North Korea and the Carnival of Stupid

I’ve been struck by the sheer amount of stupid coming from both Right and Left regarding North Korea.

From the rightie fringe, meet evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress, who has been ranting that God wants Trump to bomb North Korea and that the Bible gives Trump authority to do this. (I say that if God wants Kim Jong Un taken out, it ought to be easy to arrange a lightening bolt to do the job neatly and quickly. Intercontinental nuclear warfare is so messy.)

On the other side, the Eternal Ditz Jill Stein weirdly absolves Kim Jong Un of any responsibility whatsoever in the ongoing tensions regarding his nuclear program. She thinks that if the U.S. and South Korea weren’t so mean to KJU all the time, he’d happily stand down. Just dismantle the military systems protecting Japan and South Korea and send Kim Jong Un some flowers and a gift certificate to Olive Garden, and he’d be nice as pie.

A variation of this comes from a guy I bumped into on social media — “North Korea is not a real threat to you and I. It only threatens the 1% and their interests…now watch them drag us all into their pissing contest again.” Another common theme is that They (the U.S. government plus mainstream media) are lying to us about North Korea to distract us from what They are doing. And, you know, They lied to us about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so They must be lying to us about nukes in North Korea now.

I don’t think the Right will ever grasp that under most circumstances, bombing people we don’t like usually gives us worse problems down the road (see consequences of the invasion of Iraq for examples). It’s the stupid on the Left I want to address right now. I’d like to propose two theories that will be immediately hooted down by a lot of lefties:

  1. Not everything that happens in the world has to do with the machinations of the infamous 1 percent.
  2. Not everything that goes wrong in the world is the fault of the U.S. Sometimes people in other countries screw up all by themselves.

Yes, it’s absolutely true that past U.S. decisions played a huge role in the creation of North Korea. However, don’t forget that the USSR played an equally large role. It’s also possible that had Korea not separated, the despotic Kim family would be in charge of all of Korea now, not just North Korea, and today we’d be arguing about how dumb it was to let that happen without a fight. But since we can’t go back 70 years and re-do the past, this is water under the bridge.

It’s also the case that over the years, U.S. policy has fluctuated between chest-thumping and genuine conciliation. No rightie will admit this, but in the 1990s President Clinton made some real progress with easing tensions between North Korea and everybody else. Righties will tell you that the Agreed Framework negotiated by Jimmy Carter in 1994 was a disaster, but in fact it worked pretty well, if not perfectly. Basically, the North Koreans agreed to give up nuclear weapons in exchange for aid. And lo, the North Koreans gave up processing plutonium and submitted to IAEA inspections.

So what happened? George W. Bush happened. At the time Bush II became president in 2001, the IAEA was still inspecting North Korea and reported that the plutonium processors were still sealed. But for a lot of reasons, Bush and the neocons and Republicans generally wanted the Agreed Framework to fail, and they accused the North Koreans of secretly processing uranium. This was never proved, but it was the excuse the Bushies used to end the Agreed Framework, and North Korea had a nuclear arsenal in a few short years. For more on this, see:

It’s also the case that the U.S. invasion of Iraq told North Korea it had better not disarm. The lesson the North Koreans took from Iraq was that the only way to avoid being invaded by the U.S. is to be a nuclear power.

So, yeah, the U.S. has made a lot of blunders regarding North Korea. However, no one with any knowledge of international relations or the Kim regime thinks that if the U.S. were to fold up its tents and completely retreat from Asia, North Korea would stop being a threat. North Korea is a threat because its leaders are despotic and paranoid. Michael Hirsch wrote,

Even more than other dictatorships, it is sustained by pure xenophobia, a paranoia about threats from the outside world, even as Stalinism has become a yellowing chapter in the history books elsewhere. Pyongyang’s statement that its nuclear forces “represent the nation’s life” sounds ridiculous. Yet it is a true description of the regime’s life. …

…Out in the real world, the Soviet Union collapsed, its former satellites democratized, the Chinese opened up and reformed, and even the Arab autocracies began to reform or topple. Inside North Korea, it is still 1953, and I’m not just talking about Kim Jong-un’s hairstyle. The regime’s ideology, called juche, is often simplistically defined as Korean self-reliance. In fact it has proven to be a kind of ideological superglue–a compound of traditional Korean xenophobia and nationalism, Confucian respect for authority, and utopian Marxism-Leninism that is able to resist the solvents of economic urgency or democratic modernization.

