Memo to: Nicholas Kristof, New York Times
Re: Just for the Fun of It
Your column today on North Korea and the six nuclear weapons you say it has produced since George W. Bush has been president is probably wrong in assuming it really does have nukes, even though it now says so, but it is correct in asking why in the world our government has refused to negotiate with them directly since 2001. President Clinton had bilateral talks with Pyongyang that seemed to be bearing fruit, but as soon as the Bush administration began, an excuse was found to break off the talks, and ever since we have hewed to that policy. You note that:
"Selig Harrison, an American scholar just back from Pyongyang, says North Korean officials told him that in direct negotiations with the U.S., they would be willing to discuss a return to their plutonium freeze. Everything would depend on the details, including verification, but why are we refusing so adamantly even to explore this possibility?"
You might have mentioned that at the outset of the Bush administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell seemed eager to continue those talks, but all of a sudden, Undersecretary of State for Nonproliferation John Bolton threw a monkeywrench into that worthy diplomatic effort. The talks were suspended in March 2001, and in his State of the Union Address in 2002, the president labeled North Korea one of the three legs of the “Axis of Evil.”
It was Bolton who was the source of the assertion that North Korea had secretly been enriching uranium in violation of the Nonproliferation Treaty and that it had admitted as much to an American diplomat at a cocktail party in Pyongyang.
I’m afraid Bolton had to know this was baloney, but it served his purpose. To this day, North Korea denies it had ever engaged in a uranium enrichment process and there is no evidence that it ever has. It has, though, openly acknowledged that it has been mining uranium, which it uses in its two nuclear power plants that use natural uranium as fuel, natural uranium having no use in a nuclear weapons program.
What’s going on? In 1994, it was the United States that persuaded North Korea to stop work on the nuclear power plant it was building, which could produce plutonium that could find its way into a nuke. Instead, we would help it build cold-water reactors that would give them the electric power they need and not produce the fissile material that would be suitable for nukes. But you have to realize we never intended to fulfill our part of the deal. I wrote about this here on Nov. 6, 2003 in "A Little Joke We Played on Pyongyang."
The idea back then was that Kim Jong-Il’s regime would soon collapse, on the heels of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and we wouldn’t have to live up to our part of the Agreed Framework. No kidding. I put it this way:
"By now, though, it is clear to Pyongyang that the warhawks in the Pentagon and their stooge, John Bolton at State dont want compliance and never have. They want a nice little war, or at least a regime change and another puppet government like they have arranged for Iraq. What good did it do Baghdad to persuade the IAEA that it was no threat? The boys want an American Empire! Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose heart is in the right place, has been trying to work things out with Pyongyang, but every time he makes a diplomatic move, his Undersecretary Bolton has a press conference and calls Kim Jong-Il a commie rat fink. What can a poor secretary of state do when his big boss, the president, now and then has a press conference and calls Kim Jong-Il a commie rat fink? The general should resign and write some new memoirs, thats what."
For three years now, I’ve been trying to get journalists in our major media to dig into these issues in a serious way instead of swallowing whatever John Bolton tells them. Your column today is at least very positive in pushing for direct talks with Pyongyang, but I am afraid the game plan remains the same as it was in 1994: Keep delaying resolution of the process in the hopes that Kim Jong-Il will slip on some wintry ice and break his neck, and capitalism and democracy will suddenly sprout hours after his funeral.
A more productive use of your time would be to unravel all the propaganda that has been concocted by the neocons and their helpers, like John Bolton. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is now digging away at reports Bolton behind-the-scenes manipulated the intelligence process in order to promote the right-wing foreign policy agenda. Sure, he did that. But the Committee has yet to take notice that over the years he has manipulated the press corps, including the Washington Bureau of the New York Times, into spreading the word that the “Axis of Evil” is secretly working on nukes, when none of the three Iraq, Iran, or North Korea were doing so.
As for North Korea’s current assertion that it indeed has nukes, please note that when Robert Zoellick was asked in the Senate hearings on his nomination to be deputy secretary of state, he suggested it might be a bluff. A bluff? What does Zoellick know that Bolton should know (and probably does but is fudging)?
Zoellick may have checked with officials at State who Bolton tried to have cashiered. He would have learned that while one of the easier things to make is a nuke with highly enriched uranium, one of the most difficult things in the world to make is a nuke with plutonium. Gordon Prather, the expert in this sort of thing, tells me that to do so, the North Koreans would have had to assemble the equivalent of the Manhattan Project team and even then they could not know if the weapon they developed would work unless they tested it.
If you wish to learn a bit more, Dr. Prather did a column on an aspect of this issue for Antiwar.com last Nov. 13, “A Radical Change in North Korea Policy." Take a look.