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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The acts of self-deception that marred "engagement" with North Korea during Clinton's first term, incidentally, may have been less spectacular, but they were no less consequential. Chief among these was the Clinton team's 1994 "Agreed Framework," a document signed by emissaries from both Washington and Pyongyang. That "Framework" was officially hailed at the time as a major diplomatic achievement, and vaunted ever after by Clinton envoys as a roadmap for North Korean "denuclearization." The fine print of that "Framework," unfortunately, indicated instead that America would, eventually, be providing North Korea with nuclear power plants. Indeed, the text stipulated there would be a couple of "light water reactors" for Pyongyang in the deal.

In effect, the Clinton administration's plan for resolving the original "North Korean nuclear crisis" of 1992-94 was to promise Pyongyang a supply of even more fissile material. While some proponents of the "Framework" implied that the envisioned reactors would be "safe" because they would produce non-weapons-grade plutonium, the plain truth is that there is no such thing as "safe" plutonium. (Nagasaki, after all, was incinerated by an atomic bomb from similarly "safe" plutonium.) The "Agreed Framework" finally fell apart in 2002, repudiated by Pyongyang at the outset of the current North Korean nuclear crisis, but its fateful precedent--U.S. acquiescence in, and support for, a "peaceful" nuclear development program for North Korea under the Kim Jong Il regime--haunts us to this day.

So much for Clinton-era "engagement." What about the potential of diplomatic breakthroughs via "high level meetings" with Kim Jong Il?

Contrary to perceptions apparently prevailing in some wings of the Obama camp, "high level meetings" with the Dear Leader have in fact already taken place--repeatedly. Over the past decade, Kim Jong Il has parlayed directly with an American secretary of state, a Japanese prime minister, and two successive presidents of South Korea. Two of these summits took place in the Clinton years, two in the Bush era. But none of them yielded any appreciable diplomatic results--for the outsiders.

Kim Jong Il lied to Madeleine Albright about North Korea's nukes and missiles in 2000; he lied to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi about North Korea's Japanese abductees in 2002. He humiliated South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun at their 2007 Pyongyang summit--the negligible results of that top-level get-together are one reason why most American readers have never even heard of the meeting.

Admittedly, the sensational Pyongyang summit held between Roh's predecessor Kim Dae Jung and the Dear Leader in June 2000 (for which the South Korean won the Nobel Peace Prize) did look like a true "high-level breakthrough" at first--but the spectacle was later discredited as a cash-for-photo-ops transaction. It turned out that Kim Jong Il only invited the South Korean president to the North after a secret promise was made to reward the Dear Leader with hundreds of millions of dollars in South Korean taxpayer funds for the visit, a fraud for which the Nobel Laureate ultimately had to apologize on national television, and for which several of his aides were subsequently sentenced to prison by South Korean courts. (Some high-level meetings with Kim Jong Il, to be sure, have produced significant agreements. At a Moscow summit with Vladimir Putin in 2001, Kim and Putin both backed the proposition that "the pullout of U.S. forces from South Korea is a pressing issue which brooks no delay"--a breakthrough of sorts, perhaps, but not exactly a turnaround in Pyongyang's position on that issue.)

Kim Jong Il's track record in "high level meetings" with foreign leaders is absolutely unambiguous: Like his father before him, the Dear Leader always uses these occasions to press for advantage and to pursue preexisting objectives set for the North Korean state. There is nothing surprising about this: The only surprise is why anyone might expect him to behave differently. The notion that Kim Jong Il might forget to do all this (much less reverse nearly three decades of his own relentless military and nuclear policy) if only he were, at last, within intoxicating personal proximity of a real American president is worse than fanciful. It is profoundly condescending.