The Clinton Syndrome

By Kenneth R. Timmerman | April 13, 2007

North Korea has already missed today’s deadline.

According to the agreement signed in Beijing on Feb. 13, 2007, North Korea was to “shut down and seal the Yongbyon nuclear reactor for the purpose of abandonment” as of today.
That was the condition for U.S. aid and incentives to North Korea set by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice when she announced the six-party agreement to bring North Korea’s multi-faceted nuclear weapons programs under international control, and ultimately dismantle them.
As expected, the minute the agreement was signed the North Koreans charged forward at top speed – not to implement it, but to stall, while insisting vociferously that they must reap all the promised fruits.
The first sticking point raised by North Korea was a U.S. failure to unfreeze $25 million held by North Korea at the Banco Delta Asia in Macao. That delay was caused primarily by objections from the U.S. Department of Treasury that those accounts and that bank had been used to launder North Korean counterfeit $100 notes.
But the United States never pledged to unfreeze those accounts first, and only then would North Korea shut down and seal the Yongbyon reactor. On the contrary: the terms of the agreement clearly called on the North Koreans to first take the confidence-building step of shutting down the reactor “within 60 days.”
During that same period, the U.S. and North Korea were to “begin bilateral talks toward establishing eventual full diplomatic relations,” and the U.S. “would begin the process” of lifting economic sanctions on North Korea – including those imposed on the Banco Delta Asia accounts because of North Korea counterfeiting and money-laundering.
Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who negotiated the Feb. 13 agreement, warned about the slippery slope of missing deadlines. He told the Brookings Institution just ten days after signing the agreement that the U.S. was serious about holding North Korea to the April 13 target date for shutting down the Yongbyon reactor.
“When you start missing deadlines, it's like a broken window theory,” he warned. “If one window is unrepaired, before you know it, you will have a lot of broken windows and nobody cares. We care about deadlines, and therefore we really have to make sure these all happen.”
And now the windows are being broken, and nobody seems to care.
Former Undersecretary of State and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John R. Bolton does not believe the North Koreans will ever get rid of their nuclear weapons because they are “integral to the survival of King Jong Il’s regime.”
Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute on April 5 along with AEI scholars Nicholas Eberhardt and Dan Blumenthal, Bolton argued that nuclear weapons were North Korea’s “ultimate trump card against the United States, Japan, China,” and indeed, against the North Korean people. “North Korea cannot give those weapons up in a way that we would consider acceptable and verifiable without fundamentally undermining the regime itself.”
Bolton and other North Korea experts point out that the North’s delaying tactics were easy to have foreseen, since they resemble their behavior in any number of earlier negotiations we have had with them.
“First they put you through an arduous process of negotiation to reach the agreement itself,” Bolton said, “and then once the agreement is signed the North Koreans say, ‘great, now let’s start negotiating again.’ That’s what they’re doing. Their objective here is to stretch out compliance with the terms of the February agreement.”
President Bush set a high standard shortly after the agreement was announced two months ago.
“Those who say that the North Koreans have got to prove themselves by actually following through on the deal are right. And I’m one of them,” he said “[N]ow it’s up to the North Koreans to do that which they say they will do.”
And today, we can see that they haven’t. So what are we going to do about it?
According to Bolton, very little.
“Having spent many years at the State Department, I will tell you right now what I predict the State Department will say the day after the 60th day has come and gone.  They will say, well, there’s been substantial compliance; the North Koreans are moving in the right direction. We’ve had excellent discussions in the working groups.  The process of the February 13 agreement is well launched and we don’t want to let the perfect become the enemy of the good.  We’re going to apply pressure to the North Koreas to make sure that they abide by that commitment, but we don’t want to be hung up on mere technicalities like the sixty-day commitment.”
But far more dangerous than the North’s failure to live up to its commitment to shut down the Yongbyon reactor, is the failure to make any mention at all of North Korea’s uranium enrichment program in the Feb. 13 agreement, Bolton believes.
If they shut down their ageing plutonium production reactor but maintain a secret uranium enrichment program, the U.S. will have achieved a hollow victory. Worse, we will have created a false sense of security, while North Korea continues to beaver away to build weapons in secret which it can then sell to terrorists groups and terrorist states, such as Iran.
Bolton’s account of what happened in 2002, when the U.S. walked away from the “Agreed Framework” negotiated by the Clinton administration six years earlier,  is critical to understanding the stakes of today’s deadline. For reasons that will become apparent below, it has received no coverage that I have seen in the press.
Remember: at the time of these events, Bolton was Undersecretary of State for Arms Control, and so was intimately involved in tracking the North Korean nuclear program.
Rumors had persisted for years that the North Koreans had a parallel uranium enrichment program. (I can recall reporting for Time magazine in 1994 about the program, and finding former intelligence analysts who could identify a number of suspect sites). But there was considerable disagreement within the intelligence community about whether such a program even existed.
Then something happened in the spring or early summer of 2002 “that effectively ended that discussion,” Bolton said. The U.S. acquired dramatic new information that proved beyond any doubt that “North Korea was pursuing the acquisition of the technology and materials that it needed for an industrial-scope uranium enrichment effort.”
A decision was made to dispatch then-Assistant Secretary of State Jim Kelly to Pyongyang to “confront the North Koreans with what we knew and to say to them: we think you have a highly-enriched uranium program to give you that route to nuclear weapons.”
On the first day of those talks, the North Koreans denied the information flat out. But on the second day they “came back at a higher level and basically told our people they had been up all night discussing the question, and that they were presenting the view of the party… which our people at the time took to mean that they had gone to the Dear Leader himself.
“They said at that point, the second day, unambiguously, that they not only had such a program, they had it in response to the United States,” Bolton recalled. “It was their way of defending against us. So not only did they admit to it, they us the reason in their view why they had the program.”
Bolton then went on to describe being called down by Secretary Powell’s office early that morning so he could read the cable that the U.S. team had sent from Pyongyang. “He handed me the cable and he said, here, read this. You’re not going to believe this.” The whole story of the North’s admission was there.
Bolton sees an effort in recent weeks to “rewrite history” about the North’s uranium enrichment program on the part of some within the intelligence and the policy communities, in order to achieve an arms control agreement with North Korea for its own sake.
The Washington Post reported last month that the Bush administration was “backing away from its long-held assertions that North Korea has an active clandestine program to enrich uranium,” and now believes the intelligence that led to that conclusion “may have been flawed.”
What we’re seeing here is the Iraq WMD syndrome. Any intelligence information, no matter how solid (and even if confirmed by the target state itself!), becomes the subject of such doubt and second-guessing that it can no longer be used to make policy.
When that happens, intelligence becomes literally useless. What’s the point of spending billions of dollars and possibly risking people’s lives to acquire information if policy-makers are gun-shy of using it, because their political opponents might question its validity?
It ought to be called the Clinton syndrome. If it doesn’t smoke, wear a blue dress or go boom in the night, then it’s not a problem. It’s precisely that kind of crisis-avoidance cowardice that gave us Saddam Hussein, al Qaeda, a nuclear-armed North Korea – and has probably given us a nuclear Iran.
This president and members of this administration need to stick to their guns. North Korea must be made to stick to its deadlines, and to its commitments. And that means dismantling all its nuclear weapons programs – including its clandestine uranium enrichment facilities.