I saw this headline on Memeorandum — “John Bolton Embarrasses a Confused Senator Kerry (Video)” — linking to a rightie site, and of course I had to click on it. And here is the exchange in which Bolton allegedly “totally outclassed” Senator Kerry, according to the rightie.
Democrats like John Kerry have vowed to fight the nomination (of John Bolton). Kerry showed up at the very last minute of today’s hearing and it turned into a barbed exchange between the Bush Administration’s attempt to engage North Korea in 6 party talks:
John Kerry: This has been going on for five years, Mr. Ambassador.
John Bolton: It’s the nature of multilateral negotiations, Senator.
John Kerry: Why not engage in a bilateral one and get the job done? That’s what the Clinton Administration did.
John Bolton: And, very poorly since the North Koreans violated the agreed framework almost from the time it was signed.
Ouch!… It’s pretty painful to watch.
What’s painful is that Bolton was wrong, as in either ignorant or lying, and righties are too dense to realize it.
Returning to the “Blame Bush for North Korea’s Nukes” Mahablog archive, we find (note in particular difference between uranium and plutonium) —
Throughout 1993 North Korea and the IAEA inspectors engaged in major head butting. The IAEA said North Korea had more uranium and plutonium fuel than it was admitting to. Also, the U.S. announced that it had intelligence, some from satellite photos, that there was a lot of nuclear-waste-related activity going on in North Korea that had been concealed from the IAEA. Details here.
Although North Korea had both uranium and plutonium, it was the plutonium that really worried everyone. In the nuclear weapons biz there is a huge difference between plutonium and uranium that news stories don’t always make clear. Very basically, you need vast amounts of uranium and years and years of processing in order to get enough nuclear stuff to make a bomb. But plutonium is nearly ready to use out of the box, so to speak.
The biggest point of ignorance on the part of the righties has to do with the distinction between plutonium and uranium, and as I said, lots of journalists, and also lots of politicians, are not clear about this, either. But now you are informed.
So, even though North Korea had both uranium and plutonium, it was the plutonium that concerned the rest of the world. The North Koreans were thought to be years away from doing much with the uranium. But by 1993 it was believed North Korea already had enough plutonium in the can, so to speak, for at least one nuclear weapon.
With me so far? Plutonium real bad, real scary. Uranium bad and scary, but harder to make a bomb with than plutonium. More details about this below.
In 1994, western intelligence sources realized that a reprocessing complex being built at Yongbyon included a gas graphite reactor designed specifically for separating plutonium from nuclear waste. This scared the stuffing out of lots of people. The IAEA believed North Korea was hiding more plutonium somewhere. And then North Korea announced it was restricting IAEA inspections. Matters came to a head in June 1994, when North Korea relinquished its IAEA membership and all the inspectors cleared out of the country.
But then along came Jimmy. In June 1994, former President Carter went to North Korea to negotiate with Kim Il Sung, president of North Korea. These negotiations were a great success. North Korea committed to freezing its plutonium weapons program in exchange for two proliferation-resistant nuclear reactors and other aid. …
… Specifically, the agreement stipulated that North Korea’s graphite-moderated nuclear power plants, which could easily produce weapons grade plutonium, would be replaced with light water reactor (LWR) power plants by a target date of 2003.
You can read the actual text of the 1994 agreement here. You will see that the language of the agreement refers specifically to North Korea’s “graphite-moderated reactors and related facilities.” The graphite reactors, as explained above, were specifically for separating plutonium from nuclear waste. I am no nuclear engineer, but from my research I believe graphite reactors are not used for processing uranium. It’s easier to process uranium in other ways. For more information, here is an article about North Korea’s graphite reactors from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
I have found another good source for historical background, which is this PBS Online Newshour page on North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs. It provides a basic history of North Korea’s nuclear research programs going back to the Korean War. If you scroll down to the part about the Agreed Framework, you read (emphasis added),
The main goal in offering North Korea LWRs [light water reactors]was to eliminate the output of plutonium that could be used for weapons. David Albright and Holly Higgins of the Institute for Science and International Security explained the difference between the reactors in a 1997 report.
“If the two light water reactors slated to be built in North Korea are operated to optimize power production, they will discharge about 500 kg of reactor-grade plutonium a year in highly radioactive spent fuel. However, this plutonium cannot be used in nuclear weapons until it is separated from this radioactive fuel,” Albright and Higgins wrote. “North Korea’s existing reprocessing plant…would require extensive and difficult modification to separate all this plutonium.”
Back to the “Blame Bush” page in The Mahablog archives:
And, in spite of what the righties will tell you, the North Koreans kept this agreement. The plutonium processing at Yongbyon and elsewhere stopped, and IAEA inspectors were allowed back into North Korea. The plutonium processors were sealed with IAEA seals.
