Last month the North Koreans took a step that nine years ago when they threatened to take the same step, pushed President Bill Clinton to mobilize for war. George W. Bush's response, now that they've actually done the deed? A shrug.
This is, at the very least, bizarre.
The step, which was revealed in last Friday's New York Times, was truly serious. Through much of January, the Times reported, U.S. satellite photos were showing trucks lining up at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear complex—specifically, pulling up to the building that houses 8,000 nuclear fuel rods—and driving away.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what was happening. A few weeks earlier, North Korea had told inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, who had been monitoring the fuel rods since 1994, to go home. Then it unlocked the seals that had kept the fuel rods securely in a storage pond. Now it seems clear the rods were moved out—an action that Clinton officials warned would cross the "red line." If these rods are taken to a reprocessing plant, they can produce enough plutonium to make about one atom bomb a week, starting in as soon as a month or so.
The real point, though, is that we don't know where the rods are going. Ever since the end of last year, North Korean officials have been all but crying out for negotiations with the United States, threatening to resume their nuclear program if Bush did not resume living up to the U.S. side of Clinton's 1994 agreement (namely, to supply North Korea with a lightweight reactor and to sign a non-aggression pact), which back then averted war.
If Bush had started talks a few weeks ago, the fuel rods would still be in the ponds; had a deal been struck, the seals could have been locked back on, the IAEA inspectors flown back in. But, despite tentative gestures in that direction (which misled me into writing at the time that Bush seemed to be "coming to his senses" on Korea), this administration appears to equate negotiations with appeasement. And so now, even if talks began tomorrow and the North Koreans trucked the rods back to Yongbyon, we will never know whether all of them have really been returned.
The Bush people, at least publicly, are strangely nonchalant about this development. The Times quoted a senior administration official as saying, "There's still a debate about exactly what we are seeing and how provocative it is." The story further noted, "Some in the Bush administration believe that North Korea could simply be conducting the nuclear activity as part of an elaborate bluff, hoping it will bring the Bush administration to the negotiating table."
These are stupefying statements. If Secretary of State Colin Powell possesses evidence anywhere near this solid that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction or ties to al-Qaida terrorists, he should have no problem making a case for war when he briefs the U.N. Security Council this Wednesday. Yet faced with clear-cut proof of North Korea's intentions and capabilities to produce nuclear weapons, the administration goes suddenly weak-kneed.
Certainly the North Koreans are hoping to bring Bush to the table. But why should they bluff about reprocessing their fuel rods? Why wouldn't—why shouldn't—they think that a handful of nukes will give them more leverage?
Bush said in his State of the Union message that he will "isolate" North Korea until it abandons its nuclear ambitions. But this isn't a terribly potent threat to a regime that, through its 50-year history, has thrived on isolation; that has turned what it calls Juche (self-reliance) into a national religion, even to the point of letting 2 million of its own people die of famine—and the rest live in dire poverty—rather than open its borders to the world.
North Korea's whole pattern of activity the past month and a half bears remarkable resemblance to that of a decade ago. In March 1993, Pyongyang officials announced they would pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as part of a campaign to grab the attention of the new Clinton administration. In May '94, they went further and proclaimed they would unload the fuel rods from their nuclear reactor. This is what led Clinton to make plans for an airstrike. The next month, former President Jimmy Carter accepted an invitation to Pyongyang and hammered out the foundations of a deal that Clinton would sign—the deal that promised U.S. aid and non-aggression in favor of a North Korean nuclear lockup.
When Bush lagged on the U.S. part of the deal and linked North Korea with Iraq and Iran in the "axis of evil," Kim Jong-il decided to repeat history. He revoked the NPT, booted out the IAEA, and sent emissaries to talk with a middleman (in this case, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who, while he was a congressman in the mid-'90s, took part in several successful negotiations with Pyongyang, mainly on prisoner releases). But the follow-up never happened. Bush didn't play his designated part in the game. Instead, he called the whole game an exercise in "blackmail," said he didn't want to "reward" the North Koreans for bad behavior, and walked away.
In some ways, Bush was right. Kim Jong-il is a dangerous guy who needs to be told that nuclear brinkmanship is no way to conduct international diplomacy. On the other hand, what is Bush's alternative? Because of Kim's self-imposed isolation, we have no leverage over him. Because of his 13,000 artillery launchers on the DMZ, with which he could destroy Seoul in five minutes, it could be suicide to attack him. There really is no choice but to talk, even to "give in" to Kim's demands. This isn't so terrible, since his demands—the lightweight reactor (which can be used for energy but not for making bombs) and a non-aggression pact—aren't at all inimical to U.S. interests.
But there seem to be two problems with this idea. First, this administration is preoccupied with making war on Iraq and, though Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld may be right that it has enough armed forces to deal with two conflicts at once, it doesn't have enough hours in the day to focus on both. Second, and perhaps a bigger obstacle, the deal that Kim wants is a resumption of the deal made by Bill Clinton. And the Bush people hate Bill Clinton so much that, if he had signed a treaty declaring the sky blue, they would squint for hours to make it look green.