Kristof: The Facts Speak for Themselves

I simply lack the time to completely respond to Nick Kristof, but having spent a few hours assembling some facts, I realize they speak more persuasively than most of the arguments I could offer. Here is the statement Kristof uses to open his argument:

“How many nuclear weapons did North Korea produce in Bill Clinton’s eight years of office . . . ? The answer to the first question, by all accounts, is zero.

Never mind that neither Kristof nor any other American has any way of actually knowing this, given the timing of North Korea’s removal of plutonium fuel rods in 1989 and 1994. Note how Kristof carefully parses his assertion that North Korea did not build any nuclear weapons during Clinton’s two terms, rather than discussing the North’s pursuit of nuclear components or delivery systems, about which we know too much. I could spend two months cutting gears and winding springs and try to tell you I hadn’t built a watch, but you’d have to be Nick Kristof or some of the dubious sources on whom he relies–Selig Harrison or Jack Pritchard–to accept that as truth.

It’s just as apparent that North Korea continued to do its best to assemble the components for nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them during Clinton’s eight years in office. What’s more, the North Koreans clearly tested Clinton in 1994, and finding his spine lacking, accelerated their win-win strategy of violating agreements, making progress toward weapons, and then double-dipping on U.S. rewards to comply with the agreements they’d just broken.

The Short Version

The short version is this–the Congressional Research Service reports that on at least one occasion in 1994, North Korea shut down its 5-megawatt reactor and likely obtained the plutonium needed for up to five nuclear weapons. North Korea is also suspected of purchasing Russian plutonium on the black market in 1993 or 1994, but possibly earlier. The New York Times has previously reported on educated speculation that North Korea tested an atomic weapon in Pakistan in 1998. North Korea probably became a full-fledged nuclear power during the Clinton years.

The Long Version

The facts are tedious–my apologies for the long post–but they matter. This chronology is adapted from a chronology published by the Arms Control Association and from another (further supplemented here) by the Nuclear Threat Institute.


  • NK joins NPT but will not agree to inspections (“safeguards”) regime.


  • NK removes first batch of plutonium from its 5-megawatt reactor.


  • NK finally agrees to NPT safeguards and allows inspections for the first time.


  • January: Clinton inaugurated.
  • February: IAEA suspects NK of cheating, demands special inspections of two sites.
  • March: Kim Il Sung goes to China, reportedly gets “green light” to withdraw from NPT, then publicly threatens to do so;
  • April: IAEA declares N. Korea out of compliance with NPT safeguards;
  • June: After first U.S.-N. Korea talks, N. Korea suspends NPT withdrawal and U.S. promises not to use force or interfere in N. Korea’s internal affairs (for the first time, N. Korea gets a benefit for re-affirming an agreement previously made, then broken);
  • July: More talks. NK says it is “prepared to begin consultations with the IAEA on outstanding safeguards and other issues” and negotiate IAEA inspections of its nuclear facilities. First discussion of light-water reactors.
  • Late 1993: CIA and DIA conclude that NK has separated about 12 kg of plutonium, enough for at least 1-2 nuclear weapons.

