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We Can’t Trust North Korea, or the People Who Do

What is the objective of negotiating with North Korea at all? How you answer that question may depend on whether you believe North Korea cheated on the first Agreed Framework with Bill Clinton. Even before Clinton left office, the evidence that North Korea cheated by trying to build a uranium bomb was too compelling for any responsible president to ignore, yet during the last decade, true believers in diplomacy with Kim Jong Il invested themselves in denying that evidence and blaming George W. Bush for North Korea’s nuclear bomb. Suddenly, the true believers are very quiet, and it isn’t just because the election is over. It’s also because a steady stream of new revelations has repudiated their arguments to the extent that even their own president has rejected them. John Bolton was right all along: Kim Jong Il probably started cheating on Agreed Framework I almost as soon as he signed it, and George W. Bush ought to have known that Agreed Framework II would fail for the same reason.Today, the North Koreans are back to admitting that they have an HEU program, as they briefly did in 2002, though they say the program is new. To its credit, the Obama Administration doesn’t see much of an issue either. Even Hillary Clinton acknowledged concerns about North Korea’s HEU program in her confirmation hearing (she later backtracked). Subsequently, NSC official Gary Samore stated that he was “absolutely convinced that the North Koreans have been pursuing a secret uranium enrichment program,” although he acknowledges uncertainties about its scale. Most tellingly, American diplomats are insisting that the North Koreans must come clean on their HEU program. All of this represents a sharp break from what most Democrats had said until recently. But just because the uranium debate is mostly over doesn’t mean we should just move on and forget the whole controversy.

In 1994, the Clinton Administration signed Agreed Framework I with the North Koreans. The Agreed Framework mostly concentrated on the freezing of North Korea’s plutonium reactor at Yonbyon (satellite images here), but it prohibited North Korea from having any nuclear weapons programs. By the mid-1990’s, however, U.S. intelligence agencies saw disturbing signs that the North Koreans were pursuing a second nuclear weapons program by enriching uranium, a more easily concealed route to a nuclear capability. Article III, section 2 of the 1994 agreement required North Korea to “consistently take steps to implement the North-South Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” of which Article 3 stated, “The South and the North shall not possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities.”

Yet as early as 1994, Time magazine wrote of the “disturbing possibility that North Korea may be employing the fuel-rod dispute as a smoke screen to disguise a second, undeclared source of bombmaking uranium.” In 1997, there were reports that North Korea tested implosion devices, and that it had built secret underground sites for the enrichment of uranium. The Clinton Administration eventually demanded an inspection of one of the sites, which turned up nothing, but never demanded to inspect another suspect site, at Mount Chunma, revealed by a senior North Korean defector who was repatriated to North Korea and (presumably) executed for his trouble. Near the end of the Clinton Administration, the concerns were so persistent that the Republican-controlled Congress refused to appropriate funds to build North Korea light-water reactors and deliver heavy fuel oil pursuant to the agreement unless the Clinton Administration certified that North Korea was complying with Agreed Framework I. The Administration could not certify this in either 1999 or 2000, but it still went begging to other nations to fund U.S. commitments to ship fuel oil to North Korea and build two light-water reactors there.

Suspicions that North Korea was cheating persisted into the Bush Administration, and North Korea’s refusal to allow inspections, including IAEA inspections, didn’t ease them. By 2002, the CIA, necessarily interpolating what Kim Jong Il refused to reveal, worried that North Korea could be working on a large-scale enrichment program:

A 2002 unclassified CIA working paper on North Korea’s nuclear weapons and uranium enrichment estimated that North Korea “is constructing a plant that could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for two or more nuclear weapons per year when fully operational — which could be as soon as mid-decade. Such a plant would need to produce more than 50kg of HEU per year, requiring cascades of thousands of centrifuges. The paper noted that in 2001, North Korea “began seeking centrifuge-related materials in large quantities.

For North Korea, a centrifuge enrichment program offers three advantages: such plants are difficult to locate and target, making them less vulnerable to military strikes than reactors or reprocessing plants. HEU also could give the North Koreans the option of producing either simpler weapons (gun-assembly type) or more sophisticated weapons (using composite pits or boosted fission techniques). Third, an HEU program is a bargaining chip to use with the United States. However, a centrifuge enrichment plant requires considerable industrial sophistication.

