The history of the past two decades shows that North Korea’s nuclear breakout was the result not only of its own nuclear ambitions, but also of the efforts of hard-liners in the administration of George W. Bush to sabotage any meaningful rapprochement with North Korea.
In 1994, the Clinton administration reached a deal with North Korea called the Agreed Framework, under which Pyongyang agreed to freeze its then-nascent nuclear program in return for economic and diplomatic concessions from Washington. North Korea’s nuclear facility at Yongbyon, the source of its minuscule amount of weapons-grade plutonium, was shut down and subject to international monitoring. It is widely accepted that without this deal, by the early 2000s, Pyongyang could have had a hundred or more nuclear bombs.
Despite North Korean frustration at U.S. delays in providing much of the promised assistance, the political thaw reached a high point in 2000. In October, then-President Bill Clinton received an envoy from North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and the two countries issued a communique pledging that neither would have “hostile intent” towards the other. Clinton then sent Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to meet Kim in Pyongyang.
Then Bush took office. After a review of Korea policy, Bush declined to reaffirm the communique pledging “no hostile intent.” Meanwhile, leading conservatives in his administration — Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Undersecretary of State John Bolton and others — actively sought to torpedo the Agreed Framework. The president labeled North Korea a member of the “axis of evil,” along with Iran and Iraq. In mid-2002, a U.S. intelligence determination that North Korea had taken initial steps to acquire the capability to make a uranium bomb was used by the conservatives as an excuse for Washington to pull out of the 1994 framework deal.
In the following months, Kim watched as U.S. troops toppled Saddam Hussein while the Bush administration, in the name of the “war on terror,” expounded a doctrine of regime change for rogue states. Rumsfeld formally proposed making regime change in Pyongyang official U.S. policy, while Bolton warned Kim to “draw the appropriate lesson” from Iraq.
Against this backdrop, it was hardly a surprise that North Korea’s response was to restart the Yongbyon reactor and manufacture more weapons-grade plutonium. As tensions rose, a deeply concerned China convinced the United States and North Korea to participate in six-party talks, along with South Korea, Japan and Russia.
In September 2005, the parties reached an accord on principles for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in which Washington and Pyongyang agreed “to respect each other’s sovereignty, exist peacefully together and take steps to normalize their relations.”
That same week, however, the Treasury Department designated Macau’s Banco Delta Asia, where North Korea maintained dozens of accounts, as a “suspected money-laundering concern.” The move was hailed by U.S. hard-liners as the kind of tough financial sanction that would compel North Korea to make greater concessions on the nuclear issue.
Pyongyang immediately announced a boycott of the six-party talks, while proposing negotiations to resolve the Banco Delta Asia issue. But North Korea’s overtures, including an appeal for bilateral talks in the first half of 2006, were rebuffed. Indeed, the Bush administration continued to urge other countries to scale back or cut financial ties with Pyongyang.
This was the context in which Kim Jong Il ordered North Korea’s first nuclear test in October 2006. It does not appear to be the action of a leader intent on staging a nuclear breakout at all costs. Rather, it suggests someone deeply frustrated that U.S. hard-liners were blocking efforts to reach a diplomatic accommodation and reacting in a predictable North Korean way — by upping the ante.
After the nuclear test, the Chinese again engineered a revival of the six-party talks, and in 2007, a new agreement was reached on steps to disable and eventually dismantle North Korea’s plutonium facilities. However, Washington hard-liners demanded that Pyongyang accept inspections of its nuclear facilities so intrusive one American official described them a “national proctologic exam.” As the Bush administration came to an end, Washington, backed by conservative governments in Seoul and Tokyo, moved to halt energy aid promised in the 2007 deal unless North Korea agreed to the new verification measures. Pyongyang, believing the United States was reneging on previously agreed commitments, refused.
The years of mixed signals and unfulfilled commitments from Washington appear to have led Kim Jong Il to re-evaluate his policy of ensuring North Korea’s security by trading at least some of its nuclear and missile capabilities for a broad diplomatic deal with the United States. Instead, Pyongyang began to make clear it would not negotiate away its nukes — a position now enshrined in the North Korean constitution and a central pillar of legitimacy for Kim Jong Il’s son and successor, Kim Jong Un.
There is no way to know whether North Korea would have actually followed through on the denuclearization steps it agreed to in 2005 and 2007. But the idea that the failure of diplomacy was entirely Pyongyang’s fault obscures a much more complex reality, in which U.S. actions also contributed to the crisis the world confronts today.