  • Jan: CIA Director estimates that North Korea may have produced one or two nuclear weapons. When?
  • Feb: Senate resolution calls on Clinton Administration to show some spine; specifically, to assemble international support for sanctions, consider restoring tactical nukes withdrawn by George H.W. Bush, and hold the “Team Spirit” exercise; NK threatens the US over IAEA pressure, stating that its “reaction will be a hundred times stronger and carried into practical action. . . . [NK has] an expedient to counter any other option of the United States. It is not the United States alone that has the expedient, and the option is not open only for a big power;” France calls for UNSC debate on sanctions; NK agrees to IAEA inspections if US cancels “Team Spirit” exercises, averts sanctions by agreeing on inspections regime with IAEA.
  • March: U.S. cancels Team Spirit; NK allows IAEA inspections of seven sites, but bars it from two others and tampers with some IAEA seals. U.S. cancels next round of talks. Defecting NK soldier tells S. Koreans that NK has enough chemical weapons to kill everyone in S. Korea. NK delegate threatens to turn Seoul into “a sea of fire,” causing S. Korea to put its military on full alert. Clinton Administration considers whether to hold Team Spirit and ask the UN to impose sanctions, but after NK threatens to pull out of the NPT, it waters down the draft resolution, which calls more inspections but no sanctions. NK bars IAEA inspectors from full access to Yongbyon. IAEA Board of Governors approves resolution that calls on NK to “immediately allow the IAEA to complete all requested inspection activities and to comply fully with its safeguards agreements; “ under Chinese pressure, IAEA waters down the resolution and strips out a one-month compliance deadline.
  • April: Defense Secretary William Perry accuses NK of lying about its nuclear program. NK shuts down Yongbyon in preparation for the removal of the fuel rods.
  • May: IAEA confirms that NK is removing spent fuel rods from a small “research” reactor away from the inspectors’ prying eyes. Congressional Research Service report later estimates that the fuel thus removed may have been sufficient for 4-5 nuclear weapons (pdf alert; see page 5).
  • June: N. Korea announces its withdrawal from the IAEA, but does not pull out of the NPT; thus, NK must still tolerate IAEA inspections as part of its NPT obligations. The IAEA contends that North Korea’s safeguards agreement remains in force. Jimmy Carter flies to Pyongyang and obtains a N. Korean promise to freeze its nuclear weapons program, restart bilateral talks with the U.S. Clinton Administration agrees to restart bilateral talks if N. Korea adheres to IAEA safeguards, does not refuel its 5-megawatt nuclear reactor, and does not reprocess any spent nuclear fuel.
  • July: Kim Il Sung becomes the world’s first dead president for life.
  • August: NK agrees in principle to give up its nuclear weapons program in three stages, something the NPT would have prohibited anyway. In exchange, US promises to move toward normalized economic and diplomatic relations and promises North Korea two light-water reactors.
  • October: “Agreed Framework” signed. NK agrees to freeze and eventually dismantle its nuclear facilities, to allow “special” IAEA inspections, and to allow 8,000 spent nuclear reactor fuel elements to be removed to a third country. U.S., S. Korea, and Japan agree to build N. Korea three light water reactors and ship heavy fuel oil to the North. The parties agree to keep talking about issues of mutual concern, including the normalization of diplomatic and economic relations and NK ballistic missile development and sales, but not human rights for the North Korean people or the massive NK military buildup just 30 miles from Seoul.
  • November: This report, published in 2002, quotes U.N. inspectors and Rep. Benjamin Gilman as suggesting that when the first U.N. inspectors went to Yongbyon in the wake of the Agreed Framework, key parts of the reactor were missing. The report suggests that these facts made it into the IAEA’s first-draft report but somehow never got past then-Defense Secretary William Perry’s desk. As a result, no one called Pyongyang on its early-stage cheating, the State Department’s Robert Galluci was conveniently unburdened of these troublesome discoveries just before he was scheduled to “sell” the Agreed Framework to Congress, and North Korea learned early on that cheating would not carry consequences. As Gilman put it, “We never knew of the IAEA report. . . . [I]f we did, I doubt that we would have approved the agreement.”


  • January: N. Korea agrees in principle to a first meeting to talk about missile proliferation, but won’t agree on a date and venue for the talks until the U.S. eases economic sanctions.
  • March: State Department official offers to ease economic sanctions in exchange for progress on the missile export issue.
  • April: First U.S.-N. Korean bilateral missile talks take place in Berlin. U.S. asks N. Korea to adhere to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR); North Korea allegedly demands U.S. compensation for lost missile-related revenue.
  • May: U.S. imposes sanctions on N. Korean company for transferring missile technology.


  • June: Second round of bilateral missile talks. U.S. asks N. Korea not to deploy Nodong missiles and halt sales of Scuds and their components. No agreement.
  • August: U.S. imposes new sanctions on two more North Korean entities for missile-proliferation activities.


  • February: Kim Dae-Jung inaugurated, announces “Sunshine” policy.
  • April: U.S. imposes sanctions on N. Korea and Pakistan in response to Pyongyang’s transfer of missile technology and components to Pakistan’s Khan Research Laboratory.
  • June: N. Korea declares it will not end missile technology sales unless the U.S. compensates it for financial losses.
  • August: N. Korea fires a three-stage Taepo Dong-1 rocket with a range of 1,500-2,000 kilometers over Japan. CIA admits it had no idea N. Korean missile technology was that advanced.
  • October: Third round of bilateral missile proliferation talks. Little progress.
  • November: President Clinton appoints former Defense Secretary Perry to serve as N. Korea policy coordinator, conduct a full policy review, and coordinate a unified policy with Japan and S. Korea. In Seoul, Clinton discusses his suspicions that N. Korea is still cheating:

”We are quite concerned about some of the news,” the president said as he wrapped up a visit to Tokyo and flew here Friday for a two-day stay. ”There are some disturbing signs there.” North Korea rebuffed U.S. appeals to inspect an underground site suspected of being used to construct nuclear missiles, demanding $300 million simply for the right to look. Clinton said the conditions were ”completely unacceptable.”

