Politics & Policy

On North Korea, a Bipartisan Failure

The Bush administration got it wrong, too.

The revelation earlier this week that North Korea appears to have developed an indigenous uranium-enrichment capability has bewildered North Korea watchers and the media establishment alike. The question on everyone’s mind: Why didn’t the United States do more to prevent the progress of North Korea’s uranium-enrichment program?

Regrettably, the answer to this question is even more disconcerting than the disclosure itself. Intelligence amassed over the course of nearly two decades on North Korea’s uranium-enrichment program has been an inconvenient truth for most U.S. officials involved in North Korea policy through consecutive U.S. political administrations — but nowhere was this delusion in more abundance than in the latter years of the George W. Bush administration, in which I served as the director for counterproliferation strategy, covering North Korea’s nuclear program on the National Security Council staff in 2006 and 2007.

U.S. officials charged with North Korea policy downplayed or simply ignored intelligence information on uranium-enrichment activities. And this cavalier approach extended beyond the usual State Department negotiators to more senior members of the Bush administration national-security team. Thus it is somewhat surprising to see comments from former senior-level Bush-administration officials in recent days asserting that North Korea’s uranium-enrichment program was a serious concern in the waning years of that administration. The policy pursued by the Bush administration during this time simply does not match this rhetoric.

I visited the Yongbyon nuclear facility in September 2007 as part of an official U.S. delegation to survey and negotiate disablement activities. I was struck immediately by the decrepit and decaying facilities. The reactor operator expressed what seemed to be genuine dismay that he would be unable to restart the reactor following any lengthy shutdown. Undoubtedly, North Korea could muster the technical know-how and manual labor to restart this facility. But the reactor operator’s demeanor suggested that he knew the writing was on the wall: His pride and joy had been relegated to the dustbin of history. I reported this to my colleagues upon returning to Washington. But I didn’t need to travel to Yongbyon to reach this conclusion because it had been clear for some time to me and my colleagues, both at the White House and in the interagency nonproliferation community, that the future of North Korea’s nuclear program rested with its uranium-enrichment capability.

That’s why, in memos and senior-level national-security meetings on North Korea policy, we raised repeatedly the issue of North Korea’s continued uranium-enrichment activities and acquisition efforts. But over and over again our efforts to draw attention to these growing concerns were rebuffed. For a short time, we even deluded ourselves into believing that U.S. insistence on “a full and complete declaration” of North Korea’s nuclear activities would include its uranium-enrichment program as well as its nuclear weapons. But we realized quickly that this “condition” was merely a staid talking point — one among many on a list that was routinely delivered to North Korean officials. The decision by the Bush administration in early 2007 to focus North Korea policy exclusively on the decrepit and aging plutonium-production reactor at Yongbyon as the linchpin of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula was misguided and simply foolish.

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.

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