The Clinton Syndrome
By Kenneth R. Timmerman
FrontPageMagazine.com | April 13, 2007
North Korea has already missed today’s deadline.
According to the agreement signed in Beijing on Feb. 13, 2007, North
Korea was to “shut down and seal the Yongbyon nuclear reactor for the
purpose of abandonment” as of today.
That was the condition for U.S. aid and incentives to North Korea set
by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice when she announced the six-party
agreement to bring North Korea’s multi-faceted nuclear weapons programs
under international control, and ultimately dismantle them.
As expected, the minute the agreement was signed the North Koreans
charged forward at top speed – not to implement it, but to stall, while
insisting vociferously that they must reap all the promised fruits.
The first sticking point raised by North Korea was a U.S. failure to
unfreeze $25 million held by North Korea at the Banco Delta Asia in
Macao. That delay was caused primarily by objections from the U.S.
Department of Treasury that those accounts and that bank had been used
to launder North Korean counterfeit $100 notes.
But the United States never pledged to unfreeze those accounts first,
and only then would North Korea shut down and seal the Yongbyon
reactor. On the contrary: the terms of the agreement clearly called on
the North Koreans to first take the confidence-building step of
shutting down the reactor “within 60 days.”
During that same period, the U.S. and North Korea were to “begin
bilateral talks toward establishing eventual full diplomatic
relations,” and the U.S. “would begin the process” of lifting economic
sanctions on North Korea – including those imposed on the Banco Delta
Asia accounts because of North Korea counterfeiting and
Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who negotiated the Feb.
13 agreement, warned about the slippery slope of missing deadlines. He
told the Brookings Institution just ten days after signing the
agreement that the U.S. was serious about holding North Korea to the
April 13 target date for shutting down the Yongbyon reactor.
“When you start missing deadlines, it's like a broken window theory,”
he warned. “If one window is unrepaired, before you know it, you will
have a lot of broken windows and nobody cares. We care about deadlines,
and therefore we really have to make sure these all happen.”
And now the windows are being broken, and nobody seems to care.
Former Undersecretary of State and U.S. Ambassador to the United
Nations John R. Bolton does not believe the North Koreans will ever get
rid of their nuclear weapons because they are “integral to the survival
of King Jong Il’s regime.”
Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute on April 5 along with AEI
scholars Nicholas Eberhardt and Dan Blumenthal, Bolton argued that
nuclear weapons were North Korea’s “ultimate trump card against the
United States, Japan, China,” and indeed, against the North Korean
people. “North Korea cannot give those weapons up in a way that we
would consider acceptable and verifiable without fundamentally
undermining the regime itself.”
Bolton and other North Korea experts point out that the North’s
delaying tactics were easy to have foreseen, since they resemble their
behavior in any number of earlier negotiations we have had with them.
“First they put you through an arduous process of negotiation to reach
the agreement itself,” Bolton said, “and then once the agreement is
signed the North Koreans say, ‘great, now let’s start negotiating
again.’ That’s what they’re doing. Their objective here is to stretch
out compliance with the terms of the February agreement.”
President Bush set a high standard shortly after the agreement was announced two months ago.
“Those who say that the North Koreans have got to prove themselves by
actually following through on the deal are right. And I’m one of them,”
he said “[N]ow it’s up to the North Koreans to do that which they say
they will do.”
And today, we can see that they haven’t. So what are we going to do about it?
According to Bolton, very little.
“Having spent many years at the State Department, I will tell you right
now what I predict the State Department will say the day after the 60th
day has come and gone. They will say, well, there’s been
substantial compliance; the North Koreans are moving in the right
direction. We’ve had excellent discussions in the working groups.
The process of the February 13 agreement is well launched and we don’t
want to let the perfect become the enemy of the good. We’re going
to apply pressure to the North Koreas to make sure that they abide by
that commitment, but we don’t want to be hung up on mere technicalities
like the sixty-day commitment.”
But far more dangerous than the North’s failure to live up to its
commitment to shut down the Yongbyon reactor, is the failure to make
any mention at all of North Korea’s uranium enrichment program in the
Feb. 13 agreement, Bolton believes.
If they shut down their ageing plutonium production reactor but
maintain a secret uranium enrichment program, the U.S. will have
achieved a hollow victory. Worse, we will have created a false sense of
security, while North Korea continues to beaver away to build weapons
in secret which it can then sell to terrorists groups and terrorist
states, such as Iran.
Bolton’s account of what happened in 2002, when the U.S. walked away
from the “Agreed Framework” negotiated by the Clinton administration
six years earlier, is critical to understanding the stakes of
today’s deadline. For reasons that will become apparent below, it has
received no coverage that I have seen in the press.
Remember: at the time of these events, Bolton was Undersecretary of
State for Arms Control, and so was intimately involved in tracking the
North Korean nuclear program.
Rumors had persisted for years that the North Koreans had a parallel
uranium enrichment program. (I can recall reporting for Time magazine
in 1994 about the program, and finding former intelligence analysts who
could identify a number of suspect sites). But there was considerable
disagreement within the intelligence community about whether such a
program even existed.
Then something happened in the spring or early summer of 2002 “that
effectively ended that discussion,” Bolton said. The U.S. acquired
dramatic new information that proved beyond any doubt that “North Korea
was pursuing the acquisition of the technology and materials that it
needed for an industrial-scope uranium enrichment effort.”
A decision was made to dispatch then-Assistant Secretary of State Jim
Kelly to Pyongyang to “confront the North Koreans with what we knew and
to say to them: we think you have a highly-enriched uranium program to
give you that route to nuclear weapons.”
On the first day of those talks, the North Koreans denied the
information flat out. But on the second day they “came back at a higher
level and basically told our people they had been up all night
discussing the question, and that they were presenting the view of the
party… which our people at the time took to mean that they had gone to
the Dear Leader himself.
“They said at that point, the second day, unambiguously, that they not
only had such a program, they had it in response to the United States,”
Bolton recalled. “It was their way of defending against us. So not only
did they admit to it, they us the reason in their view why they had the
Bolton then went on to describe being called down by Secretary Powell’s
office early that morning so he could read the cable that the U.S. team
had sent from Pyongyang. “He handed me the cable and he said, here,
read this. You’re not going to believe this.” The whole story of the
North’s admission was there.
Bolton sees an effort in recent weeks to “rewrite history” about the
North’s uranium enrichment program on the part of some within the
intelligence and the policy communities, in order to achieve an arms
control agreement with North Korea for its own sake.
The Washington Post reported last month that the Bush administration
was “backing away from its long-held assertions that North Korea has an
active clandestine program to enrich uranium,” and now believes the
intelligence that led to that conclusion “may have been flawed.”
What we’re seeing here is the Iraq WMD syndrome. Any intelligence
information, no matter how solid (and even if confirmed by the target
state itself!), becomes the subject of such doubt and second-guessing
that it can no longer be used to make policy.
When that happens, intelligence becomes literally useless. What’s the
point of spending billions of dollars and possibly risking people’s
lives to acquire information if policy-makers are gun-shy of using it,
because their political opponents might question its validity?
It ought to be called the Clinton syndrome. If it doesn’t smoke, wear a
blue dress or go boom in the night, then it’s not a problem. It’s
precisely that kind of crisis-avoidance cowardice that gave us Saddam
Hussein, al Qaeda, a nuclear-armed North Korea – and has probably given
us a nuclear Iran.
This president and members of this administration need to stick to
their guns. North Korea must be made to stick to its deadlines, and to
its commitments. And that means dismantling all its nuclear weapons
programs – including its clandestine uranium enrichment facilities.