Another part — but by no means all — of the reason for the Bush Administration’s growing suspicions was North Korea’s 2002 purchase of aluminum tubes that might have been suitable for centrifuge casings. To the true believers, however, these reports and the Bush Administration’s refusal to overlook them came to be seen as impediments to the only way they saw to disarm North Korea — a deal that traded denuclearization for aid, trade, and diplomatic recognition. The debate polarized opposing ideological and partisan camps. Liberals believed that North Korea sought an opening to the world that would allow it to reform and modernize its economy, to which end the pursuit of nuclear weapons was merely additional leverage. Conservatives held that the pursuit of nuclear weapons was the natural progression and a primary objective of a regime that is pathologically hostile to foreign enemies.  They saw North Korea’s nuclear program as a vehicle for extortion, and an achievement to hold the awe of its subjects even as North Korea’s economic system collapsed around them. Between these two extremes, assorted policy-makers in both parties advocated for various diplomatic initiatives that offered North Korea significant economic and diplomatic benefits in exchange for verifiable disarmament it never quite delivers.

As Agreed Framework I collapsed, liberals became increasingly shrill in their denials that North Korea had cheated, at least significantly enough to press the issue. Some suggested that North Korea’s HEU program was the creation of neoconservative fabulists, or at best, their gross exaggeration of a small, harmless, “experimental” program, possibly for the peaceful generation of electricity. They accused the Bush Administration of stretching scant evidence of North Korea’s HEU activities as a justification to abandon Agreed Framework I, an agreement it never liked anyway. Thus, when the North Koreans were confronted with evidence of their HEU program in 2002 and brazenly admitted it to two American diplomats and three of their translators, the Bush Administration responded by (again) cutting off promised shipments of heavy fuel oil. Liberals accused Bush and “hard-liners” in his administration of antagonizing the North Koreans to a state of such pique that they withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and declared Agreed Framework I null and void. Agreed Framework I’s defenders blamed Bush, not Kim Jong Il, for the collapse of an agreement they insisted was containing North Korea’s much more dangerous plutonium reprocessing program.

Among the most prominent of the HEU deniers was former Washington Post reporter and prolific North Korea apologist Selig Harrison, who wrote an article entitled, “Did North Korea Cheat?” in the January 2005 edition of Foreign Affairs (full text here):

Relying on sketchy data, the Bush administration presented a worst-case scenario as an incontrovertible truth and distorted its intelligence on North Korea (much as it did on Iraq), seriously exaggerating the danger that Pyongyang is secretly making uranium-based nuclear weapons.

Mike Chinoy, who had until recently been presenting absolutely, positively objective reporting to CNN viewers, found his opinions so difficult to keep to himself that he published them in a book he chose to call Meltdown:

The book showed that US intelligence did discover in 2002-2003 a North Korea effort to acquire components that could be used for uranium enrichment but that it was only a procurement effort. There was no credible intelligence that North Koreans actually had a facility capable of making uranium based bombs. Yet, conservative hardliners bent on ending an “Agreed Framework” nuclear deal with North Korea forged under president Bill Clinton’s administration seized on the issue to force a confrontation, the book said.

To the horror of the liberal true believers, Bush even prevented his diplomats from drinking a toast to the proprietors of the the world’s cruelest system of political prison camps and the engineers of the largest man-caused famine on earth since Walter Duranty won his Pulitzer. (In Chinoy’s nuanced view, the North Korean people are the “victims” of “both their own government and the U.S. effort to undermine it.”)

To debate Chinoy and Harrison on the merits of their charge, let’s first set aside some of their most obviously flawed premises: (1) that North Korea would not have found some other reason to drive on with its nuclear ambitions (as they did despite President Obama’s engagement overtures and a U.N. resolution); and (2) that there is some acceptable amount of North Korean cheating we should be prepared to tolerate. In addressing the latter argument, I can’t really do better than this response to Selig Harrison in Foreign Affairs noting Harrison’s “misstatements and misunderstandings,” and co-authored by none other than Robert Gallucci, the chief negotiator of Agreed Framework I.

Instead, let’s start with the evidence that Harrison and Chinoy had to ignore from the beginning. In October 2002, U.S. diplomats James Kelley and Jack Pritchard, accompanied by three translators, went to North Korea to confront the regime with suspicions that it was assembling a uranium enrichment program. Much to the surprise of the U.S. delegation, their North Korean interlocutor brazenly admitted it. Chinoy and Harrison have suggested that this could just as well have been a misunderstanding, perhaps due to a translation error, but I’ve personally discussed the incident with one of the translators, who insists that the admission was just what was reported. Another translator later published his own confirmation in a South Korean newspaper, and Jack Pritchard, a Clinton holdover who had resigned from the Bush Administration over what he considered Bush’s inflexibility in talks with the North Koreans, clarified that there was no question that the North Koreans had admitted to an HEU program. Although reviewers generally praised the thoroughness of Chinoy’s research, this allegation was so easily refuted as to suggest recklessness.

