand for two modern U.S.-designed reactors. He also promised annual heavy fuel oil shipments equivalent to nearly 10 times the amount of energy North Korea might have produced if it had completed all the reactors it was planning. In exchange, Pyongyang promised to freeze work at its known plutonium producing facilities and eventually to come into compliance with its NPT obligations.

The deal required Pyongyang to prove it was out of the bomb-making business when roughly half of the U.S.-promised power reactor project was built. An accompanying classified minute--which Clinton agreed to and the North Koreans revealed only last week--secretly undermined this requirement. Unbeknownst to the public and most of Congress, this confidential memo freed Pyongyang from having even to begin to allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspections until after the reactor was half completed.

As generous as the deal was, Pyongyang went to work to dishonor it as soon as the ink was dry. In fact, within 24 months of its signing in October of 1994, U.S. intelligence judged that North Korea had already built two nuclear weapons. This meant that contrary to the deal's terms, which required North Korea to "consistently take steps to implement" its 1992 pledge not to possess nuclear weapons, the intelligence community believed that Pyongyang was secretly hoarding them. Clinton administration officials knew this. They decided, however, to dispute the intelligence finding and instead had Madeleine Albright announce that the deal had "eliminated" the Korean nuclear threat.

Late in 1997 and 1998, though, additional intelligence emerged that Pyongyang was testing high-explosive implosion devices for nuclear weapons and was working at several potential covert nuclear weapons sites. The Clinton administration, heckled into action by Congress and news leaks, again slow-rolled the matter. After more than a year of "tough" consultations with North Korea (and a promise of an additional half million tons of food aid), Clinton at last sent U.S. experts to visit just one of the suspect sites. In the interim, newspapers reported that U.S. satellites photographed North Koreans removing equipment from the site. When finally inspected--surprise--the site was empty.

Unfortunately, one of the 12 suspect sites that the intelligence community tried but failed to convince Clinton officials to pay off Pyongyang to open up was Mount Chun Ma, which a North Korean defector to China revealed was "processing" uranium. Undaunted, the intelligence community, in March 1999, formally notified Clinton officials that North Korea was developing a covert uranium enrichment program, probably with help from Pakistan.