North Korea has plutonium. This is not news. North Korea has had plutonium for many years, enough for at least five or six nuclear weapons, probably more. They had it before Bill Clinton became president. From 1994 to 2003, the plutonium was stored in fuel rods in a concrete-lined pool of water in Yongbyon. In 2003, North Korea un-froze its plutonium weapons program and began working on making plutonium bombs.
The plutonium in the bombs North Korea is testing was processed since 2003. On Bush’s watch.
North Korea also has had uranium, and lots of it, for many years. In 2002 the Bush Administration stirred up an international whoop-dee-doo by claiming North Korea was processing uranium to make nuclear weapons. I do not believe there was ever any firm confirmation that NK was enriching uranium for military use and not industrial use. There is some question whether North Korea is capable of enriching uranium for military use — it takes a lot of time, energy, and technical whizbangs (such as 1,300 high-performance centrifuges) to get sufficient bomb material out of uranium. Worst-case, North Korea eventually might have made one or two uranium bombs.
In contrast to uranium, plutonium is nearly plug-and-play, so to speak. That’s why plutonium is a bigger worry than uranium. That’s why the 1994 Agreed Framework was negotiated — to get North Korea to freeze its plutonium program. And North Korea kept this agreement until the Bush Administration trashed it.
This is utterly unsurprising; the parallel uranium program that North Korea had developed in the 1990s was never capable of producing much in the way of bomb material. This reinforces the conclusion that the key diplomatic moments came in 1994, when the North Koreans agreed to substantially scale back their nuclear ambitions in return for aid, and in 2002 when they gave up on this agreement. … [T]he Bush administration in 2002 faced two unfortunate but clearly distinguishable realities; one in which North Korea had the material required to make one or two bombs, and one in which [North Korea] had the capacity to make nearly a dozen. Because of its diplomatic ineptitude, ideological commitment, and obsession with Iraq, the administration had neither the interest in dealing with North Korea nor the capacity to carry out any threats.
For reasons explained very well and clearly in the articles linked below, North Korea’s decision to un-freeze plutonium production is entirely the fault of the Bush Administration.
The North Korea link archive:
Eric Alterman, “Blaming Success, Upholding Failure”
Rachel Weise, “North Korea Nuclear Timeline”
Hilzoy, “Do You Feel Safer Now?”
Joe Conason, “Wagging the Big Dog”
Fred Kaplan, “The Slime Talk Express”
Rosa Brooks, “A Good Week for the Axis of Evil”
Tom Teepen, “Bush’s newest N. Korea policy: Blame Clinton”
Fred Kaplan, “Rolling Blunder”
The Mahablog North Korea posts (most recent first):