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Context of 'September 9, 2003: Bush Administration Manifests Unconcern at Prospect of North Korean Nuclear Test'

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The Bush administration opens brief, futile negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear program (see October 4, 2002 and January 10, 2003 and After). Chief negotiator Jim Kelly goes to Beijing to prepare for multilateral talks with North Korea, Japan, China, and South Korea. However, Kelly is crippled by specific instructions on how to deal with the North Koreans. He is not even allowed to speak with the North Korean delegates unless the other countries’ delegates are also present. During the negotiations, North Korea’s deputy foreign minister Li Gun, an experienced negotiator, says that his country now has nuclear weapons—calling them a “deterrent”—and says the weapons will not be given up unless the US drops its “hostile attitude” (see March 2003-May 2003) towards the regime. Stripping away the rhetoric, the North Koreans are offering to disarm if the US will sign a non-aggression pact. Kelly returns to Washington and announces a “bold, new proposal” from the North Koreans. But President Bush dismisses the proposal, expressing his feelings in his words to a reporter: “They’re back to the old blackmail game.” Foreign affairs journalist Fred Kaplan will later write, “This was the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld line: As long as the North Koreans were pursuing nuclear weapons, even to sit down with them would be ‘appeasement,’ succumbing to ‘blackmail,’ and ‘rewarding bad behavior.’” (Kaplan 5/2004) Bush administration officials refuse to discuss any specifics until North Korea agrees to scrap its nuclear program. They also refuse to talk directly with the North Korean officials, instead insisting that the Chinese delegation pass along their demands. Not surprisingly, the North Koreans walk out of the meeting. (Scoblic 2008, pp. 240-241)

Senior Bush administration officials say that their private hope for curtailing North Korea’s “rogue” nuclear weapons program (see January 10, 2003 and After, February 4, 2003, and August 2003) is for regime change—for the dictatorship of Kim Jong Il to fall. One official says the best way to deal with North Korea is to, in essence, use economic and diplomatic embargoes to “starve” the Kim regime. Providing Kim’s government with food and oil, even in return for nuclear concessions, is “morally repugnant,” the official says, and he does not believe North Korea will willingly give up its nuclear weapons anyway (see October 27, 2002 and November 2002). “If we could have containment that’s tailored to the conditions of North Korea, and not continue to throw it lifelines like we have in the past, I think it goes away,” the official says. “It’s a bankrupt economy. I can’t imagine that the regime has any popular support. How long it takes, I don’t know. It could take two years.” (Numerous Bush officials such as Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Rumsfeld’s deputy Paul Wolfowitz, and State Department official John Bolton have all said publicly that North Korea’s regime is bound to collapse sooner or later.) When asked what the North Koreans will do during that transition period, the Bush official replies: “I think it’ll crank out, you know, half a dozen weapons a year or more. We lived with a Soviet Union that had tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, including thousands of them pointed at us. We just have to cope.” Asian and American nuclear experts are horrified by the Bush administration view. As New York Times columnist Bill Keller notes, the argument “has some rather serious holes. First, North Korea, unlike the Soviet Union, will sell anything to anybody for the right price. Second, a collapsing North Korea with nukes may not be as pretty a picture as my official informant anticipates. Third, if this collapse means a merger of the peninsula into a single, unified Korea—that is, if South Korea becomes a de facto nuclear power—that will bring little joy to Japan or China.” Another Bush official says that if North Korea shows signs of expanding its nuclear arsenal, a military strike to eliminate that threat would be considered. “The only acceptable end state [is] everything out,” he says. To tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea would send a message to Iran (see February 9, 2003) and other nations: “Get your nuclear weapons quickly, before the Americans do to you what they’ve done to Iraq, because North Korea shows once you get the weapons, you’re immune.” (Keller 5/4/2003; Scoblic 2008, pp. 241)

