Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

Sunday September 25th, 2016


Topic A for tomorrow evening’s first nationally televised 2016 presidential debate, is likely to be “Securing America.” Domestic terrorism and its global connections will probably dominate this subject. But I hope, not to the exclusion of North Korea’s continuing acceleration of its nuclear program.  Americans need to hear from both presidential candidates how they would handle what could well become a major threat to the United States in the relatively near future.

This past week, Richard Haass, the usually unflappable president of the Council on Foreign Relations, laid out this scary scenario.

“Imagine it is 2020. The director of the CIA requests an urgent meeting with the US president. The reason: North Korea has succeeded in making a nuclear bomb small enough to fit inside the tip of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the continental United States. The news soon leaks to the public. High-level meetings to devise a response are held not just in Washington, but in Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing and Moscow as well.

“This scenario may seem unreal today, but it is more political science than science fiction……Absent a major intervention, it is only a matter of time before North Korea increases its nuclear arsenal (now estimated at 8 – 12 devices) and figures out how to miniaturize its weapons for delivery by missiles of increasing range and accuracy. It is difficult to overstate the risks were North Korea, the world’s most militarized and closed society, to cross this threshold.”

Hass goes on to explore various options, but Monday night, we need to hear how the two people who aspire to be president rate the risk, and what their plans are to address it.

A few months ago Donald Trump seemed to threaten to withdraw the nuclear umbrella America has provided its key Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, if they didn’t pay the full costs of such protection going back to the armistice which ended the Korean War in 1953. Otherwise, he implied they should get their own nuclear weapons and protect themselves – which would totally destroy the entire Asian security balance and provoke the Chinese into a much more aggressive mode. Meantime Trump says he would negotiate with North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un, although without Chinese cooperation to pressure North Korea into a less belligerent posture, it’s very difficult to see what such talks would produce. And as Trump also seems to want to start a trade war with China- good luck with getting Chinese help with anything.  

Hillary Clinton has said she wants China to try harder to rein in the young President Kim, while recognizing that China’s main concern is that North Korea doesn’t implode, flooding China with millions of North Korean refugees and leading to a unified Korea under significant American influence. Clinton has also talked about arming both Japan and South Korea with anti-ballistic missile systems.

First, let me be clear. Blame for the crises in the Korean peninsula lies first and foremost with North Korea. It is a cruel and oppressive state that for decades has sought nuclear weapons. Still, the current nuclear crisis might not be so acute, if the administration of President George W. Bush had acted with more thoughtfulness and less testosterone. This is what happened.

In the early 1990s North Korea was building facilities to reprocess spent fuel from its nuclear reactor in order to produce plutonium – a key ingredient of one type of nuclear weapon. It also announced its intention to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty because the treaty prohibited such reprocessing. Under a Clinton threat of military action if they began making plutonium, the North Koreans entered talks with the United States that led to something called the Agreed Framework, which was signed in 1994.

These were its main elements:

-North Korea would freeze operation and construction of those facilities suspected of being part of a nuclear weapons program.

-North Korean would remain a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and its nuclear facilities would be put under international safeguards, including the presence of on-site inspectors.

-The United States and an international consortium would help North Korea develop a peaceful nuclear energy program and in the meantime provide 500,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil annually to meet its energy needs.

-The United States and North Korea were committed to moving toward normalizing economic and political relations and ultimately exchanging ambassadors.

That was the deal. And under the watchful eyes of the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, this North Korean program was indeed frozen, and no plutonium for nuclear weapons was produced for eight years.

However, in 2002 the Bush administration received credible evidence that the North Koreans were cheating. The father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, the infamous A.Q. Khan had sold Pyongyang the components and materials for producing a nuclear weapon using uranium. North Korea had clearly circumvented the Agreed Framework.

After confronting the North Koreans with evidence of their perfidy, the Bush Administration stopped its own compliance with the Agreed Framework and cut off the oil shipments. It also refused any further high level talks on the subject. North Korea responded by unfreezing its plutonium producing facilities, withdrawing from the NPT and kicking out the IAEA inspectors. American intelligence has since determined that all of the nuclear material North Korea has used to build its modest but increasingly threatening nuclear arsenal came from the plutonium plant that was reopened in 2002 after having been frozen for eight years.

Given that the North Koreans had been caught cheating, wasn’t the U.S. justified in its actions? If this was a business deal, the answer is yes. But in the real world of nuclear politics, the stakes are infinitely higher.  As the plutonium facilities were still frozen, instead of just walking away, why didn’t the president make every effort to resolve the new threat posed by the secret uranium reactor? Think of it this way. If an incarcerated felon turns violent - you don’t solve the problem by setting him free. In effect, that’s what GWB did.

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