The North Korean drive to enrich uranium came as the Bush administration was trying to build support for military action against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on grounds he was hiding a program of weapons of mass destruction and would be more dangerous if he obtained nuclear weapons.
And more important:
Only after Congress had acted and Bush signed the resolution did the White House disclose, in mid-October, that North Korea had a uranium enrichment program.
So the Bush administration knew about the North Korean program well before it pushed for a vote on Iraq. The North Korean government actually confirmed such a program as the Iraq resolution was being debated in Congress. But Bush waited to make the report public until after Congress had given him authorization to use force against Iraq.
For some time, administration critics have been complaining that the Bush administration's obsession with Iraq has been distracting it from more pressing threats. The most oft sited threat is, of coure, Al Qaeda. But North Korea is a close second. It's now clear that the White House ignored mounting evidence of a pending crisis in Korea while it tried to drum up support for war with Iraq. Moreover, it actually withheld key new information about the situation in North Korea from Congress as it was debating perhaps the most important issue of Bush's presidency.
The way the White House has bungled North Korea is simply amazing. To be fair, the Clinton White House did not always get North Korea right either (they too had info that the North was attempting to enrich uranium). But at least their actions were based on the solid and consistent principle that the security of the US was best served engaging the North in an effort to prevent their acquisition of nuclear weapons. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the Bush strategy. Here is a recap:
1. The Administration ignores evidence that the North is attempting to enrich uranium.
2. In an effort to come up with a catch turn of phrase for the 2002 SOTU, the Bush team coins the term "Axis of Evil" and, in need of a non-Muslim axis member, includes North Korea.
3. While pursuing a belligerent approach to fellow axis member Iraq, the White House belittles South Korea's "Sunshine Policy" of engaging the North and directs harsh rhetoric at North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
4. The White House withholds news of North Korea's admission of guilt from Congress until it has authorized force in Iraq.
5. When it finally does announce the news of North Korea's uranium enrichment program, it takes a hard line with Pyongyang including subtle threats about the potential use of force.
6. Unsurprisingly, North Korea reacts by pulling out of the Nuclear Non Proliferation treaty catching the White House flat-footed.
7. The White House backs off from its subtle threat to potentially use force and, instead, takes the option completely off the table. It announces that it will have no dialogue with North Korea and that it will pursue a policy of "economic containment" in concert with the North's neighbors.
8. After the North's neighbors reject such a policy out of hand, as anyone could have predicted they would, the White House backtracks again and says that it is willing to "talk", but not "negotiate," with the North. Whatever that means.
9. After all that bungling, and after having trashed the Clinton approach to North Korea both in the 2000 campaign and after the election, Bush ends up right back where Clinton was but only after having taken the threat of force off the table; alienated the South Koreans, our most important ally in the region; and prompted the North to take a more belligerent approach to nuclear proliferation.
Is the problem all that hard? The North Korean regime are not nice people. It would be best if that regime were to fall from power. But the simple truth is it won't, and while it's around we need to deal with it. The actions of the North are not hard to understand. They have a failing economy but a relatively advanced weapons program. They have always felt that their security is threatened by the American presence in the region. They see their nuclear and missile programs as a way to assure their security (in order to prevent the kind of invasion that Iraq is soon to face), as a way to barter with the West for better security guarantees and economic assistance and as a product that could be exported for hard currency. Meanwhile, the west fears a that a nuclear armed North Korea could destabilize the region and export weapons to terrorist states or terrorists themselves. The outlines for a deal are clearly there - North Korea gets diplomatic recognition, renewed energy assistance and security guarantees. In return, they agree to completely dismantle both their plutonium and uranium enrichment facilities and to ship all processed fissile material out of the country. They would also have to agree to allow completely unfettered inspections and to accept severe limits on the testing and development of missile technology. Finally, the North would have to agree to end the exportation of its missiles and give the US and the UN the legal right to seize shipments of North Korean missiles intended for other nations.
While Bush concentrates on Iraq and refuses to "negotiate" the North is charging ahead with a nuclear program that holds a far greater threat to this nation than Iraq ever will. The US should be at the table with North Korea right now offering the North the incentives outlined above while continuing to threaten to use force to end the North's nuclear program if it won't do it voluntarily. Instead, the White House is offering neither any carrots nor any sticks. And the situation deteriorates.