The US takes part in another round of multilateral negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program (see April 2003). The US has failed to destabilize the North Korean government, and the North Koreans have been unsuccessful in luring the US into bilateral talks. Instead, both sides agree to “six-way” talks that include Japan, China, Russia, and South Korea.
Heavy Restrictions on US Negotiators - US chief negotiator Jim Kelly is finally permitted to meet one-on-one with his North Korean counterpart Li Gun—for only 20 minutes, and only in the presence of the other delegates. This time, Kelly is allowed to chat briefly with Li in a corner. Kelly is also forbidden from making any offers or even suggesting the possibility of direct negotiations. Kelly’s fellow negotiator, Charles Pritchard, will later recall that Kelly was told to start the chat with Li by saying: “This is not a negotiating session. This is not an official meeting.” Foreign affairs journalist Fred Kaplan will later write: “For the previous year-and-a-half, the State Department had favored a diplomatic solution to the Korea crisis while the Pentagon and key players in the [National Security Council] opposed it. The August meeting in Beijing was Bush’s idea of a compromise—a middle path that constituted no path at all. He let Kelly talk, but didn’t let him say anything meaningful; he went to the table but put nothing on it.” But even this level of negotiation is too much for some administration hawks. During the meetings in Beijing, Undersecretary of State John Bolton gives a speech in Washington where he calls North Korea “a hellish nightmare” and Kim Jong Il “a tyrannical dictator.” Kaplan will observe, “True enough, but not the sort of invective that senior officials generally issue on the eve of a diplomatic session.” An exasperated Pritchard resigns in protest from the administration. He will later say: “My position was the State Department’s envoy for North Korean negotiations, yet we were prohibited from having negotiations. I asked myself, ‘What am I doing in government?’” Pritchard had also learned that White House and Pentagon officials did not want him involved in the talks, dismissing him as “the Clinton guy.” (Pritchard had helped successfully negotiate earlier agreements with the North Koreans during the Clinton administration.) (Kaplan 5/2004) A Chinese diplomat says, “The American policy towards DRPK [North Korea]—this is the main problem we are facing.” (Scoblic 2008, pp. 241)
Cheney Source of Restrictions - According to Larry Wilkerson, chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, the restrictions on Kelly come directly from Vice President Cheney. “A script would be drafted for Jim, what he could say and what he could not say, with points elucidated in the margins,” Wilkerson will later explain. The process involves President Bush, Cheney, Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers. On at least two occasions, Cheney rewrites the script for Kelly without consulting with the other principals, even Bush. According to Wilkerson, Cheney “put handcuffs on our negotiator, so he could say little more than ‘welcome and good-bye.’” In the words of authors Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein, Cheney’s “negotiating position was that there would be no negotiations.” (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 185-186)

Secretary of State Colin Powell sounds a note of disinterest when asked about the likelihood of a North Korean test of a nuclear weapon (see October 9, 2006). Powell tells reporters: “If they test we’ll take note of their test. The only reason they are testing is to scare the international community. The president has already accepted the possibility that they might test. And we will say ‘Gee, that was interesting.’” Powell adds: “The 50-year history of dealing with this regime is that they are marvelous in terms of threats, in terms of rhetoric and actions. Well, they might take an action, but this time they would be sticking their finger not just in the eye of the United States, but I think Kim Jong Il will have to think twice about whether he would do such a thing in light of Chinese involvement.” President Bush himself has answered a question about the likelihood of North Korea building as many as eight nuclear weapons by shrugging. In 2008, author J. Peter Scoblic will write that because of the complete failure of negotiations between the US and North Korea (see August 2003), “[t]he administration had little choice but to act as though nothing was wrong.” (Walczak and Crock 9/22/2003; Scoblic 2008, pp. 241)

As part of the difficult negotiations between the US, North Korea, and four regional partners to try to bring the North Korean nuclear program under restraint (see August 2003), the Chinese delegation offered a joint statement that would show some progress, however limited, has been made. The US refuses to sign, balking at language that recognizes US-North Korean relations are founded on “the intention to coexist.” Vice President Dick Cheney explains the US rejection: “I have been charged by the president with making sure that none of the tyrannies of the world are negotiated with” (see December 19, 2003). (Scoblic 2008, pp. 241)

