Nuclear Crisis: Why is Bush Ignoring the North Korea Threat?
Patrick Chisholm (managing principal, PolicyComm, Washington D.C.)
(This article originally appeared in the May 22, 2003 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and is reproduced here with permission from the publisher)
When dealing with North Korea, former president Bill Clinton was more hawkish than his successor, George W. Bush. In 1994, North Korea was about to withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and begin reprocessing its 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods at the Yongbyon nuclear facility.
These moves so alarmed the Clinton administration that it prepared to impose UN Security Council sanctions against the regime in Pyongyang and build up the US military in and around the Korean peninsula - including deploying tens of thousands of additional troops. Tensions were high. North Korea said sanctions would be an act of war, and the Clinton administration was fully aware that the military buildup could spark a pre-emptive attack by North Korea.
Despite these risks, Mr Clinton was within hours of authorising such actions. As it turned out, the crisis was defused by the intervention of former president Jimmy Carter, who prompted North Korea not to reprocess the fuel rods - in exchange for economic aid. Fast-forward to last December. North Korea removed International Atomic Energy Agency monitoring devices from its nuclear plant at Yongbyon, expelled inspectors and announced plans to start reprocessing. It was also revealed that the spent nuclear fuel rods, which can be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium within months, were being shipped to the plant. Then in January, North Korea announced its withdrawal from the NPT.
These are the very actions that, had they happened in 1994 under president Clinton, would have triggered sanctions and a military buildup. Yet the Bush administration took no punitive measures. Apart from standard statements of condemnation, the only policy change was a modest redeployment of an aircraft carrier and additional bombers and jet fighters to the region.
Last month, the North Korean situation became even more ominous. The Korean Central News Agency released an English-language statement saying the government was "successfully reprocessing" the fuel rods. But rather than reacting with alarm, the Bush administration considered it a bad translation - and said reprocessing had not started. The situation was clarified a week later during the trilateral talks in Beijing. North Korean negotiator Li Gun told US Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly that the reprocessing was almost complete. Even more disturbing, Mr Li said North Korea planned to test nuclear arms or export them.
The Bush administration's reaction? Apart from expressions of concern, nothing. By this time, things had moved well beyond what would have been the Clinton administration's threshold for taking action.
The Bush administration seemed not to believe the bad news, saying it had no proof of the reprocessing and that the North Koreans may be bluffing. Of course it had no proof; the monitors had been kicked out. Because reprocessing is so difficult to determine from abroad, the threshold for taking punitive action should have been the removal of the monitors.
Then, earlier this month, the Associated Press quoted a South Korean official as saying the US had given South Korea a satellite photo showing smoke coming from a North Korean nuclear facility, a possible indicator of reprocessing. And still, the Bush administration has done nothing. The North Koreans must be amazed at what they have been able to get away with.
A sense of urgency seems lacking not only within the Bush administration, but also within the media and policy community in general. Relative to Iraq, the dearth of news and commentary about North Korea is remarkable, particularly considering the latter is a much more serious threat. One wonders whether the Bush administration would have acted differently had it not been for Iraq. But the matter cannot wait. North Korea could soon have dozens of nuclear bombs, and the capability to deliver them.
In 1994, as now, North Korea said sanctions would be an act of war. Though the Clinton administration was willing to risk it, it is questionable whether sanctions would actually have provoked an attack by North Korea. Instead, they may have even goaded it into accepting a more intrusive inspections regime and removal of the 8,000 nuclear fuel rods from North Korean territory. Rewarding bad behaviour with economic aid may have been avoided as well.
Today, sanctions are a risk that the US, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the rest of the world must be willing to take. The window of opportunity is closing rapidly. Without action now, at some point down the road - after North Korea has developed into a fully fledged nuclear power - the world will regret its decision not to act. As British statesman Edmund Burke said: "The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."