North Korea Nuclear Showdown

Nuclear Showdown

In early 2000, even as NGOs and national governments shipped food to the starving people of North Korea, leaders in the United States fretted about its nuclear program. The 1994 Agreed Framework, a patchwork of quid pro quos intended to persuade North Korea to refrain from producing a nuclear weapon, was never implemented as planned but limped along until a new, conservative U.S. administration arrived in Washington in 2001 determined to get tough with North Korea.

From the time the Clinton administration signed the Agreed Framework in October 1994, conservatives in the United States had denounced it as an unacceptable appeasement with an untrustworthy enemy. In 2001 many of those critics became officials in the State Department and Defense Department of the new administration, and they set about dismantling the agreement. Soon after his inauguration President Bush announced that all agreements and discussions with North Korea were “under review.” North Korea understood this as a clear signal that the agreement was canceled.

Later U.S. statements further antagonized North Korea. In his January 2002 State of the Union address, Bush referred to North Korea as part of an “axis of evil” with Iraq and Iran. In early 2003, as the United States prepared for the Iraq War, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said U.S. forces were strong and organized enough to be able to fight on two fronts. North Koreans took this as an assertion that the United States could fight Iraq and Iran on one front and North Korea on another.

That August a State Department official visiting Pyongyang con-fronted North Korean officials with U.S. intelligence reports that North Korea was again developing a nuclear program. The United States accused North Korea of cheating on the Agreed Framework. North Korea faulted the Bush administration for reneging on the agreement. North Korean officials further claimed the right to develop systems outside the Agreed Framework since its new nuclear program was based not on plutonium, which the agreement prohibited, but enriched uranium.

Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to set up a meeting between the two countries, but the North Koreans brushed aside his efforts as insincere and inadequate. In 2002 President Bush had referred to Kim Jong Il as a “pygmy” and spoken of “loathing” the North Korean style of government, and North Koreans began to fear that nothing short of regime change would satisfy the Americans.

In the second Bush administration Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice finally tried to dispel such fears; she repeatedly stated that regime change was not the U.S. objective and that the United States was not considering military intervention in North Korea, but to North Koreans it seemed that the United States was trying to unring the bell. The damage had already been done.