The Past as Forgotten Prologue

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The Bush administration’s North Korea policy, as the great Jon Stewart noted with clips on The Daily Show Tuesday night, appears to be scripted in turns by Dirty Harry or Deepak Chopra. Alas, the mainstream press can’t seem to discern president Bush’s turn from tough guy to diplomat, let alone detail his responsibility for the looming crisis on the Korean peninsula.

Case in point: The New York Times last week reported that “dealing with North Korea has frustrated every president since Truman. But it has proved particularly vexing for Mr. Bush because his administration has engaged in a six-year internal argument about whether to negotiate with the country or try to plot its collapse.”

But has it? If so, what are the particulars of this “internal argument?” We never find out in this particular story, nor really in a follow-up “news analysis” that appeared in the paper on Tuesday. The story outlined how critical many conservatives have become about Bush’s stance on North Korea, yet nevertheless failed to offer the reader the necessary information to judge the causes of the current impasse.

The closest the analysis came was when the writer explained that “Mr. Bush came to office appearing to have already determined that he would not negotiate” with the Kim Jong Il’s government. This is true, but it is hardly enough. Is it too much to ask of our media that they provide citizens with the most basic information about such fundamental questions as a possible U.S. attack on a nuclear-armed power?

For the fact is that while North Korea represents a genuinely daunting security problem, the United States had him partially locked up under an agreement the Clinton administration successfully brokered in 1994. As Fred Kaplan noted in the Washington Monthly back in May 2004, the North Koreans had a number of radioactive fuel rods that could be processed into plutonium, and “from that, into A-bombs — not in years but in months.” Kaplan’s analysis went on to say that “thanks to an agreement brokered by the Clinton administration, the rods were locked in a storage facility under the monitoring of international weapons-inspectors. Common sense dictated that — whatever it did about the centrifuges — the Bush administration should do everything possible to keep the fuel rods locked up.”

Unfortunately, common sense was in short supply. In a preview of his coming political emasculation, former Secretary of State Colin Powell announced at the outset of the administration that he planned “to pick up where the Clinton administration had left off” in trying to secure the peace between North and South Korea, while negotiating with the North to prevent its acquisition of nuclear weaponry. The president not only repudiated his secretary of state in public, announcing, “We’re not certain as to whether or not they’re keeping all terms of all agreements,” but did so during a joint appearance with then-South Korean president (and Nobel laureate) Kim Dae Jung, thereby humiliating his honored guest as well.

A day later, Powell backpedaled. “The president forcefully made the point that we are undertaking a full review of our relationship with North Korea,” Powell said. “There was some suggestion that imminent negotiations are about to begin — that is not the case.” He later admitted to a group of journalists, “I got a little far forward on my skis.” It would not be the last time.

Not so the North Koreans. In December 2002, Pyongyang ordered the three International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to leave the country, shut down cameras monitoring the nuclear complex in Yongbyon and removed the IAEA seals in their nuclear facilities. In January, Pyongyang withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, restarted its small research reactor, and began removing spent nuclear fuel rods for likely reprocessing into weapons-grade plutonium.

The unraveling of the Clinton plan seemed to culminate in the president’s “Axis of Evil” speech that same month, which named North Korea one of three outlaw regimes that had to go. Soon after the speech Bush told author Bob Woodward that “I loathe Kim Jong Il!. I’ve got a visceral reaction to this guy, because he is starving his people.” Burying the knife deeper, the president went on to say that he considered the leader to be a “pygmy.”

After Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech, former U.S. ambassadors Morton Abramowitz and James Laney warned that “besides putting another knife in the diminishing South Korean president,” the speech would likely cause “dangerous escalatory consequences [including] renewed tensions on the peninsula and continued export of missiles to the Mideast.” Sure enough, North Korea called Bush’s bluff, and the result, notes columnist Richard Cohen, was “a stumble, a fumble, an error compounded by a blooper. As appalling a display of diplomacy as anyone has seen since a shooting in Sarajevo turned into World War I.”

While these moves by North Korea and the Bush administration did in fact make the daily papers, the nation was busy tearing itself apart over its ill-fated invasion of Iraq. By mid-2003, while the wheels had just begun to come off the occupation of Iraq, some were continuing to express alarm at the consequences of Bush’s mishandling of the North Korean nukes, although few were paying attention. “I think we are losing control,” worried former Secretary of Defense William Perry. “The nuclear program now under way in North Korea poses an imminent danger of nuclear weapons being detonated in American cities.”

But all this, and much more, has been swept under the proverbial rug in today’s media. “It’s history,” journalists say, as we stand poised, once again, to repeat our mistakes, this time not with a phantom of the neocon’s fervid collective imagination, but with a genuinely threatening nation, armed with nukes.

In fact, earlier this week White House Press Secretary Tony Snow tried to shift blame on the Clinton administration for the Bush administration’s failed North Korea policy. At the press conference, Snow said “I understand what the Clinton administration wanted to do. They wanted to talk reason to the government of Pyongyang, and they engaged in bilateral conversations. And Bill Richardson went with flowers and chocolates… and many other inducements for the “Dear Leader” to try to agree not to develop nuclear weapons, and it failed. We’ve learned from that mistake.”

It was a curious choice of words. The notorious Ann Coulter had said, just four days previously on Fox News (Tony Snow’s former employer), “liberals always have the same reaction to dangerous enemies, which is be nice to them, and that’s what Bill Clinton did in his famed 1994 peace deal, giving the North Koreans $4 billion, chocolates, their favorite, you know, flowers.”

And what is it that the Bush administration learned? That the press has a short memory.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His most recent, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences, was just published in paperback by Penguin.

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Eric Alterman

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