The Bush administration, pressured by increasingly harsh condemnations from the presidential campaign of Democrat John Kerry, grudgingly agrees to consider opening bilateral talks with North Korea over that country’s restarted nuclear program. Previously, the US had been one of six nations involved in such negotiations, which have gone nowhere in large part due to US intransigence (see August 2003). The Bush administration has also insisted on the importance of Chinese involvement in the talks, which serves to raise China’s profile in the region and lower the US’s. Bush officials offer North Korea a deal in which that nation would provide an accounting of all its nuclear facilities; in return the US would broker a resumption of fuel oil shipments to the North by South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia, and would consider drafting security assurances (see December 12, 2003) and lifting economic sanctions. Instead of accepting, North Korea chooses to wait and see if Kerry can oust President Bush from the White House. (Scoblic 2008, pp. 242)

Incoming Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, during her confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, calls North Korea one of the world’s six “outposts of tyranny.” (The others are Cuba, Myanmar—which Rice identifies by its old name of Burma—Iran, Belarus, and Zimbabwe.) In 2008, author J. Peter Scoblic will cite Rice’s characterization as another example of overheated Bush administration rhetoric that makes it all the more difficult to negotiate with the obstinate North Koreans over their nuclear program (see August 2003). (US Senate Foreign Relations Committee 1/18/2005 pdf file; BBC 12/2007; Scoblic 2008, pp. 243)

The Bush administration’s chief envoy to Southeast Asia, Christopher Hill, finally manages to make some progress in the ongoing six-way talks over North Korea’s nuclear program (see August 2003), largely by evading and ducking Bush administration restrictions on his negotiations. Hill is under orders not to open two-party talks with North Korea unless the North agrees to make significant concessions. (In 2008, author J. Peter Scoblic will observe, “Perversely, the Bush administration was offering negotiations in exchange for changed behavior, rather than using negotiations to change behavior; they had reversed the standard cause and effect of diplomacy.”) Hill persuades the North Koreans to return to the talks by arranging a dinner in Beijing for him and his North Korean counterpart, Li Gun. The Chinese hosts “fail” to show up, and Hill is left to dine with Gun alone. The North Koreans, happy with this “bilateral negotiation,” agree to rejoin the talks. Hill is unaware that Bush administration conservatives are planning to scuttle the negotiations (see September 19-20, 2005). (Scoblic 2008, pp. 244) The talks will officially reopen on July 25, 2005. (BBC 12/2007)

While Christopher Hill, the Bush administration’s new chief envoy to Southeast Asia, is overseas trying to shore up relations with North Korea, President Bush undermines Hill by publicly insulting North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. Kim “is a dangerous person,” Bush says. “He’s a man who starves his people. He’s got huge concentration camps. And… there is concern about his capacity to deliver a nuclear weapon. We don’t know if he can or not, but I think it’s best, when you’re dealing with a tyrant like Kim Jong Il, to assume he can.” In 2008, author J. Peter Scoblic will note that while Bush’s allegations against Kim are largely true, to publicly insult him is to make it that much more difficult to persuade the dictator to give up his nuclear weapons (see August 2003). (Scoblic 2008, pp. 243)

The six-way talks over North Korea’s nuclear program (see August 2003 and Spring and Summer 2005) finally bear fruit: all participants, including North Korea and the US, agree to “the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner.” The North Koreans had insisted that they were entitled to receive light-water nuclear reactors in return for disarming, a central provision of the 1994 Agreed Framework (see October 21, 1994). The US refused to agree, and the Chinese brokered a compromise statement in which North Korea “stated that it has the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy” and that the “other parties expressed their respect” and will discuss the reactor demand “at an appropriate time.” But Bush administration conservatives, furious at the agreement, prevail on President Bush to modify the US’s position. The White House forces US negotiator Christopher Hill to read a hard-line statement written by Bush conservatives that defines the “appropriate time” for the reactor discussions as being after North Korea has unilaterally disarmed. Simultaneously, the Treasury Department announces its imposition of sanctions on an Asian bank for allegedly laundering North Korean funds. The North Koreans respond by walking out of the negotiations, leaving the agreement unsigned. They will not return to negotiations for 15 months. (BBC 12/2007; Scoblic 2008, pp. 244)

