In pursuit of this erroneous strategy, the Bush administration squandered several opportunities to squeeze North Korea’s uranium-enrichment-related activities. For example, my colleagues and I raised over and over again the proliferation activities of Namchongang Trading Corporation. At the time, NCG was well-known in nonproliferation and intelligence circles as one of North Korea’s principal nuclear trading entities. And NCG was instrumental in North Korea’s acquisition of aluminum tubes — essential components of a uranium-enrichment program. But intelligence officials balked repeatedly at our efforts to discuss the possibility of sanctioning NCG, citing the need to protect sources and methods. Policymakers declined to “rock the boat” by pushing forward with sanctions on NCG. Nearly three years later, the Obama administration, at last, sanctioned NCG in June 2009. President Obama actually sanctioned NCG for proliferation activities under an executive order issued by President Bush in 2005 to target weapons-of-mass-destruction proliferators. But this sanctioning was a little too late.
For years, significant gaps have existed in U.S. intelligence information on North Korea’s nuclear program, including its uranium-enrichment program. And it is reasonable to assume that U.S. intelligence information remains incomplete regarding the breadth and scope of the North Korean nuclear program. To date, the Obama administration has not commented on what, if any, intelligence it possesses specifically on the uranium-enrichment facility at Yongbyon other than what has been gleaned from Siegfried Hecker’s recent visit to North Korea. But the speed with which the U.S. special envoy to North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, and his team were dispatched to brief Asian capitals in the wake of this disclosure suggests the Obama administration may have been caught off-guard by Hecker’s description of the sophistication of the uranium facility at Yongbyon. Yet the nearly constant U.S. satellite surveillance of the Yongbyon facility suggests that U.S. intelligence officials had at least an inkling of the uranium-enrichment-related activity being conducted there.
Obama-administration officials apparently chose not to act. But such willful blindness would be entirely consistent with nearly two decades of U.S. policy toward North Korea that has disregarded this growing threat. And President Obama deserves credit for thus far not capitulating to North Korea’s demand for Six-Party Talks. But it is worth noting that the Bush administration’s decision to pursue a Yongbyon-centric strategy focused on North Korea’s plutonium program was endorsed by several arms-control and Asia experts now serving in the Obama administration; and that such a strategy underpinned the Clinton administration’s 1994 Agreed Framework. And the abandonment of this Yongbyon-centric strategy in the early years of the Bush administration — when U.S. officials first raised concerns over North Korea’s uranium-enrichment activities — prompted many of these same officials to criticize Bush-administration officials, such as John Bolton and Bob Joseph, for hyping intelligence regarding North Korea’s capabilities.
There is plenty of blame to go around for the current sorry state of affairs regarding North Korea’s nuclear program. But moving forward necessitates that the Obama administration once and for all abandon the longstanding myth that the Kim regime can be persuaded to relinquish North Korea’s nuclear weapons in exchange for the appropriate package of incentives. This will not come easily to an administration predisposed to “negotiations.” Moreover, such truthfulness will require the accompanying political will on the part of the United States to undertake the risks associated with refusing to acquiesce to Pyongyang’s provocations. This is a decision that no U.S. political administration has been thus far willing to undertake to thwart North Korea’s nuclear program.
It is unclear whether the Obama administration is prepared to undertake such a challenge. But the time is long overdue for the U.S. to stop making the mistakes that have dictated North Korea policy for the past two decades. The moment of truth has arrived, again.
— Carolyn Leddy served at the State Department and on the National Security Council staff during the Bush administration, from 2003 to 2007.