Thursday, October 12, 2006

Clinton, Bush and NK

I intend for this to be the only post I do on the finger-pointing aspect of the North Korean nuke test. Not that it isn't a fair topic, it's just that deciding what to do now is more important.

Who is to blame for North Korea building nukes? Well, North Korea mostly. And China for sheltering them, even though China itself isn't at all happy about the nuke test.

But as far as U.S. policy, who did what? Who could have done more?

Fred Kaplan at Slate weighs in with a detailed rebuttal of John McCain's effort to lay the blame at Bill Clinton's feet, so we'll start there. It's opinion, but it's fact-based:

In the spring of 1994, barely a year into Bill Clinton's presidency, the North Koreans announced that they were about to remove the fuel rods from their nuclear reactor (as a first step to reprocessing them into plutonium), cancel their commitment to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (which they had signed in 1985), and expel the international weapons inspectors (who had been guarding the rods under the treaty's authority).

Did Clinton "reward" them for doing these things, as McCain claims? Far from it. Not only did he push the U.N. Security Council to consider sanctions, he also ordered the Joint Chiefs of Staff to draw up plans to send 50,000 additional troops to South Korea—bolstering the 37,000 already there—along with more than 400 combat jets, 50 ships, and several battalions of Apache helicopters, Bradley fighting vehicles, multiple-launch rockets, and Patriot air-defense missiles. He also sent in an advance team of 250 soldiers to set up logistical headquarters for the influx of troops and gear.

He sent an explicit signal that removing the fuel rods would cross a "red line." Several of his former aides insist that if North Korea had crossed that line, he would have launched an airstrike on the Yongbyon reactor, even knowing that it might lead to war.

At the same time, Clinton set up a diplomatic backchannel, sending former President Jimmy Carter to Pyongyang for direct talks with Kim Il-Sung, then North Korea's dictator and the father of its present "dear leader," Kim Jong-il. (The official Washington line held that Carter made the trip on his own, but a recent memoir by three former U.S. officials, Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis, acknowledges that Clinton asked him to go.)

This combination of sticks and carrots led Kim Il-Sung to call off his threats—the fuel rods weren't removed, the inspectors weren't kicked out—and, a few months later, to the signing of the Agreed Framework.

Ah, the Agreed Framework. More on that later. For now, Kaplan notes that in a 1995 annex to the Framework, North Korea agreed to export its spent fuel from the new light-water reactors rather than processing them itself -- exactly the approach suggested for Iran.

Kaplan sums up:

At the end of 2002, when the North Koreans really did unlock the rods and kick out the inspectors—when they crossed what Clinton had called the "red line"—Bush didn't take military action, he didn't call for sanctions, nor did he try diplomacy. It's Bush, not Clinton, who did nothing.

Now, he's comparing what Clinton aides say Clinton would have done to what Bush actually did in the event. So the comparison is a bit squishy. But there it is.

Critics say Clinton "appeased" North Korea, and the Framework was a failure. But what actually happened?

First, read the Framework. It's short.

The Framework laid out the following major points:

1. North Korea would remain part of the Nonproliferation treaty, halt construction on two proliferation-friendly nuclear reactors, and place its nuclear materials in the care of IAEA inspectors. It would also allow continued inspections of its nuclear facilities.

2. The U.S. agreed to replace those two reactors with two modern light-water reactors, which besides being safer also produced far less divertable plutonium. While those reactors were being built, they would provide North Korea with fuel oil for electrical generation. We also agreed to move toward normalization of relations.

North Korea's known nuclear program was based around plutonium, and it is that program that the Framework deals with.

Note that the agreement was built around major, verifiable acts by North Korea. We weren't just giving him stuff with no strings attached and hoping for the best. We were rewarding specific behavior with specific payoffs.

And for eight years, with one huge exception, North Korea scrupulously adhered to the Framework, even while a Republican-led Congress forced us to renege on various aspects of it -- notably, timely delivery of the fuel oil and the lifting of Korean War-era sanctions. For eight years their plutonium program was frozen. That seems like a significant achievement to me.

But what about the nuclear reactors we were building? Due to various delays, construction on the first reactor didn't even begin until 2002, and was halted a year later. The construction sites remain mere holes in the ground.