As part of a panel discussion at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, Aaron Friedberg, the deputy national security adviser for Vice President Cheney, says that the most dire ramification of the ongoing six-party talks over North Korea’s nuclear program (see August 2003) is that North Korea’s Kim Jong Il would remain in power (see May 4, 2003). Author J. Peter Scoblic will write in 2008 that Friedberg does not seem to realize “that the six-party process was not designed to oust Kim—and could in fact only succeed in stopping the North’s nuclear program if the regime was assured of its survival.” (Scoblic 2008, pp. 241)

William Perry, the former secretary of defense under President Clinton, and Ashton Carter, his deputy at the time, write an op-ed for the Washington Post calling for the Bush administration to launch a military attack on North Korea. Perry and Carter note that North Korea is in the final stages of testing a long-range ballistic missile that, they write, “some experts estimate can deliver a deadly payload to the United States.” They note that the last such test of a North Korean missile (see August 31, 1998) “sent a shock wave around the world, but especially to the United States and Japan, both of which North Korea regards as archenemies. They recognized immediately that a missile of this type makes no sense as a weapon unless it is intended for delivery of a nuclear warhead.” Now, North Korea has broken what they call the agreed-upon moratorium on such testing, but fail to note that no such agreement was ever finalized during the Clinton years (see October 2000), and skim over the fact that the Bush administration has repeatedly refused to engage in meaningful nuclear talks with the North Korean regime (see March 7, 2001, Late March, 2001, April 2002, November 2002, January 10, 2003 and After, Mid-January 2003, February 4, 2003, March 2003-May 2003, April 2003, May 4, 2003, August 2003, December 12, 2003, December 19, 2003, June 23-August 23, 2004, April 28, 2005, September 19-20, 2005, and June 2006). Perry and Carter are critical of the Bush administration’s doctrine of “pre-emption,” which necessarily precludes meaningful dialogue, but go on to observe that “intervening before mortal threats to US security can develop is surely a prudent policy.” Therefore, they write, “if North Korea persists in its launch preparations, the United States should immediately make clear its intention to strike and destroy the North Korean Taepodong missile before it can be launched.” (Carter and Perry 6/22/2006; Zenko 10/22/2010) Shortly after the op-ed appears, North Korea threatens “nuclear retaliation” if the US mounts any such military offensive (see July 3-5, 2006).

North Korea announces that if it is attacked by the US, it will retaliate with nuclear weapons. A Bush administration spokesman says the threat is “deeply hypothetical” and not to be taken seriously (see October 9, 2006). Over the next two days after issuing the threat, North Korea test-fires seven ballistic missiles, including one long-range Taepodong-2 missile. (BBC 12/2007)

US senior negotiator Christopher Hill warns North Korea that it should not test a nuclear device (see October 9, 2006), and that if it does, the US may consider it a “provocative act,” implying that the US might retaliate with military force. (BBC 12/2007)

United States Geological Survey graphic showing the location of the North Korea nuclear test. The USGS notes the test as ‘seismic activity.’United States Geological Survey graphic showing the location of the North Korea nuclear test. The USGS notes the test as ‘seismic activity.’ [Source: United States Geological Survey]North Korea explodes a nuclear weapon in an underground test site. The test takes place in spite of repeated US (see September 11, 2006), United Nations, and other international warnings. The North Koreans claim that the test is an unmitigated success. Both Japanese and US sources report a seismic event at the time of the test, and Russia says it is “100 percent certain” a nuclear test has occurred. The US calls the test a “provocative act”; China, in an unusually strong denunciation of its ally, calls the test “brazen,” expresses its “resolute opposition” to the test, and says it “defied the universal opposition of international society.” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan calls the test “unpardonable” and notes that the region is now “entering a new, dangerous nuclear age.” Many observers believe the United Nations will attempt to impose economic sanctions on the country, and to condemn it in a Security Council resolution. “We expect the UN Security Council to take immediate actions to respond to this unprovoked act,” says White House press secretary Tony Snow. Abe, in South Korea to meet with President Roh Moo-hyun, agrees, urging the Security Council to take “undaunted” action. Abe says the test will spur Japan and the US to speed up work on a joint missile-defense system begun after a North Korean missile test in 1998. Roh says the test creates a “severe situation” that threatens stability in the region; South Korea’s military is on high alert. For its part, North Korea says the test is a “historic event that brought happiness to our military and people,” and claims the test will maintain “peace and stability” in the region. It is “a great leap forward in the building of a great prosperous, powerful socialist nation.” (BBC 10/9/2006) A week later, the US confirms that the North Koreans have, in fact, tested a nuclear weapon of less than a kiloton. (Bliss 10/16/2006)

