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Blinkmanship: Path to a Nuclear Showdown

Blinkmanship: Path to a Nuclear Showdown

Scott Wheeler

5 Mins
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March 25, 2011

December 2006 -- It’s “high noon” for President Bush, and—in the wake of North Korea’s first nuclear bomb test—it appears that Kim Jong-il is no longer firing blanks.

Evidence and history demonstrate that diplomacy and appeasement have not and will not work to diminish the mounting North Korean nuclear threat. Even so, Democrats are calling for President Bush to have “direct talks” with North Korea, as the Clinton administration did. Those bilateral talks resulted in what Clinton administration officials hail as a brilliant piece of diplomacy, the “Agreed Framework.” Signed in 1994, the deal was supposed to end Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program by providing the starving nation with food, fuel oil, and technical assistance for a nuclear energy project. “A true success story” is how Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord described the Agreed Framework when speaking to a crowd of South Korean diplomats in 1996.

Ten years later, however, North Korea has tested a nuclear bomb.

Yet Democrats, seemingly oblivious to what many consider to be the massive failures of the framework, are insisting that Bush’s best course of action is to scrap multilateral talks that include North Korea’s anxious neighbors, in favor of the one-on-one negotiations with the United States that Pyongyang wants. After all, they say, it was Bush’s bellicose “axis of evil” speech that led North Korea’s Stalinist leader Kim Jong-il to announce that he was pulling out of the bilateral Agreed Framework.

The Clinton administration maintained a charade that North Korea did not have nuclear weapons.

In response to that argument, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice points out that North Korea has much more to lose by cheating on an agreement it signs with its neighbors than it would by breaking another deal with the United States, an act that would only increase its international stature among other rogue nations. And without going so far as to criticize the Clinton administration, President Bush has stated that Kim’s recalcitrance actually began prior to the Bush presidency, suggesting that Kim had already reneged on the agreement by 2001.

Meanwhile, others are less charitable toward Bush’s predecessors.

“The Agreed Framework was a mad hatter’s tea party, and Jimmy Carter wore the big hat,” said Dr. Peter M. Leitner, a renowned national security expert and George Mason University professor. He was referring to former president Carter’s role in negotiating the deal on behalf of the Clinton administration. Clinton Assistant Secretary of State Lord stated at the time that the framework would serve the interest of “global non-proliferation efforts.” But Leitner contends that it did the opposite and set a poor example for U.S. allies to follow: “It showed [that] the U.S. was not serious about stopping proliferation.”  

In an interview with The New Individualist, Leitner stated, “The Agreed Framework promoted proliferation instead of discouraging it,” because it provided North Korea with U.S. technology that Pyongyang ultimately used to enhance its nuclear weapons program. Paradoxically, the intent of providing the technology was to serve as an inducement to stop building nuclear weapons. Yet even while North Korea was pretending to abide by the agreement, it was widely known to have been one of the world’s worst nuclear proliferators.

For example, under a collateral deal called the “Fuel Canning” agreement, the U.S. sent nuclear energy experts to North Korea to measure the spent fuel rods from its nuclear reactor, then label, can, and store them on-site rather than relocating them out of reach. When the project was completed, though, “they kicked us out,” says Leitner, and the fuel cans became “a ready source of plutonium” for North Korea’s future nuclear weapons efforts.

Others involved in U.S. national security were dubious about the agreement from the start. While it was still being negotiated, the U.S. House of Representatives Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare warned in its August 1994 report that it was a bad deal. “Washington is buying time while maintaining the charade that the DPRK [North Korea] does not have nuclear weapons. Consequently, the United States and its allies have settled into the ‘do-nothing-for-now’ mode, merely postponing the hour of reckoning.” The Task Force maintained that North Korean defectors were consistently reporting that North Korea had already produced several nuclear bombs.

A senior defense official told this reporter in 2003 that the Agreed Framework was a bad idea because of North Korea’s record of breaking this type of agreement—including probable breaches of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in the early 1990s. That, after all, is what provoked the crisis that spawned the negotiations that wound up being the Agreed Framework.

“It was an agreement that was bound to fail; they had no intention of abiding by the Agreed Framework,” the defense official said. “They outright refused to let international inspectors have access. There were no safeguards. The few inspections called for in the agreement were limited.” He also told me that Clinton administration officials did not want to hear from anyone in the national security establishment who thought it was a risky agreement. “Anybody who said anything was ridiculed: ‘You don’t know how things work,’ we were told.”

Technology supplied to North Korea by the Clinton administration was used to enhance its nuclear program.

Despite what Democrats now say about the effectiveness of the agreement, the Clinton administration received repeated warnings of North Korean violations, including warnings from the International Atomic Energy Agency of the UN. But Clinton’s policymakers preferred to keep wearing blinders. The Task Force on Terrorism report from 1994 quoted “high-level North Korean defectors” saying that the current leadership in North Korea will not give up nuclear weapons no matter how many agreements it enters into with the United States. The actions of Kim over the past twelve years only validated that prediction. One defector, Kang Myong-To, was quoted in the report as saying, “North Korea’s nuclear development is not intended as a bargaining chip as seen by the Western world.... [Pyongyang] sees nuclear development as the only means to maintain Kim Jong-il’s regime.”

If true, the Bush administration’s options are limited. The history and evidence paint a very bleak picture for a diplomatic resolution. The administration appears to be excessively hopeful that the People’s Republic of China will play a more active role in reining in Pyongyang, but many experts believe that North Korea is a client state of Beijing and that the PRC is only feigning concern over the rogue nation’s nuclear ambitions.

One way the administration can force Beijing to take action is to declare that, with North Korea in possession of nuclear weapons, the U.S. is duty-bound to provide its allies in the region, such as Japan and Taiwan, with nuclear weapons of their own, as a deterrent. Arming Taiwan with nuclear weapons would be provocative to Beijing because of its desire for forced reunification with Taiwan; the PRC would likely go to great lengths to avoid such an eventuality. Bringing other nations in the region on par with North Korea’s nuclear capabilities also would undercut the prestige that Kim Jong-il is seeking. Such assertive action by the U.S. certainly holds more promise in neutralizing the North Korean nuclear threat than would continuation of the historic policies of appeasement and self-inflicted blindness.

But on October 18, Secretary of State Rice seemed ready to toss away this important trump card by assuring other Asian countries that there is no need for them to jump into a nuclear arms race with North Korea. At the same time, she reiterated “that the United States has the will and the capability to meet the full range—and I underscore the full range—of its deterrent and security commitments to Japan.”

This was a clear warning to North Korea. And if push comes to shove, military action may be the only way to build enough credibility to deal with other international nuclear threats without using the military. Tactical air strikes on North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure could end the standoff with Kim rather quickly, while putting the president’s other nuclear problem—Iran—on notice that it is no longer dealing with the malleable diplomats of the Clinton administration.

For now, though, the nuclear showdown continues, and we can only wonder: Who will blink first this time?

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