Chinoy and Harrison had to ignore plenty of other evidence, including reports that North Korea actually conducted its first nuclear test in Pakistan in 1998, A.Q. Khan’s 2004 admission that he gave the North Koreans centrifuge designs and technology throughout the 1990’s, revelations that A.Q. Khan may have provided complete P-1 and P-2 centrifuges to North Korea as prototypes, the interception of a shipment of aluminum tubes — possibly for centrifuge casings — on their way to North Korea, and the 2005 discovery of low-enriched uranium hexafluoride from North Korea in the possession of the Libyans. In 2004, senior North Korean defector Hwang Jang Yop also confirmed that North Korea had a secret HEU program. More devastating revelations would follow after Chinoy’s manuscript went to the printer.

In 2005, physicist David Albright joined the deniers and called on the Bush Administration to “reexamine” what he called a “questionable charge that North Korea has a covert uranium enrichment program” to open the way for a new deal with North Korea, arguing —

[A] large centrifuge plant likely does not exist; perhaps it never did. The 2002 U.S. intelligence assessment that originally claimed to have established the existence of this plant appears to be based heavily on the order of thousands of aluminum tubes. Like the Iraqi high strength aluminum tubes used by the CIA to argue that Iraq was building thousands of gas centrifuges, the analysis about North Korea’s program also appears to be flawed. The intelligence community conducted this assessment at the same time it produced a number of flawed assessments about Iraq’s WMD program, which alone should trigger concern about past assessments of North Korea’s centrifuge program.

There is ample evidence to suggest that North Korea did acquire equipment and centrifuges for a small-scale gas centrifuge program, including a centrifuge starter kit from the notorious Pakistani Abdul Qadeer Khan, and many items for a small-scale program from abroad. However, no information exists on the status or accomplishments of this effort.

There is a significant difference between putting together a small-scale centrifuge program involving a few dozen centrifuges and building and operating a comprehensive, large-scale production plant involving the manufacture of thousands of complete centrifuges. Basing policy on the latter when the former may be the case is a mistake, as policy towards North Korea that does not reflect the reality of its nuclear programs could lead to further missed opportunities and the squandering of recent progress. It was the claim of the existence of a large program that brought down the 1994 Agreed Framework in the fall of 2002 and poisoned many cooperative initiatives between North Korea and its neighbors.

The essence of Albright’s argument was that North Korea had tried to cheat, but that it could not be proven conclusively that it had completely succeeded … yet. Albright’s argument took another body blow this week, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet. Albright left out much of the most damning evidence of North Korea’s HEU program available even then. I called Albright out on a number of questions on my blog several years ago, and when I did, Albright accused me of “slandering” him and attacking him unfairly, but he never did address my questions.

Shortly after Chinoy’s book, Meltdown, went to print, its title began to take on what must have been, for Chinoy, a most unwelcome new meaning. Ironically, his undoing was the Bush Administration’s shift to the very policies Chinoy had advocated, in the form of the stunning and spectacularly unsuccessful Agreed Framework II. This agreement, easily as flawed as Agreed Framework I in both its drafting and its implementation, required North Korea to go through the motions of fully declaring all of its nuclear programs. Confronted again with the Bush Administration’s concerns about its uranium program, North Korea admitted in September 2007 that it had obtained centrifuge technology from A.Q. Khan, but continued to deny having enriched any uranium. Three months later, the North Koreans agreed to hand over smelted-down samples of some of the suspicious aluminum tubing. The samples tested positive for enriched uranium. In June of 2008, the North Koreans handed over boxes of documents from their plutonium reactor at Yongbyon; these also tested positive for highly enriched uranium. In due course, David Albright overcame his embarrassment and suggested that the traces of HEU were too small to be conclusive. But that same month, we learned that Pakistan’s late former Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, smuggled “critical data on uranium enrichment” into North Korea in the pockets of her raincoat 1993. In January of 2009, the U.S. analysts found yet more traces of HEU on a piece of pipe the North Koreans submitted for inspection.

Finding discretion to be the better part of valor, Albright said little else about the subject in the ensuing months. It would take North Korea’s second admission to having an HEU program, in 2009, before Albright would concede that North Korea’s uranium enrichment program was a problem after all (he recommended sending Jimmy Carter back to Pyongyang to solve it). Of course, North Korea’s admission is of a brand-new HEU program; it continues to deny having had one before 2009.

