When we need a laugh in grim times, we count on our Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Whoopi Goldberg of the Bush administration. This week, Ashcroft took time off from tracking down terrorists in order to bust 55 people for selling rolling papers, pipes and other drug paraphernalia. Nice to see a man who's got his priorities straight.
Onward. Let's review the bidding on North Korea. "Review the bidding" is a bridge term for "how the hell did we get into this mess?" In 1994, the Clinton administration came to something called the Agreed Framework with North Korea, under which Pyongyang agreed to put its 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods -- which can be easily converted into weapons-grade plutonium -- into storage, watched over by U.N. inspectors and cameras. In return, they were supposed to get two light-water nuclear reactors and economic and diplomatic relations.
Unfortunately, we didn't quite live up to our end of the bargain. As usual, the Republicans had a cow and decided anything agreed to by Clinton (not to mention the dread Jimmy Carter) must be a sellout. We did, however, provide a substantial amount of food and fuel aid over the years, and in 2000 the Swiss company ABB agreed to deliver equipment and services for two nuclear power stations at Kumho. Interestingly enough, Donald Rumsfeld was on the board of ABB at the time, though a Pentagon spokeswoman says the secretary does not recall the $200 million deal ever having been brought before the board.
So, in comes Bush, and six weeks into his term, March 2001, Bush humiliates South Korean President Kim Dae Jung during his visit to Washington by announcing we would not support his "sunshine initiative" to improve relations between the Koreas, for which Kim Dae Jung won the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize.
North Korea had been sending lots of signals that it was ready to deal, ready to open up and to make concessions. But the Bush administration denounced it as a "rogue state" and used it as a prime excuse to promote the national missile defense system. Bush, ever the soft-spoken diplomat, told a reporter that he "loathes" Kim Jong Il on a "visceral level" and also called the dictator "a pygmy." True, Kim Jong Il is vertically challenged and a repellent dictator, but insulting paranoiacs who have nukes is not smart.
Then came the "axis of evil" speech in 2002. According to Bush's speechwriter David Frum, North Korea got thrown into the axis as an afterthought, apparently for rhetorical purposes. Unfortunately, Kim Jong Il, like, kind of took it personally. Then the Bush doctrine of "pre-emptive war" was announced, along with the policy of using nuclear weapons to maintain American hegemony.
In October, North Korea admitted it was running a secret uranium enrichment program, so Bush promptly renounced the Agreed Framework and cut off the food and fuel-oil supplies we had agreed to. (Don't ask me to explain this, but apparently an enriched-uranium program is not nearly as dangerous as making plutonium.)
The North Koreans said they would drop the uranium enrichment and allow inspections to continue in return for a promise of no pre-emptive strike from us and a normalization of relations. Bush refused. A few months later, the North Koreans kicked out the U.N. inspectors and announced it would begin making plutonium from the spent fuel rods.
Bush then announced we would absolutely not negotiate with the North Koreans, then in January he announced again we would not negotiate but would "talk." The North Koreans want direct talks with the United States, while we want multilateral talks (Bush endorses multilateralism, at last!) with Japan, China and South Korea, and possibly Russia, Australia and the European Union. China, Australia and South Korea have all urged us to have direct talks.
Meantime, the South Koreans have elected Roh Moo Hyun to succeed replace Kim Dae Jung, and he, like his predecessor, favors the sunshine policy. (Before you start on the "how dare they?" "those ingrates!" "worse than the French," please to recall that for 25 years the United States supported a military dictatorship in South Korea, so they tend not to take our rhetoric about "democracy" really seriously).
All in all, a nasty situation. Colin Powell has just returned from a trip to South Korea and may be able to work out some straddle on the direct-talks issue. Meanwhile, it looks as though the North Koreans are busily building nuclear bombs, and no one doubts they would sell a little spare plutonium to anyone who paid them enough. Oy gevalt.
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