[Viewpoint]Bush exits with no ‘Pyongyang trophy’

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[Viewpoint]Bush exits with no ‘Pyongyang trophy’

As anticipated, the Bush administration is leaving office without completing the second stage of the nuclear deal with North Korea - to have Pyongyang verify its past atomic activities. The thorny part of the deal will be handed over to the incoming Obama administration.

On Dec. 28, The New York Times editorially criticized the Bush administration for raising a verification plan at this stage, insisting that it was supposed to come later but “was pushed forward as a condition for taking North Korea off the terrorism list by hard-liners seemingly bent on sabotaging the agreement.” This is nothing but the usual Bush bashing by progressives whenever North Korea resorts to brinkmanship tactics.

Of course, there are problems in the Bush administration’s North Korea policy, but it is not right to criticize the administration for asking North Korea to agree on a standard verification protocol. Giving concessions to the North whenever it deadlocks the dialogue is not a solution.

There are four reasons why the Bush administration’s North Korea policy has failed.

First, the intelligence that led to the second North Korean nuclear crisis, that the North was promoting a uranium nuclear program, was not verified.

Second, the Chinese government and South Korea’s Roh Moo-hyun administration were reluctant to exert pressure on North Korea.

Third, the Bush administration, succumbing to pressure from the Democrats, abandoned its pressure tactics and shifted to engagement tactics of giving concessions to the North at a later stage.

Fourth, the Bush administration was more intent on winning a diplomatic trophy for Bush’s legacy than figuring out the North’s hidden intentions.

In 2002, the Bush administration was tipped off that two of the “axis of evil” countries, Iraq and North Korea, were both promoting uranium nuclear weapons programs.

In February 2002, the Central Intelligence Agency sent a retired U.S. diplomat, Joseph C. Wilson, to Africa to investigate intelligence reports that Iraq had purchased yellowcake uranium ore from Niger.

After the trip, Wilson filed a report dismissing the intelligence claims but President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address included these now-infamous words: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” On March 20, 2003, the U.S. launched the Iraq War on the rationale of preventing an imminent threat posed by weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s hands.

In October 2002, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly made a rare visit to Pyongyang and confronted his counterpart with intelligence that the North was conducting a uranium nuclear program. At first, Kang Suk-ju, the vice foreign minister of North Korea, angrily denied the allegation but acknowledged it the following day, and said, “We have even more powerful things as well.” The paradoxical reaction of the North jumpstarted the second North Korean nuclear crisis.

Although more than six years have passed, the U.S. has failed to reveal evidence of WMDs in Iraq. In the case of North Korea, it seems Washington has even lost interest in tracing the existence of a uranium nuclear program there. In April last year, when the North was to submit a declaration of its nuclear program omitting information on its uranium nuclear program, Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator at the six-party talks, argued that “getting the plutonium program shut down was better than getting nothing at all.”

Unverified intelligence of uranium nuclear programs in Iraq and North Korea has proved costly, leading to a war and a nuclear crisis that have turned out at odds with Washington’s expectations. For North Korea, it helped Kim Jong-il find an excuse to break away from the 1994 Geneva Agreement and extract more plutonium from used fuel rods for more bombs, one of which was tested in 2006. In Iraq, the U.S. is mired in the swamp of an unjustified war.

The United States succeeded in inducing China to lead the six-party talks but Washington overlooked problems with China - that China was exporting nuclear technology to Pakistan, Algeria and North Korea in the 1980s and that China, as the guardian of communist countries, was reluctant to take punitive action against North Korea.

It was unlucky for President Bush that he had to deal with former President Roh Moo-hyun who did not hesitate in saying that there was reason to believe that the North’s nuclear program was just for defensive purposes. Roh even visited Pyongyang in October 2007 for a summit with Kim Jong-il, when the six-party talks were deadlocked due to the North’s refusal to submit a declaration on its nuclear activities. And he signed, only four months before his term expired, the Oct. 4 Joint Declaration which was followed by an array of economic aid packages that would cost South Korea more than $11.2 billion.

In Oct. 2005, the Bush administration had finally hit the North’s Achilles’ heel when it imposed sanctions on North Korean companies involved in trafficking technology for weapons of mass destruction and on accounts at a Macau bank, Banco Delta Asia. However, the U.S. Treasury Department’s failure to complete its investigation of the bank for more than 15 months had undermined the nuclear negotiations. The pressure for the talk’s progress was also mounting from the progressives, especially after the North’s nuclear test in Oct. 2006.

The administration shifted to engagement tactics, giving concessions to the North in the beginning of 2007. But the Bush administration’s effort to decorate the outgoing president’s record with a diplomatic trophy for settling the North Korean nuclear issue was not successful.

The incoming Obama administration will not repeat the same mistakes. It will make sure that the intelligence that dictates its North Korea policy is verified. The new administration will decide the fate of the six-party talks after checking China’s position on the North’s nuclear program. Then, it will “forge a more effective framework in Asia that goes beyond the six-party talks.” It is important to note that the Obama-Biden plan pledges “to crack down on nuclear proliferation by strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty so that countries like North Korea and Iran that break the rules will automatically face strong international sanctions.”

*The writer, a former editorial page editor of the JoongAng Daily, is a visiting professor of media studies at Myongji University.

by Park Sung-soo
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