The United States and North Korea — part two (the Bush years)

A few years ago, I wrote this post on North Korea. I was trying to understand what was going on in North Korea and how our response was causing a negative or positive feedback. Because North Korea has strategically jumped back into the limelight, I thought was worth reviewing what I knew or at least what I thought I knew about North Korea. It looks like I hit the nail on the head.

north koreans marching
North Korea

I highly recommend that you read yesterday’s post on North Korea. I looked at North Korea’s history of nuclear interest dating back to late 1950s and early 1960s.

To use a football metaphor, I’m not going to tell you that the Clinton administration had taken a football (North Korea’s nuclear issues) down to the two-yard line and all the Bush administration had to do was to carry the ball over the goal line. President George Bush, Vice President Cheney and Secretary Colin Powell needed to do much more than that. In retrospect, Bush was ill-prepared for North Korea. I have no idea how much he was briefed. I have no idea if alternative viewpoints (outside of the neoconservative line of thinking) were presented to the president. (Here’s a North Korean timeline.)

In my opinion, foreign policy is like three-dimensional chess. There are lots of moving pieces. You need to be very smart and very prepared in order to anticipate your opponent’s move. In foreign policy you are playing multiple opponents at the same time.

As far as I know, there were no high-level discussions about how to approach the North Koreans when President Bush announced to the South Korean president that he was unclear if North Korea was holding up their end of the bargain (the Agreed Framework). He basically stated that North Koreans were liars and cheats and could not be trusted. “We’re not certain as to whether or not they’re keeping all the terms of all agreements.” (NYT) While such a provocative statement would not get a second look in downtown Baltimore, in the world of diplomacy it was a slap in the face. The big question is, if the United States were to break off discussions with North Korea, which was a basic tenet of the “Agreed Framework,” then what? What leverage did we have against a country that is already isolated? Was it possible that we could squeeze China or Russia in order to use their leverage against North Korea? None of this had been discussed prior to Bush’s statement. At least, not to the best of my knowledge. This all happened in early March of 2001. By September of 2001, we were focused on Afghanistan and some in the Bush administration had already begun to focus on Iraq.

Bush’s idea for United States foreign policy began to gel between September and December of 2001. It was a simple dichotomy. Either you were with the United States, against the terrorists, or you supported the terrorists. North Korea’s interests are in the survival of the regime, first, and survival of the Korean people, second.

One of the most interesting figures throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s was a Pakistani scientist named A. Q. Khan. He may have been more of an entrepreneur than a scientist. As one of the heads of Pakistan’s endeavor to build its own nuclear weapon, A. Q. Khan was in a unique position to gather nuclear technology for Pakistan and, at times, to sell that technology to countries like Syria, Libya and North Korea. It appears that he supplied both centrifuges and centrifuge designs to the North Koreans in the late 1990s. It also appears that Pakistan got missile technology while North Korea received nuclear technology.

The Bush administration believed that a show of force in the Middle East would cause other rogue regimes to fall in line. I have no idea why they thought this would work on North Korea. Soon after the United States invaded Iraq, North Korea announced that they were going to withdraw from the nonproliferation treaty. They then restarted the reactor. Two years after Bush insisted that the United States would not sit down and talk with North Korea, six-party talks began in 2003 and reached an agreement in September of 2005. During this time, it appears that North Korea had made enough plutonium to make 4-13 nuclear bombs.

So while the United States stood tough, what incentive did North Korea have to negotiate? How could conditions be any worse for their people? Their only bargaining chip was the one they’ve been playing for over 40 years — a nuclear weapon. We can never seriously entertain a military option because of North Korea’s close proximity to Seoul, South Korea. North Korea needed and wanted food, fuel and respect. With nuclear weapons, they have an opportunity to get most of that. I’m sorry, but no matter how you slice this, the Bush administration fumbled the ball with North Korea. They allowed North Korea to increase their nuclear arsenal three or four times.

This is the world that Barack Obama has inherited. So what should he do with North Korea? What price should we pay to keep North Korea from making more nuclear weapons? I think it is clear that North Korea will never give up all of its nuclear weapons. I think it’s also clear that we don’t know exactly how many nuclear bombs they’ve made. The North Koreans have shown a willingness to sell technology to rogue regimes like Syria (the reactor that the Israelis blew up in 2007 was based on a North Korean design). So, I don’t believe it is a leap to believe that North Korea would sell technology to Al Qaeda if Al Qaeda had the money. How do we prevent this? How does Barack Obama fix the North Korean problem?

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Errington C. Thompson, MD

Dr. Thompson is a surgeon, scholar, full-time sports fan and part-time political activist. He is active in a number of community projects and initiatives. Through medicine, he strives to improve the physical health of all he treats.


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