Reported Test 'Fundamentally Changes the Landscape' for U.S. Officials

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 9, 2006

North Korea's apparent nuclear test last night may well be regarded as a failure of the Bush administration's nuclear nonproliferation policy.

Since George W. Bush became president, North Korea has restarted its nuclear reactor and increased its stock of weapons-grade plutonium, so it may now have enough for 10 or 11 weapons, compared with one or two when Bush took office.

North Korea's test could also unleash a nuclear arms race in Asia, with Japan and South Korea feeling pressure to build nuclear weapons for defensive reasons.

Yet a number of senior U.S. officials have said privately that they would welcome a North Korean test, regarding it as a clarifying event that would forever end the debate within the Bush administration about whether to solve the problem through diplomacy or through tough actions designed to destabilize North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's grip on power.

Now U.S. officials will push for tough sanctions at the U.N. Security Council, and are considering a raft of largely unilateral measures, including stopping and inspecting every ship that goes in and out of North Korea.

"This fundamentally changes the landscape now," one U.S. official said last night.

When Bush became president in 2000, Pyongyang's reactor was frozen under a 1994 agreement with the United States. Clinton administration officials thought they were so close to a deal limiting North Korean missiles that in the days before he left office, Bill Clinton seriously considered making the first visit to Pyongyang by a U.S. president.

But conservatives had long been deeply skeptical of the deal freezing North Korea's program -- known as the Agreed Framework -- in part because it called for building two light-water nuclear reactors (largely funded by the Japanese and South Koreans). When then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell publicly said in early 2001 that he favored continuing Clinton's approach, Bush rebuked him.

Bush then labeled North Korea part of an "axis of evil" that included Iran and Saddam Hussein's Iraq, further riling Pyongyang. U.S. officials say Bush carried a deep, visceral hatred of Kim and his dictatorial regime, and often chafed at efforts by his advisers to tone down his language about Kim, who within North Korea is regarded as a near-deity.

The missile negotiations with North Korea ended and no talks were held between senior U.S. and North Korean officials for nearly two years. Many top U.S. officials were determined to kill the Agreed Framework, and when U.S. intelligence discovered evidence that North Korea had a clandestine program to enrich uranium, they had their chance.

A U.S. delegation confronted Pyongyang about the secret program -- and U.S. officials said North Korean officials appeared to confirm it. (Pyongyang later denied that.) The United States pressed to cut off immediately deliveries of heavy fuel oil promised under the Agreed Framework. North Korea, in response, evicted international inspectors and restarted its nuclear reactor.

Pyongyang moved quickly to reprocess 8,000 spent fuel rods -- previously in a cooling pond under 24-hour international surveillance -- in order to obtain the plutonium needed for nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration, hampered by internal disputes, struggled to fashion a diplomatic effort to confront North Korea. Unlike the Clinton administration -- which suggested to North Korea that it would attack if Pyongyang moved to reprocess the plutonium -- the Bush administration never set out "red lines" that North Korea must not cross. Bush administration officials argued that doing so would only tempt North Korea to cross those lines.

Whereas Clinton had reached the Agreed Framework through lengthy bilateral negotiations, the Bush administration felt that North Korea would be less likely to wiggle out of a future deal if it also included its regional neighbors -- China, South Korea, Japan and Russia. But it took months of internal struggles to arrange the meetings -- and North Korea insisted it wanted to have only bilateral talks with the United States.

It was also difficult to coordinate policies with the other parties. The talks largely stalled, as North Korea continued to build its stockpile of plutonium.

After Bush was reelected, new Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice launched an effort to revitalize the six-nation talks, which a year ago yielded a "statement of principles" to guide future negotiations, including the possibility of major economic help, security assurances and normalization of relations with the United States if North Korea dismantled its nuclear programs. To the anger of conservatives within the administration, the statement also suggested that North Korea might one day be supplied with light-water reactors as envisioned in the Clinton deal.

But that proved to be the high point of the talks. The administration issued a statement saying the reactor project was officially terminated -- and North Korea would need to pass many hurdles before it could ever envision having a civilian nuclear program. The Treasury Department, meanwhile, focused on North Korea illicit counterfeiting activities, targeting a bank in Macao that reportedly held the personal accounts of Kim and his family. Many banks around the world began to refuse to deal with North Korean companies, further angering Pyongyang.

With the end of the negotiating track marking the likely advent of sanctions, Pyongyang's action will test the proposition of those Bush administration officials who argued that a confrontational approach would finally bring North Korea to heel.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company