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North Korea, Nuclear Weapons, Clinton, and Bush: Another Bush Balls-up Bites Back


There is a distinct feeling of “deja vu” about North Korea’s announcement and claim that they have successfully tested a “hydrogen bomb.”  The North Koreans have been trying to develop nuclear weapons and delivery systems (missiles) for many years and they have had a few successes.  Agreements that we made with them to stop development in exchange for financial and logistical help have not been honored on either side.  However, the Clinton administration’s approach to the problem was far more productive than the actions of the Bush boys.

In 1994, there was a crisis in relations between North Korea and the United States.  President Clinton plausibly threatened to attack North Korea over its announced intention to begin reprocessing spent fuel rods from its shuttered nuclear reactor.  Reprocessing would have allowed the North Koreans to extract plutonium, which is an essential raw material for nuclear weapons as an alternative to uranium.  The North Korean leader, Kim Il Sung, threatened to take the reprocessing step as part of its long-term plan to develop an atomic bomb.

In response to Kim’s announcement, Clinton had the Pentagon send an advance team of 250 specialist soldiers to South Korea to manage a buildup of bombers, jet fighters, Bradley fighting vehicles, Apache helicopters, Patriot anti-missile missiles, and fifty thousand troops.  This strategic move convinced Kim Il Sung that Clinton really intended to attack, or at least to mount a strike against the nuclear fuel reprocessing facility which they had already built, if the North proceeded with reprocessing and repudiation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT.)

At the same time, Clinton sent former President Jimmy Carter to North Korea on an ostensibly private mission to negotiate with Kim.  Carter created a deal which went far beyond what Clinton had asked for, but it was merely an agreement and thus did not need to be ratified by the Senate as a real treaty would have.  Under the deal, Kim undertook to lock up his spent fuel rods and place them under international supervision; the South Koreans agreed to build two light-water reactors in the North, and the US agreed to supply North Korea with large quantities of fuel oil (desperately needed in a country already on the edge of famine.)  The US also agreed to say that it would not attack the North.

This agreement was not honored.  The South Koreans did not build the light-water reactors, and the US ended its supply of fuel oil.  Financial assistance for construction and the delivery of oil was not forthcoming from the Senate, nor from the South Koreans.  The North Koreans secretly started to supply Pakistan with missile technology in exchange for Pakistani uranium centrifuges.  Nonetheless, negotiations began between the US and North Korea.  A framework deal was hammered out, but it was too late to accomplish anything during Clinton’s presidency.  Clinton spent his last months as President unsuccessfully trying to work out a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

When Bush became President, he named General Colin Powell as his Secretary of State.  His policy stance, however, was in contradiction to Powell’s inclinations.  Bush was aligned more closely with his National Security Adviser, Condoleeza Rice, who took a conservative, “principled” stance.  At the same time, there were new leaders in both North and South Korea.  Kim Il Sung died and was replaced by his son, Kim Jong-Il; Kim Dae Jung was democratically elected as President of South Korea.  Kim Dae Jung had run on a platform of improved relations with the North, but his desire to negotiate with the other Kim was stymied by Bush’s new “no negotiation” stance.

Bush and his cronies claimed that negotiating with North Korea (or any other power he claimed was illegitimate, or in his words, “evil”) was rewarding them for bad behavior.  At the same time, he had his hands full with preparations for attacking Iraq.  It is ironic that Bush attacked Iraq for supposedly having “weapons of mass destruction” (which Saddam Hussein had already destroyed in the settlement after the first gulf war), while at the same time doing nothing to a country that really did have the capability to produce nuclear weapons.

There was no viable response to the North Korean threat other than negotiation because the US had no intelligence information about the North and little capability for invading them. They were too close to a powerful ally– China.  So the Bush administration, aside from a trivial threatening gesture without substance, ignored the threats that Kim made and made his own insincere counter-threats.

When North Korea baldly admitted that they were acquiring centrifuges from Pakistan to convert their uranium to the fissionable form, U-235, there was nothing Bush could do about it other than negotiate.  He had already ruled out negotiating with Kim Jong-Il, in fact, he openly stated that he “loathed” Kim.  Thus, the North Koreans were free to do whatever they wished.  Economic sanctions, even at their most stringent, could not bring the North Koreans to heel because Kim Jong-Il didn’t care if his people starved; he only cared about his own diet, which was more than adequate.

The North Koreans expected the US to behave as it had in 1994: openly threaten an attack, but quietly negotiate behind the scenes.  The Bush administration made a weak, obviously token threat to attack (this was just after Congress had authorized an attack on Iraq), but failed to do anything about actually negotiating because of its “principles.”  The North Koreans approached Bill Richardson, formerly US ambassador under Clinton, but the Bush people, wanting to preserve “moral clarity”, ignored their overtures.

Months later, Bush ordered several attack planes, B1’s, and B-52’s to our air base in Guam, in range of North Korea, but there was no accompanying Army or Navy preparations and no indications that Bush seriously planned to show readiness for an attack.  At the same time, the Army was leading an all-out invasion of Iraq and Bush was incapable of leading a war on two fronts.  No attempts to negotiate were made, and in April 2003, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld advised Bush to take a policy of “regime change” towards North Korea.  No actual preparations for creating a “regime change” were made other than trying to organize an economic quarantine.

Despite the economic sanctions, the North Koreans have continued their work on atomic weapons and missile delivery systems.  The most recent announcement from North Korea, that they have successfully tested a “hydrogen” bomb, is almost certainly bombast, but it shows that they have not been frightened away or economically damaged enough to stop development of the very weapons that we destroyed Iraq over.

The weapon that North Korea tested a few days ago was estimated to be only 6 kilotons in yield, far less than the 15 kilotons that the Hiroshima bomb produced.  It is extremely unlikely that they tested, even unsuccessfully, a true “hydrogen” bomb because the yield was so small, no larger than the previous tests.  It is possible that the claim refers to a tritium-boosted fission device, but even such a device should have had greater yield.

The conclusion that I make is that the Bush administration’s failures in Iraq are equaled by their failure in North Korea.  In the first case, we invaded and took over a country on the excuse that they were hiding the components of “weapons of mass destruction” which turned out to be false.  In the aftermath of the invasion, we created a failing state and killed hundreds of thousands (no-one is certain just how many) of civilians, a seed-bed for Sunni extremism and the Islamic State.  In North Korea, by refusing to followup on the Clinton initiatives and failing to make a credible threat to attack combined with a negotiating offer, we have allowed a ruthless, truly evil state to continue its path of destruction.

Here is an article from the Washington Monthly written by Fred Kaplan in 2004 that details how the Bush and Clinton approaches differed.

There is little that the Obama administration can do about this situation, as the North Koreans have the initiative and Obama’s representatives can’t even get to the negotiating table without making some very embarrassing concessions.   The North Koreans have demanded that the US agree to promise not to attack them as a precondition for re-starting negotiations.  US policy for many years has been to refuse to promise “no first use” of nuclear weapons; in this, we differ from every other nuclear-capable country in the world.



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