For the first time in a long time, encouraging news is emanating from North Korea. On July 16, the International Atomic Energy Agency verified earlier reports that the Kim Jong Il regime has shut down the Yongbyon nuclear reactor and stopped producing the plutonium used to build atomic weapons. Yet the Bush administration so far has drawn little attention to this happy achievement by its own diplomats.
For George W. Bush, the reversal of belligerent behavior by the dictatorship in Pyongyang should be uplifting, especially when both the president and his foreign policy are so widely reviled both here and abroad. Over the past several years, Kim has taunted the rest of the world with increasingly threatening rhetoric and actions including ballistic missile launches and the alleged test of his country’s first nuclear weapon. Those experiments met with mixed success at best, but even the prospect of real weapons of mass destruction at Kim’s disposal is grim. Putting the eccentric dictator and his deadly toys back in the box must be a relief, even if having him around will always cause anxiety.
So why have the President and his aides downplayed progress on the Korean peninsula? Perhaps because Mr. Bush never admits that he is wrong—and this accomplishment, one of very few that he could cite today, proves just how mistaken he and his fellow ideologues have been. To understand why, it is necessary to look back on the history of American conflict with the North Koreans and to clear away certain myths propagated by the Bush White House.
The Bush team took office with undisguised disdain for the work and ideas of the Clinton administration. Led by Vice President Dick Cheney, the neoconservatives who controlled policy in the Bush administration also rejected Mr. Clinton’s approach to North Korea, which had resulted in a 1994 “agreed framework” that exchanged fuel oil supplies and diplomatic recognition for the shutdown of nuclear facilities. By 2001, U.S. intelligence officials suspected that North Korea was seeking to build a secret facility to enrich uranium—that is, to find a way around the agreed framework, which prevented the creation of plutonium-based weapons—but there was no proof.
Meanwhile, disagreement about Korea policy among the neoconservatives and realists within the Bush administration stalled further steps toward normalization of relations, as promised by the Clinton agreement. Realists such as Colin Powell, then the secretary of state, argued to continue the engagement policy; neoconservatives such as Mr. Cheney and then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, pushed for a policy of confrontation and isolation. From the right there was much chatter about “regime change” and even war, despite the potentially terrible costs not only to our allies in the region but to our own troops near the Korean border.
In July 2002, the Bush administration announced that it would not deliver fuel oil to North Korea as scheduled because it claimed that Mr. Kim was enriching uranium in violation of the agreed framework. His regime responded by accusing the United States of reneging; and then it evicted the IAEA inspectors, restarted the Yongbyon reactor, and harvested the plutonium from several thousand cooling rods that had been kept in a cooling pond under seal. That was believed to be sufficient to make at least ten bombs.
As the United States got bogged down in the quicksand of Iraq, and as North Korea continued to talk about and possibly build nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, American policymakers became more realistic. The likelihood of Kim’s cooperation with terrorist organizations was sufficient to concentrate minds in Washington, along with the alienation of governments in South Korea, China and Japan whose cooperation is needed by us for many reasons. Ultimately, the Bush White House needed to find a way to climb down from its aggressive attitude and reach an agreement with the North Koreans.
But being Bushies, they also needed a fig leaf to conceal their own reversal of policy. Both the president and the vice president, after all, had often declared how tough and unbending they are, particularly in contrast with Mr. Clinton. Under no circumstances could they acknowledge that like him, they had decided that negotiation might be preferable to confrontation.
So the Bush White House has pretended for many months that its methods and goals are wholly different from those of the Clinton administration when, in fact, those differences are minor and even negligible. The only important distinction is that Mr. Clinton forestalled the development of a North Korean nuclear device by a decade, and Mr. Bush blunderingly encouraged that development, which led to an ominous test on his watch.
According to The New York Times, the most difficult problem facing the negotiators who fashioned the new framework was “[finding] a way for Kim Jong Il to avoid embarrassment.” Fortunately for Mr. Bush, he is immune to introspection—or he might be embarrassed, too.