Don’t Blame Washington for North Korea’s Actions
In 1984, George Orwell crafted an iconic Party directive: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” If rewriting history heedless of reality proves one’s Orwellian credentials, Mike Chinoy made the grade in his recent Post Global Opinions op-ed “How Washington hard-liners helped to create the North Korean crisis.”
Chinoy’s misstatements and omissions, complete with “memory holes” for Pyongyang’s behavior, are directly relevant both to the North’s ongoing menace and also to Iran and other proliferators. Aspiring nuclear-weapons states are often surprisingly brazen in their work. In some cases, they have actually used counter-proliferation agreements as camouflage for further illicit nuclear and ballistic-missile activity. Unfortunately, gullible Americans have fallen for the ploy, focusing on the written “obligations” rather than the proliferators’ actual conduct.
Here is Chinoy’s version of Washington’s past dealings with North Korea. He claims that Pyongyang decided to abandon its nuclear-weapons program in the 1994 Agreed Framework, which compensated the North Koreans with substantial heavy-oil shipments, and, incredibly, two light-water nuclear reactors (which were acceptable to the Clinton administration because they allegedly didn’t help the North with its weapons program. So successful was this deal, he claims, that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited North Korea in 2000. Sadly, Bush administration hard-liners subsequently tanked the framework and then frustrated Pyongyang’s subsequent attempts at a diplomatic solution, thus contributing to today’s crisis.
Poor, misunderstood Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un and their comrades: so close to peace on the Korean Peninsula. Albright in Pyongyang: Really, what could go wrong? The New York Times’ Walter Duranty, who received a Pulitzer Prize for missing the 1930s Ukraine famine, must be smiling wherever his soul resides today.
The Agreed Framework was only one of several agreements over the past quarter-century in which North Korea solemnly pledged to cease its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Pyongyang violated every one, typically before the ink was dry. More fundamentally, the North repeatedly breached its Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations and its safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, making its Agreed Framework pledges as credibility-free as its underlying obligations not to pursue nuclear weapons in the first place. (Pyongyang subsequently withdrew from the NPT altogether, hardly a confidence-building measure regarding its nuclear weapons intentions.)
As early as 1998, Ambassador Jim Lilley, one of America’s great Asia experts, wrote that “the signs are becoming increasingly clear that the North Korean nuclear-weapons program has never stopped.” In 1999, former secretary of state James Baker called Clinton’s approach “a policy of appeasement,” and rightly so. Concern about Pyongyang was far from a monopoly of the so-called “hard-liners.”
Theoretically, supplying North Korea fuel oil and “proliferation-proof” light-water reactors was to compensate for the power-generation “lost” by closing the Yongbyon reactor, seen by Clinton’s team as the greater proliferation threat. In polite terms, this theory was utterly fanciful. Yongbyon was always, and is still, intended to produce plutonium to be separated from the reactor’s spent fuel for nuclear weapons. The proposed light-water reactors would also produce plutonium, albeit less efficiently. Even Clinton’s negotiators had less confidence in North Korea than Chinoy. They later admitted that they expected (erroneously) the regime to fall before the light-water reactors became operational.
Not long after President George W. Bush took office, new evidence (dating back to the 1990s) revealed that North Korea was also pursuing the uranium-enrichment route to nuclear weapons. Enrichment was easier to conceal and consistent with Pyongyang’s long-standing proclivity for carrying out illicit activities in underground structures hidden from overhead surveillance.
So obvious were the North’s violations by early 2002 that even the Agreed Framework’s State Department advocates could not justify certifying North Korean compliance with its obligations, as Congress required, resorting instead to statutory waiver provisions to keep the benefits flowing. In today’s context, the State Department recently failed even that basic test, certifying, contrary to fact, that Iran is complying with the Obama administration’s nuclear deal.
Proof of North Korea’s breaches of the Agreed Framework was finally so strong that the Bush administration decided to confront Pyongyang with our evidence. (When then-Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) was briefed on the North’s violations, he reportedly said “those f—–s!”) In a now-famous encounter on Oct. 4, 2002, after denying the previous day that they were conducting uranium enrichment, North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju admitted it to the American delegation. The North had shredded the Agreed Framework.
Why, after this eight-year charade, anyone would believe North Korean “commitments” to renounce nuclear weapons is hard to understand. The real problem is that many otherwise sensible people are prepared to believe that agreements constitute reality, rather than actual behavior. Reporters and diplomats often say things like “the agreement ended [fill-in the blank]’s nuclear program.” Needless to say, no agreement does any such thing, only the verified conduct of the parties themselves.
The contemporary lessons are plain. In the past, while American true believers were kneeling in prayer and lighting incense candles to fanciful agreements with North Korea, Iran, Syria and their ilk, these rogue states were committing (as T.S. Eliot entitled his play) murder in the cathedral. Time to face reality instead.
John Bolton is a former US ambassador to the United Nations and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
This article was originally published by The Washington Post.