North Korea says it may carry out further nuclear testing (see October 9, 2006), and says that any United Nations sanctions (see October 14, 2006) would be considered an act of war. The North blames the US for the threatened sanctions, and says, “If the US keeps pestering us and increases pressure, we will regard it as a declaration of war and will take a series of physical corresponding measures.” South Korea has placed its military on high alert. President Bush calls for stiff sanctions against North Korea, but insists the US has “no intentions of attacking” it. The US remains committed to diplomacy, Bush says, but “reserves all options to defend our friends in the region.” UN General Secretary Kofi Annan urges the US to hold bilateral talks with North Korea, and adds: “I would urge the North Korean authorities not to escalate the situation any further. We already have an extremely difficult situation.” Any further nuclear tests hinge on the US’s actions, says Kim Yong Nam, the deputy leader of the North Korean government. Kim says, “The issue of future nuclear tests is linked to US policy toward our country.” (Fox News 10/11/2006)

The United Nations Security Council votes unanimously to sanction North Korea for its recent nuclear weapons test (see October 9, 2006). UN Resolution 1718 demands that North Korea dismantle its nuclear weapons as well as its ballistic missiles and other weapons of mass destruction. The resolution gives other nations the right to inspect cargo moving in and out of North Korea to look for non-conventional weapons, but has no threat of force connected to the inspections’ potential findings. It also demands that Pyongyang return “without precondition” to the stalled six-nation talks on its nuclear program. (BBC 12/2007) As it threatened, North Korea labels the sanctions “a declaration of war” (see October 11, 2006). Though Pyongyang makes no direct military strikes towards South Korea or any other neighbor, indications are strong that it may be preparing for a second test. (Branigan 10/17/2006)

In an abrupt reversal, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il apologizes for his country’s nuclear test (see October 9, 2006). He reportedly tells a Chinese delegation that he regrets the test, denies any plans for further tests (see October 11, 2006), and says he is willing for North Korea to resume its participation in international nuclear negotiations if the US agrees not to “financially isolate” his country. For their part, US State Department officials say they doubt Kim made any such statements. But the US is willing to rejoin negotiations. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says, “The Chinese are emphasizing the need for six-party talks to begin again and for the North to re-engage in the talks.” North Korea “urged us to be open to returning to those talks without preconditions, which for us is not difficult.” (MSNBC 10/20/2006)

The US abruptly reverses course on its North Korean policy (see Mid-January 2003 and October 9, 2006) and reopens negotiations with the North Koreans. It offers to release $25 million in North Korean funds impounded by Banco Delta Asia and to allow chief negotiator Christopher Hill to finalize a deal on the North’s denuclearization. The US will provide heavy fuel oil as North Korea shuts down its Yongbyon nuclear reactor and allows international inspectors into the country. The deal is quite similar to the 1994 Agreed Framework negotiated by the Clinton administration (see October 21, 1994). The long-term goal is full disclosure of North Korea’s nuclear program, and normalized relations with the US. In 2008, author J. Peter Scoblic will write, “The North Korean regime seems no weaker for the years of antagonistic treatment by Bush conservatives” (see May 4, 2003). (BBC 12/2007; Scoblic 2008, pp. 261)


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