North Korea has finally admitted that it has been pursuing the development of nuclear weapons despite promises to the contrary. In 1994, in a deal engineered in part by Nobel Peace Prize winner Jimmy Carter, the Clinton administration tried to bribe North Korea into abandoning its nuclear intentions. In return for a pile of cash, an annual supply of fuel oil, and new supposedly proliferation-resistant nuclear reactors, North Korea agreed to freeze plutonium production at its nuclear facilities north of Pyongyang. The deal became known as the Agreed Framework; but North Korea also promised to remain in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and live up to its obligations under the International Atomic Energy Agreement nuclear safeguards program.
In short, the Clinton administration thought it had bought off North Korea. What started as a limited accomplishment would soon be touted as a “major diplomatic success” for an administration short on such successes. Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright and others also scored it as a major achievement in their campaign to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. Over the years, the intelligence community raised “concerns” about covert activities in North Korea, but the White House and State Department usually dismissed these as worst-case scenarios based on sketchy evidence.
Now the State Department reports that North Korea considers the Agreed Framework “nullified.” If true, this suggests some very ominous “worst-case” scenarios largely forgotten or ignored by the media. First, as part of the Agreed Framework, the North Koreans insisted that the U.S. refurbish and preserve a storage pool full of spent fuel rods, recently dumped from its production reactor. Many in the U.S. Energy Department, which eventually cleaned and canned the rods, thought this a bad idea and said so at that time. The White House and State Department, however, were intent on closing the deal and ignored those warnings.
Should they now opt to reprocess this fuel, Pyongyang would have enough plutonium for about five nuclear warheads, thanks to the Clinton administration and American taxpayers. That would be in addition to the plutonium the U.S. judged the North Koreans had produced by 1994, believed to be enough for two, possibly three nuclear warheads. An intelligence-community estimate last December strongly implied that North Korea had already fabricated these weapons.
At the time of the agreement, there was much concern inside the intelligence community that North Korea would cheat on the deal by pursuing other routes to the development of nuclear warheads. The alternative to plutonium is highly enriched uranium (HEU), which is most commonly produced using gas centrifuges. In 1999, the Washington Times reported that the North Koreans had tried to buy electrical components for gas centrifuges from Japan, but the sale was blocked. Now they have admitted what that suggested?that they had started secretly to produce weapons using highly enriched uranium. The facilities it requires are more easily hidden than the reactors that produce plutonium.
The State Department says that it has acquired evidence of North Korea’s HEU production only recently. It is easy to understand why the Clinton administration would try to conceal the fact that the agreement with North Korea was an extremely costly blunder. We have poured $100 million a year in fuel and food into North Korea to keep Kim Jong Il from developing nuclear warheads, all in vain. The continuation of this largesse in the first two years of the Bush administration raises the question of why it took so long to find that North Korea was cheating. In addition, U.S. diplomats in Pyongyang have been told that North Korea has “more powerful things as well,” apparently a reference to their extensive chemical and biological weapons programs.
Many suspect North Korea acquired gas centrifuges from Pakistan as payment for North Korean long-range missiles supplied in the late 1990s. North Korea actively markets several long-range missile systems to Iran, Egypt, Syria and others to generate revenue for its weapons-of-mass-destruction programs.
All this could throw a monkey wrench in the administration’s plans for Iraq. North Korea, for example, could use this as a pretext to return to testing of a missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to targets in the United States. Some of President Bush’s critics have asked why he included North Korea in his “axis of evil.” Last week’s disclosures have answered that question. Like Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il is a cruel tyrant who starves his subjects to maintain a huge army and produce weapons of mass destruction. He has shown that his word is worthless.