Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

April 29, 2017


“Speak softly and carry a big stick,” was the unofficial motto of President Theodore Roosevelt. He claimed it was an old African proverb, but it seems more likely he coined it himself. In any event it described his foreign policy - to be prepared to back up diplomacy with military action. Those of course were simpler times, before two world wars and nuclear weapons.

The Trump administration has adopted a modified version of Roosevelt’s motto which might be described as, “Speak very loudly and carry a ‘huuuuge’ stick.” But like most Trumpian slogans, neither friend nor foe can be sure of what that really means.

What we do know, is that as America faces two implacable adversaries in North Korea and Iran, President Donald Trump, as is his wont, has been speaking loudly and in a threatening tone to both. Yet he knows virtually nothing about those two countries and the history of their relationships with the United States. A couple of weeks ago he couldn’t name the current North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and kept conflating him with his father, and his grandfather, as though they were all one in the same person, 

Likewise, he denounced the Iranians for not living up to the “spirit” of the agreement which successfully froze Iran’s nuclear program, while he belittled the fact that Iran was completely abiding by the actual terms of that agreement.

Given this vacuum in the president’s knowledge on these matters, it is hard to be confident that he will be able to navigate us through these very dangerous waters. That said, if he knew anything - such as, how North Korea came to have nuclear weapons - that could be helpful. On this, I am happy to be of service to President Trump.

In the early 1990s, Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea who had set off the Korean War in 1950 by invading South Korea, was still alive and still scheming to thwart American power. This time he was building facilities to reprocess spent fuel from his nuclear reactor in order to produce plutonium - a key ingredient for one type of nuclear weapon. North Korea also announced its intention to withdraw from the Nuclear Non - Proliferation Treaty, which prohibited such reprocessing.

Under the threat of American military action by President Bill Clinton, North Korea agreed to talks with the United States which ultimately led to the Agreed Framework, reached in October 1994.  By this time Kim Il Sung had died and had been succeeded by his son Kim Jong Il.

These were the Agreed Framework’s key elements:

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

- North Korea would remain a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and its nuclear facilities would be put under International Atomic Energy (IAEA) 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 while providing 500,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil annually to meet its energy needs.

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

That was the deal. And under the watch of IAEA inspectors the North Korean program was indeed frozen and produced no plutonium for nuclear weapons for eight years.

However in 2002 the George W. Bush administration received credible evidence that the North Koreans were cheating. They had bought components from Pakistan for making a bomb out of uranium – a slower process and much smaller than their plutonium program but nevertheless they had clearly circumvented the Agreed Framework.

After confronting the North Koreans with the 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 reprocessing facilities, withdrawing from the NPT, and kicking the IAEA inspector out.

 American intelligence analysis of North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006 concluded that the explosion was powered by plutonium, as were their subsequent tests. That means they came from the program that had been frozen from 1994 to 2002.

Given that the North Koreans were caught cheating, wasn’t the United States justified in walking away from the North Korean deal? If this were just a matter of business, the answer is yes. But in the real world of nuclear politics, America does not have the luxury of being shocked by the questionable ethics or treacherous policies of its enemies.

 In 2002, even though North Korea was caught cheating, its entire plutonium program was still frozen and under inspection. Wouldn’t it have better served American interests to keep those restrictions in place, while firmly negotiating to eliminate the threat posed by the new uranium program? Think of it this way. If you have a dangerous felon behind bars and he becomes a discipline problem, you don’t solve it by setting him free- which is essentially what Bush did to North Korea. And ironically, it’s what Trump is implying in the case of Iran.

Based on its recent condemnations of Iran over its aggressive behavior (unrelated to the six party nuclear agreement) the Trump administration seems to be seriously considering imposing new sanctions or taking other actions which would scuttle the Iran nuclear pact reached almost exactly two years ago. Currently that deal has Iran’s nuclear facilities effectively frozen for at least another decade. The point is, without that agreement in place, Iran is almost certainly going to quickly proceed with developing nuclear weapons.

A nuclear armed North Korea is already a serious threat to the United States and its allies. It makes absolutely no sense to pursue a policy that would essentially open the door for Iran to join the anti-American nuclear club in the near future.

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