So what was the big exception I mentioned? While adhering to restrictions on its plutonium program, North Korea -- being unscrupulous nutjobs -- secretly started a uranium-enrichment program. It's not clear when that program began, and uranium enrichment is much harder to do than plutonium. In many ways they were starting over from the beginning, with a much higher mountain to climb in order to achieve nuclear status.

So the Agreed Framework was a failure only if you include a secret program that wasn't covered by the Framework except in spirit. That's a bit like saying a filter that catches 90 percent of particulates is a failure because it misses 10 percent. The Framework achieved exactly what it set out to do: it halted North Korea's nuclear program in its tracks. For eight years North Korea didn't make measurable progress, all for the price of some fuel oil.

After Bush was elected, he continued with the Agreed Framework, even while expressing reservations about it. In March 2002 he waived a certification requirement in the Framework in order to continue providing aid to North Korea. As mentioned above, he also allowed construction of the light-water reactors to begin in August 2002. These are not the actions we would expect if the Framework were clearly irresponsible on its face.

Then, in October 2002, we uncovered evidence of the uranium program. We immediately suspended the Framework, and justifiably so -- although fuel oil shipments continued until December, and work on the reactors continued for another year. But we didn't replace it with anything; we just demanded action from North Korea. Maybe that made us feel good, but as a practical approach it left a lot to be desired. North Korea, hiding under China's protective wing, was never going to respond to all but the most credible and extreme threats. And with the looming invasion of Iraq, our threats were no longer remotely credible.

We finally got around to proposing multilateral talks, while North Korea withdrew from the Nonproliferation Treaty, kicked out the IAEA inspectors and resumed reprocessing fuel rods. We let the talks drag on with no serious results. Then we sat on our hands after North Korea withdrew a year ago, while they tested missiles and built a nuke.

So Clinton had success in reining in North Korea, while Bush didn't. That alone isn't conclusive; lack of success regarding North Korea isn't necessarily a sign of inaction, giving that the North Koreans are lunatics. But with Bush insisting on talks while doing essentially nothing to cajole North Korea to participate, it's hard to see how he expected anything to happen.

But inaction, too, is not necessarily damning. Sometimes waiting a stubborn adversary out is the best course, especially when the alternative is to reward bad behavior. One could make a principled case that refusing to engage a bad actor is the right thing to do.

But there are two things that are simply absurd:

1. It is absurd to blame Clinton for many North Korean actions that occurred on Bush's watch, notably withdrawing from the Nonproliferation Treaty and resuming fuel reprocessing. It is especially absurd to blame Clinton for North Korea testing missiles and a nuke six years into Bush's term.

2. It is absurd to claim Bush has actively achieved anything regarding North Korea's nuclear program. He has had some success shutting down North Korean criminal enterprises, such as their smuggling and counterfeiting operations. But as far as their nuke program, he has gotten nowhere.

One can speculate as to whether he could have done better. Perhaps not; North Korea is a complex case. But it seems clear that Bush's simplistic, all-stick-and-no-carrot approach was doomed to fail. If his goal was to keep North Korea from going nuclear, his chosen approach was the wrong one.

Update: Added details on the transition from Clinton to Bush, and smoothed out the writing a little bit.

Update II: Here's a look at McCain's 1994 speech criticizing Clinton's policy on North Korea.

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Anonymous Marc Schneider said...

Great post, Sean. Frankly, I was always a bit critical of Clinton's foreign policy, believing that he was either too indecisive or, in some cases, too belligerant. But this suggests a much more nuanced and well-thought out approach.

One of the problems that Bush is faced with (or has brought on himself) is his unwillingness to do anything that looks the least bit Clintonian. So, he has hamstrung himself into taking totally unrealistic positions so that now he has no leverage at all. Ideology and partisanship is now biting Bush in the ass.

The fact is, though, as you point out, is that North Korea has been hellbent on getting nukes for a long time and there is a limit to what the US can do to stop countries from going nuclear. That's not to say we should just accept it--nukes in the hands of this nut worries me more really than Iran--but other countries do what they are going to do and the idea that they are going to stop just because the US doesn't like it is unrealistic. That's what's happening with a lot of the partisan wrangling. Both sides have basically unrealistic expectations of what our foreign policy can accomplish.

10/13/2006 10:50 AM  

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