For the Record

Bush Faults Clinton Policy, But the Debate is Complex

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 12, 2006

President Bush asserted yesterday that the administration's strategy on North Korea is superior to the one pursued by his predecessor, Bill Clinton, because Clinton reached a bilateral agreement that failed, while the current administration is trying to end North Korea's nuclear programs through multi-nation talks.

"In order to solve this diplomatically, the United States and our partners must have a strong diplomatic hand," Bush said at a news conference. "And you have a better diplomatic hand with others, sending the message, than you do when you're alone."

As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put it on Tuesday: "The United States tried direct dialogue with the North Koreans in the '90s, and that resulted in the North Koreans signing onto agreements that they then didn't keep."

But the reality is more complicated, according to former and current U.S. officials and a review of the diplomatic history.

Bush's current policy, in fact, envisions direct, bilateral negotiations with North Korea on certain issues in the six-nation talks, such as missile proliferation and normalizing relations. That commitment to direct talks is enshrined in the agreement of principles guiding future negotiations that was reached in Beijing in September 2005. Indeed, Rice was prepared to authorize her chief negotiator to travel to Pyongyang in November 2005, provided that North Korea shut down its nuclear reactor as a sign of good faith. It refused that condition, and the trip was scrubbed.

By the same token, it is not fully accurate to describe the negotiations that led to a 1994 agreement between the United States and North Korea as purely the result of one-on-one negotiations. During talks that produced the Agreed Framework, in which North Korea said it would freeze its nuclear program, U.S. negotiators briefed Japanese and South Korean officials every day. South Korea and Japan agreed to bankroll much of the cost of the light-water reactors that were to be provided to North Korea under the deal.

Robert L. Gallucci, the chief negotiator of the accord and now dean of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, said it is a "ludicrous thing" to say that the Clinton agreement failed. For eight years, the Agreed Framework kept North Korea's five-megawatt plutonium reactor frozen and under international inspection, while North Korea did not build planned 50- and 200-megawatt reactors. If those reactors had been built and running, he said, North Korea would now have enough plutonium for more than 100 nuclear weapons.

By Gallucci's account, North Korea may have produced a small amount of plutonium for one or two weapons before Clinton came into office -- during the administration of Bush's father -- but "no more material was created on his watch." When Clinton left office, officials saw signs that North Korea may have been attempting to create a clandestine uranium enrichment program, but nothing was definitive.

Such a program would violate the Agreed Framework. When the Bush administration decided it had conclusive proof of that enrichment in July 2002, it confronted North Korea and terminated fuel oil deliveries promised under the Agreed Framework. In response, North Korea evicted the inspectors, restarted the reactor and retrieved weapons-grade plutonium from 8,000 fuel rods that had been kept in a cooling pond. Intelligence analysts now think that, before Monday's apparent nuclear test, North Korea had enough plutonium for as many as a dozen weapons.

While the Bush administration accused Pyongyang, North Koreans complained bitterly that the United States was the chief violator of the pact because the reactors were years behind in construction and because promises to end hostile relations and normalize ties were not fulfilled.

Before the crisis in 2002, the Bush administration was prepared to hold bilateral talks with North Korea, though it took nearly two years after Bush came into office to arrange them. Afterward, administration insiders argued over the best approach before settling on meeting with the North Koreans only in the presence of officials from other nations.

Then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell pressed China to host three-way discussions because it was clear that Bush was opposed to direct talks, according to the new book "Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell," by Washington Post Associate Editor Karen DeYoung. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld adamantly opposed any dialogue, arguing in a series of memos that the goal should be the collapse of North Korea's government, the book says.

The talks were expanded to include Japan, South Korea and Russia. During a flight to Africa in July 2003, Powell won Bush's agreement to allow U.S. negotiators to meet with the North Koreans on the sidelines of the talks, in part to assuage the Chinese, who wanted more direct engagement between the United States and North Korea.

Conservatives opposed to negotiations came to embrace the six-party format because they thought that it was so cumbersome that it would not achieve much, and because North Korea's behavior grated on other participants.

Michael Green, a former White House aide who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said some bilateral negotiations will take place if a final agreement to dismantle the program is reached. But he said that the four other nations can provide incentives on trade and energy that the United States cannot, and that the other countries have much greater ability to inflict pain on North Korea.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company