The Magazine

What Went Wrong?

The Bush administration's failed North Korea policy.

Jan 26, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 18 • By NICHOLAS EBERSTADT
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Of all the disappointments for which the George W. Bush administration will be remembered, perhaps none is as bitter as the failure of its North Korea policy. Despite its intermittent tough talk about Kim Jong Il and his regime, the Bush team's record with Pyongyang these past eight years is a nearly unbroken string of defeats and retreats.

At the end of the Bush era North Korea's nuclear -arsenal is bigger and more deadly than ever before. On the Bush watch, North Korea not only publicly declared itself to be a nuclear power, but set off a device to prove it. No less dismaying, there are fewer genuine constraints against further North Korean nuclear proliferation in place today than at Bush's first inauguration. The Bush administration, moreover, has failed abjectly in its intent of loosening Kim Jong Il's monster grip on his slave-state. Despite the speechifying about "the Axis of Evil" and "Freedom on the March," the real existing North Korean system remains as savagely repressive and defiantly unreformed as ever.

So what went wrong? In and around Washington these days, the Bush administration's North Korea policy has spawned considerable off-the-record discussion about "lessons to be learned," much of it from circles close to the incoming Obama administration.

In the Obama camp's recounting, three purported Bush administration mistakes are always highlighted: (1) Dubya's ideological and narrowly moralistic view of North Korea, in contrast to what is seen as the Clinton administration's more pragmatic and nuanced "engagement"; (2) the Bush crew's supposed aversion to negotiation with distasteful adversaries; and (3) an alleged Team Bush failure to understand the potential for major breakthroughs on contentious questions through "high level dialogue," that is to say, face-to-face meetings of top leadership (possibly even, as the president-elect himself at times has said, without "preconditions").

This Obama camp critique offers strong clues as to what we may expect in the way of North Korea policy from the incoming administration. But as a diagnosis of what actually went awry in Washington's dealings with Pyongyang during the Bush years, such an analysis is sorely lacking. It is both superficial and inaccurate. Unless the new administration's North Korea team starts with a clear-eyed recognition of the fundamental reasons that Bush's North Korea policy failed, it risks repeating Bush's same mistakes--and perhaps committing even graver errors on its own watch.

Let us examine each of the particulars of the Obama camp's critique in turn.

Despite assiduous efforts to rewrite history (not least by some of Obama's own prospective appointees), the Clinton years were not exactly a Golden Age of U.S.‑North Korea relations. The architects of the Clinton "engagement" with Pyongyang indulged in willful self-deception (and also some collateral deception of the American public) on the North Korean nuclear question.

Late in the second Clinton term, at the very moment when elated senior officials in Washington were celebrating their impending diplomatic "breakthrough" with North Korea on nukes and other troublesome issues, the country was in fact secretly racing to build an illicit uranium-based weapons program in contravention of its diverse nonproliferation commitments and pledges to Washington and to the international community.

The details of these violations are now largely public--and much of the information derives from sources who could hardly be considered agents of American intelligence (including the so-called "father of the Islamic Bomb," Dr. A.Q. Khan of Pakistan). Clinton's "engagement hawks" chose to ignore the mounting evidence that North Korea was cheating. They preferred instead to believe a tale of their own making, namely that "high level meetings" with Kim Jong Il (such as the audiences which Secretary of State Albright was awarded in Pyongyang in October 2000) were about to open up new vistas in relations between the two countries.

That illusion of progress could only be maintained as long as American officials averted their eyes from unpleasant facts. Sure enough: The current and ongoing "North Korean nuclear crisis"--the one that erupted in 2002--was set in motion when Bush administration officials finally confronted their North Korean counterparts with proof that they had been caught cheating.