Eyes Off the Ball

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Reviewed by Glenn Kessler
Sunday, August 3, 2008


The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis

By Mike Chinoy

St. Martin's. 405 pp. $27.95

When North Korea admitted in June that it had produced enough plutonium for a half-dozen nuclear bombs, National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley suggested that the admission resulted from steady U.S. diplomatic pressure since the beginning of the Bush administration nearly eight years ago. Meltdown, a tour de force of reporting by former CNN Beijing correspondent Mike Chinoy, demonstrates that the White House version of events is as misleading as the propaganda crafted in Pyongyang.

Chinoy shows that American policy toward North Korea often became incoherent and self-defeating as administration insiders fought desperately to gain the upper hand in internal debates. The North Koreans took advantage of this disarray to build their stockpile of plutonium, believed to total 37 or 38 kilograms, and even to test a nuclear device underground.

History may not judge kindly the Bush administration's ill-fated invasion of Iraq, but in Chinoy's telling, historians may be even more critical of the administration's handling of North Korea.

To be sure, North Korea's nuclear ambitions have long challenged U.S. presidents. Bill Clinton struck a deal in 1994 that froze North Korea's plutonium-based nuclear facility. George W. Bush, when he took office, was openly skeptical of that agreement. He famously snubbed South Korea's leader, Nobel Peace Prize-winner Kim Dae-jung, when Kim visited the White House early in Bush's tenure and urged the United States to continue on Clinton's path of improving relations with Pyongyang. In 2002, the Bush administration believed it had caught North Korea cheating on the Clinton agreement (by switching from plutonium production to uranium enrichment) and effectively scuttled the deal.

With the administration distracted by the looming war against Iraq, North Korea promptly restarted its Yongbyon reactor and began to extract plutonium from spent fuel rods. For a few years, the Bush administration seemed uninterested in diplomacy, until it abruptly shifted course after the North Korean nuclear test in October 2006 and made concessions that would have been unthinkable in Bush's first term. The Yongbyon reactor is now out of business again, but the North Koreans still have the plutonium, and few experts believe they will give it up.

Various accounts of the administration's North Korea policy have appeared in recent years. Former government officials such as Charles L. "Jack" Pritchard and John R. Bolton, who battled each other early in the administration, have written memoirs. Yoichi Funabashi, a skilled Japanese journalist, last year published a detailed but academic account, The Peninsula Question.

Chinoy's chronicle is the most comprehensive and readable. People who are fresh to the North Korea issue will be disheartened by what they learn, but so will specialists who thought they knew all about the administration's fierce infighting. I have long covered this issue for The Washington Post, and I devoted a chapter to North Korea policy in my biography of Condoleezza Rice, yet there are details in Meltdown that left me shaking my head in wonder.

In one outstanding chapter, Chinoy provides a careful account of a crucial meeting in Pyongyang in 2002 at which U.S. officials confronted the North Koreans over their clandestine nuclear program. The two sides have given completely different versions of the encounter, and Chinoy sorts through the disagreements and misunderstandings to show how the United States may have missed a major opportunity. He notes that in the run-up to the meeting, hardliners in Washington placed restrictions on the U.S. delegation that virtually ensured a combative visit, even forbidding the American diplomats to host a meal or offer a toast to the North Koreans. The approved script required the U.S. side to accuse North Korea of secretly enriching uranium without offering any specific evidence.

A senior North Korean official, Kang Sok Ju, reacted to the U.S. allegations "with bluster, accusations, harsh rhetoric, and seemingly improbable demands." But he also sent "a strong signal" that if Washington were willing to negotiate over the full range of issues separating the two countries, "the North was ready to address U.S. worries" about its nuclear program. The Americans were unprepared for anything other than stonewalling and were "in shock" over what they took as an acknowledgment of cheating; their instructions, Chinoy says, did not include how to respond to such candor. Rather than picking up on the North Korean offer, the U.S. delegation got up from the table to report back to Washington, where the news of North Korea's "admission" immeasurably strengthened those who wanted to ditch the Clinton agreement and cut off talks.

Chinoy clearly sympathizes with administration officials who favored engagement with North Korea. But he lets officials who wanted to isolate Pyongyang make their case. More than 100 people granted him interviews, and the list is a who's who of both senior and junior U.S. players on North Korea policy.

Sometimes Chinoy's sourcing is irritatingly vague. For instance, he recounts a pivotal conversation between Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao during a White House luncheon in April 2006. I was seated a few feet from the two leaders and watched their interaction closely, then wrote a description of their conversation for my book based on briefings from three administration officials. Funabashi wrote a similar description. Chinoy gives a more detailed, somewhat different account. Did he see a memo on the conversation? Or is he relying on just one administration official, quoted anonymously? It is not clear.

But this book makes an important contribution to the historical record. Because Bush did not pursue a consistent policy, we will never know if engagement from the start, or isolationism to the end, would have yielded a better outcome. The only certainty is that the next president will have to grapple with the consequences. ยท

Glenn Kessler is a Washington Post diplomatic correspondent and author of "The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy."

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