And we are not done. Last week, the Washington Post reported:

North Korea has constructed a plant to manufacture a gas needed for uranium enrichment, according to a previously unpublicized account by the father of Pakistan’s atomic bomb program, a development that indicates Pyongyang opened a second way to build nuclear weapons as early as the 1990s. Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan also said that North Korea may have been enriching uranium on a small scale by 2002, with “maybe 3,000 or even more” centrifuges, and that Pakistan helped the country with vital machinery, drawings and technical advice for at least six years. [….]

Khan’s account of the pilot plant, which he says North Korea built without help, is included in a narrative that depicts relations between the two countries’ scientists as exceptionally close for nearly a decade. Khan says, for example, that during a visit to North Korea in 1999, he toured a mountain tunnel. There his hosts showed him boxes containing components of three finished nuclear warheads, which he was told could be assembled for use atop missiles within an hour.

“While they explained the construction [design of their bombs], they quietly showed me the six boxes” containing split cores for the warheads, as well as “64 ignitors/detonators per bomb packed in 6 separate boxes,” Khan said.

His visit occurred seven years before the country’s first detonation, prompting some current and former U.S. officials to say that Khan’s account, if correct, suggests North Korea’s achievements were more advanced than previously known, and that the country may have more sophisticated weapons, or a larger number, than earlier estimated.

For what little it’s worth, the Pakistani government denies this. Khan had previously threatened to reveal his secrets unless he was released from house arrest. But if Khan’s statement is true, it substantially confirms the CIA’s worst fears in 2002. South Korea’s Foreign Minister has also confirmed publicly what its more liberal predecessors would not — that North Korea’s HEU program likely began in 1996, just two years after it signed Agreed Framework I. This flood of revelations leaves us with the realization that North Korea’s nuclear arsenal could be much larger than we’d feared — not because we didn’t listen to the HEU deniers, but because President Bush never made the decision to reject their counsel.

Because Kim Jong Il won’t tell us the truth, we have no way of knowing how large or advanced North Korea’s HEU program really is. Some of the witnesses against Kim Jong Il have their own reasons to lie, but it seems doubtful that all of the evidence is wrong. But in the end, this debate is really one of standards of proof, what they should be, and who should bear them. Some have seized upon the failure of our intelligence in Iraq to suggest that henceforth, we must insist on proof beyond a reasonable doubt for any charge of WMD proliferation to have policy implications. But that is an intentionally unrealistic standard calculated to paralyze prudent policy-making, one that could only work in an alternate candyland universe where Kims, Khans, and Khaddafies file timely and accurate responses to Justice Blix’s subpoenas. In the meantime, we know what we know, we infer when the truth is hidden from us, and those who create doubts shouldn’t be entitled to their benefit. If presidents are now obliged to believe reclusive tyrants over the alarming conclusions of our own intelligence agencies, why should the taxpayers bother to fund intelligence agencies at all?

This is not the only difficult question we face. North Korea’s secrecy and mendacity have been so consistent that it is difficult to imagine how, absent the extinction of the Kim Dynasty, we could ever take North Korea’s word that it has disarmed for good.

I don’t want to close this piece without noting that Republicans have also lost credibility from the HEU debate. After rightly calling the North Koreans out for cheating and rightly criticizing the many flaws of Agreed Framework I, the Bush legacy will be Agreed Framework II, which was, if anything, even more flawed than Agreed Framework I, and which evolved steadily in the direction of willful ignorance of the very HEU program that had blown up Agreed Framework I to begin with. Here, Chinoy levels a valid criticism at President Bush — Bush’s own cabinet was so divided about whether to cut a deal with North Korea or to constrict and collapse the regime that it never really chose a coherent policy. Agreed Framework II was the last-minute legacy grasp of an administration without the political capital to undertake any aggressive new initiatives. Almost no Republicans liked Agreed Framework II, but liberal Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee was one of them. Most Republicans kept their opposition to Agreed Framework II to themselves, and most Democrats kept their approval to themselves, seeing a win-win however things worked out.

Who still denies that the North Koreans are trying to develop a uranium bomb? Two groups, mainly: inflexible North Korea apologists, and those who are still so obsessed with hating George W. Bush that they’re willing to overlook Kim Jong Il’s flaws. The latter group is rapidly fading into irrelevance. The former group ought to. But the growing consensus that North Korea has now gamed two administrations through two failed Agreed Frameworks should cause us to question what non-cosmetic purpose there is to talking with Kim Jong Il at all.