Indeed, this skepticism has been reflected in American policy toward North Korea over the past eight years, even if the president's own rhetoric sometimes seemed more optimistic. I note, for the record, that in the six years since the 1994 accord, we never did get around to building those light-water reactors: Other excuses were given, but doubts about the North's willingness to hold up its end of the bargain were an important part of the explanation. Nor did Clinton himself ever get around to making a much-anticipated visit to Pyongyang. This was, I might note, largely because U.S.-North Korea missile talks quietly collapsed in November 2000.
And what has changed since President Bush took over? According to a State Department official: nothing. That is, no element of our policy has yet been actually altered. All that has happened is that the public enthusiasm of President Clinton—which masked the private skepticism of everyone else—is gone, replaced by the public skepticism of President Bush. I don't really see why this should be cause for massive liberal despair: All it does is make public what was, in fact, the previous administration's own policy. It also means we are less likely to be embarrassed when the North Koreans behave the way we always suspected they were going to behave anyway.
True, the North Koreans have noticed the change: The regime's Web site thunders that the Bush administration is "getting on their nerves" and is "raising silly questions" about the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea. A North Korean diplomat haughtily told a European diplomat of my acquaintance that North Korea was fully prepared to launch satellites on its own, if the Untied States wouldn't do it for them. And you can see why they are angry: If North Korea is worried about losing the American aid it needs to keep its people from starving, that might endanger the existence of what may be one of the world's most backward and unpleasant regimes. No one, I'm afraid, will mourn the loss.