As for the U.S. part of the bargain — the U.S. was supposed to supply North Korea with fuel oil until the first of the light-water reactors went online. The target date for that was 2003. Congress dragged its feet on approving the funds for the fuel oil, so the Clinton Administration got around this by forming a multinational consortium, called KEDO to implement the agreement and build the reactors. KEDO began fuel shipments in 1995. Construction on the reactors was held up, mostly by North Korea, and didn’t begin until 2001. Construction was suspended in 2003. This is also explained on the PBS Online Newshour page linked above. (Note: Wikipedia gets some details about the LWRs wrong, so don’t use it as a source.)
Now, strictly speaking, North Korea wasn’t supposed to process uranium either, especially not weapons grade uranium, because it was signed on to other agreements — the Korean Peninsula Denuclearization Declaration, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, etc. And, according to the PBS page, North Korea was alleged to be either processing uranium or preparing to process uranium in the 1990s. The Clinton Administration knew of this by 1998 or so. The Clinton Administration felt the situation needed watching. But U.S. intelligence said North Korea was a long way away from having weapons grade uranium, so it was not a situation that needed to be blown up into an international crisis right away.
As explained on the “Blame Bush” page in detail, nearly as soon as he became president George W. Bush began to antagonize both North and South Korea in several ways. Then in the fall of 2002 James Kelly, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, made a big stink about North Korea’s processing of uranium. That’s uranium, notice, not plutonium. So in the weeks before the November 2002 elections, and just about the time concrete was being poured for the first light-water reactor, Bush Administration surrogates were all over the cable news talk shows hoo-hawing about how the Clinton Administration was so stupid that they didn’t know North Korea was violating the agreement. Except at that time North Korea was not processing plutonium.
How reliable are the Bush Administration’s claims about uranium? In the January/February 2005 issue of Foreign Affairs, Selig Harrison argued that the Bush Administration was way short of credible evidence that North Korea was seeking to process weapons-grade uranium. Could the Bush Administration have misrepresented and distorted the intelligence data the way it did with Iraq?
A review of the available evidence suggests that this is just what happened. 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.
This part is critical:
Washington’s accusation of Pyongyang was delivered during a visit to the North Korean capital by James Kelly, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. Kelly told a key North Korean official that he had evidence of a uranium-enrichment project. According to Kelly, the North Korean official, First Deputy Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju, acknowledged the existence of such a program at the time. But Kang has subsequently denied this; what he actually told Kelly, according to Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun, was deliberately ambiguous: that North Korea is “entitled” to have such a program or “an even more powerful one” to deter a pre-emptive U.S. attack. …
… Kelly’s confrontation with Kang seems to have been inspired by the growing alarm felt in Washington in the preceding five months over the ever more conciliatory approach that Seoul and Tokyo had been taking toward Pyongyang; by raising the uranium issue, the Bush administration hoped to scare Japan and South Korea into reversing their policies.
Kelly’s grandstanding activities came immediately after Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi had gone to North Korea without consulting the United States to work out a long-range missile agreement. The Bush Administration, in effect, threw a temper tantrum.
Faced with the prospect that the North Korea policies of South Korea and Japan had slipped out of its control, the Bush administration “saw a real possibility that its options on the [Korean] peninsula would increasingly be driven by the policy agendas of others,” wrote Jonathan Pollack, chairman of the Strategic Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College in the summer of 2003. Plans for Kelly’s visit to Pyongyang were accelerated, and his showdown with North Korean leaders came less than three weeks after Koizumi’s meeting with Kim Jong Il.
Pollack suggests that Kelly’s charges were not justified by U.S. intelligence.
You can read the details in the Foreign Affairs article. Selig Harrison goes on to argue that North Korea didn’t have the equipment or capacity to process weapons-grade uranium. Harrison goes into a lot of detail about what North Korea had and what it had bought from whom; again, you can read about that in the article. Bottom line, North Korea was nowhere near having the 1,300 high-performance centrifuges required to process weapons-grade uranium, much less all the replacement parts they would need to keep the operation running.
I’m not going to re-hash the whole sorry history of the Bush Administration’s “negotiations” with North Korea. There’s been a lot of bad behavior on both sides. The juicy bits are these: In December 2002 the Bush Administration announced it was stopping the oil shipments, and North Korea responded by saying it would go back into the plutonium processing biz. And in February 2005 North Korea announced it had plutonium weapons.
And John Bolton is full of shit, and the righties are still ignorant of what’s really going on. Yada, yada, yada.
I hope you don’t mind my re-hashing this North Korean stuff. I just feel compelled to try to get the truth out every time the Bushies repeat the lies.