  • December: U.S. hold talks with N. Korea to raise concerns about a suspected underground nuclear facility at Kumchang-ni. N. Korea agrees in principle to allow U.S. inspections, but demands steep compensation and rejects U.S. proposals.


  • February: CIA Director George Tenet testifies that N. Korea is close to being able to hit parts of Alaska and Hawaii with its Taepo Dong 1, and that new Taepo Dong 2 could deliver large payloads to the continental U.S. Congressional Research Service later reports that China helped North Korea acquire important missile components and raw materials.
  • March: Fourth round of missile talks. U.S. again expresses concern about N. Korean proliferation and nuclear development, offers relief from U.S. sanctions. No progress.
  • April: U.S., S. Korea, Japan establish a body to coordinate their dealings with N. Korea.
  • May: U.S. inspectors finally visit Kumchang-ni and find the place empty. Perry visits Pyongyang and delivers a letter from President Clinton offering a “grand bargain” for normalizing relations, potential security guarantees, and even a possible face-to-face meeting in exchange for N. Korea halting development of other nuclear programs that are beyond the scope of the Agreed Framework, proliferation, and missile development.
  • September: More talks. N. Korea agrees to voluntary moratorium on testing long-range missiles as long as talks with the U.S. continue. U.S. agrees to ease sanctions (which occurs the following June). That same month, National Intelligence Estimate says N. Korea will have a missile capable of delivering a 200-kg warhead to the U.S. by 2015.
  • November: More talks, this time to discuss improving bilateral relations and a high-level U.S. visit to Pyongyang.
  • December: KEDO starts constructions of light-water reactors.


  • April: U.S. imposes sanctions on anoher N. Korean firm for proliferation activities of major missile compoents, possibly to Iran.
  • May: U.S. inspectors revisits Kumchang-ni, find nothing changed during the previous year.
  • June: Kim Dae Jung visits Pyongyang. U.S. further relaxes sanctions, this time much more significantly. U.S. and N. Korean companies can now trade in commercial and consumer goods and invest in the North. N. Korea agrees to extend its moratorium on missile testing.
  • July: More missile talks; no agreement. N. Korea demands $1 billion per year in compensation. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright talks with N. Korean Foreign Minister at ASEAN Regional Forum in Bangkok.
  • October: Vice Marshal Cho Myong-Rok visits Washington, delivers letter to President Clinton. Albright visits Pyongyang and toasts Kim Jong-Il. By this time, approximately two million North Koreans of lower political class have starved to death. Kim Jong-Il promises no further tests of the Taepo Dong 1, something he has already promised. Other talks on nuclear inspections, proliferation, and a visit by President Clinton are less conclusive.
  • November. Seventh round of missile talks. Failure to reach agreement rules out Clinton visit to Pyongyang.


  • January 2: U.S. imposes sanctions on a N. Korean firm for selling missile technology to Iran. Clinton’s term ends.

Given this mountain of evidence of North Korea’s intent, how can you claim that diplomacy was containing North Korea? And given the evidence that North Korean uranium was sold to the A.Q. Khan network and found its way to Libya, it’s hard to take Kristof’s pronouncement that North Korea’s prohibited uranium program–which it still denies–is relatively benign. It also completely ignores the obvious conclusion about North Korea’s reliability as a negotiating partner. Kristof evokes some of the same pity I feel for the man who still wants to marry the “runaway bride.” Now imagine the bride had run away to Hollywood to spend eight years working in the porn industry, and you have some idea of the potential for a relationship built on any level of trust here.

Where I don’t really disagree with Kristof is that Bush’s diplomacy has been ineffective at containing the North, too. That fact is sufficiently apparent to the Administration that we have probably reached a crossroads. Bush can at least claim that he isn’t enabling Kim to cheat even faster.

Don’t miss James Chen‘s fisking, either. Although I differ from James in that I don’t consider the word “liberal” a term of derision, James does a nice job of pointing out some obvious problems with Kristof’s argument.

Kristof’s other talking point, that Bush “alienated” allies, is ridiculous to anyone who lived in South Korea at the end of Clinton’s term; Anti-Americanism and fawning over North Korea was already rampant, and no American president could have dealt with North Korea effectively without alienating all those who hated us anyway. Japan, of course, appears to be anything but alienated, and I certainly hope Kristof doesn’t suggest that China was ever an ally (or, as Clinton called it, a “strategic partner.”)


  1. Regarding Kristof and No-Nukes Clinton:
    If I am your neighbor and give you directions on how to make a pipe bomb/ land mine, etc. and also give/sell you some dynamite, but you don’t explode the bomb until I sell my house, is the new owner responsible for your action?