This issue is about more than just the United States and North Korea. Remember that Korea was occupied and oppressed by a militaristic Japan for a long time before the U.S. got in any way involved. But since World War II our military has ostensibly been protecting the much-resented Japan. Whether we should still have military bases in Japan today is an excellent thing to debate, and I’m personally very open to rethinking the whole Pax Americana thing. But that’s not going to help us with the immediate crisis.

Here’s the immediate crisis, reported today:

In the escalating game of chicken between North Korea and the US, North Korea is showing no signs of flinching: Pyongyang has announced detailed new plans for firing four ballistic missiles that would fly over Japan and land between 19 and 25 miles off the shore of the US territory of Guam.

North Korea says the plan could be ready for sign-off by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un within a week. If he does decide to launch the missiles, it would raise questions of whether the US would attempt to intercept them using the THAAD missile defense system it has stationed at Guam.

If the US intercepted the missiles successfully, it would make the US look stronger, but if it failed, it would be a humiliating spectacle and a blow to the credibility of US power. So it’s not hard to see how firing missiles so close to Guam raises the stakes in the US-North Korean standoff in way the North’s previous ballistic missile tests haven’t.

Trump just had a press conference full of more tough talk. However, I don’t think the biggest thing we need to worry about is whether Trump will order North Korea to be nuked. NK borders Russia and China, and neither Russia nor China would support Trump in this. Certainly, neither China nor Russia would tolerate a U.S.-controlled state in North Korea occupied by U.S. troops. They don’t much like Kim Jong Un, but they tolerate him for the sake of stability.

Indeed, although people make noises about how China ought to do something about North Korea, it’s odd that nobody talks about Russia doing something about North Korea.

North Korea does not have many friends.

It has China and, to a lesser degree, Russia, both of which oppose unilateral American military strikes on sovereign countries. The two countries believe that any US move would destabilize the region and harm their own interests. North Korea borders China and Russia, and any crisis on the peninsula would add extra strain to those borders.

(Fun fact: Did you know that if you want to drive from Finland to North Korea, you could drive only through one country? Yeah: Russia is that large.)

On its own, Russia also helps North Korea with its economic woes. Russian Railways is in discussion with the government in Pyongyang to expand the rail connections between the two countries. Moscow also invests heavily in North Korea’s energy sector and gives Kim’s regime hard currency, which it needs to purchase foreign goods. There are also around 10,000 North Koreans in Russia as part of a guest worker program providing cheap labor to Russia.

Maybe we should be grateful for whatever dirt Vladimir has on Donald, because Vladimir sure as hell does not want a U.S. strike on North Korea.

And, frankly, I’m not seeing anywhere near the kind of relentless propaganda campaign that sold Americans on the idea that invading Iraq was a good idea, and I don’t think the Trumpettes are capable of carrying out such a campaign. They’ve made too many enemies in media and in other conservative circles to pull it off. A new CBS News poll shows only 29 percent of Americans think that striking North Korea now would be a good idea.

But here’s the thing — we’ve known for a long time that North Korea has nuclear weapons. This is not a new thing the Trumpettes just thought up. North Korea set off its first nuclear bomb as a test in October 2006. What’s new is that now North Korea has missile capability to deliver those weapons somewhere we don’t want nuked.  And no one who knows anything about North Korea thinks it can be persuaded to give up nuclear weapons now. We had one shot, and Bush blew it.

My sense of things is that if somebody could duct-tape Trump’s stupid mouth for awhile, and if the U.S. were to back off and let other nations take the lead in smoothing tensions with North Korea, maybe this will blow over. For now. But these crises will keep happening until the Kim regime collapses, and I don’t much think there’s anything the rest of the world can do to force that to happen without making things worse.

And while I don’t think that the U.S. would actually strike North Korea preemptively — Trump’s stupid mouth notwithstanding — there’s always the possibility that North Korea would. And that would be a genuinely terrible thing that could easily touch off a world war, especially with Trump in the White House.

So, lefties, please stop tweeting that there’s no real danger and that They are lying to us about North Korea just like they lied about Iraq. It’s annoying.

Whose Fault, Again?

I see that North Korea launched a rocket over the Pacific. Without bothering to look I’m guessing the Right Blogosphere is (ignorantly) blaming Bill Clinton/Jimmy Carter. Choe Sang-Hun and David Sanger write for the New York Times,

The motivation for the test appeared as much political as technological: After acquiring the fuel for six or more nuclear weapons during the Bush administration, and negotiating a halt of its main nuclear reactor in return for aid, North Korea’s recent statements appear to be a bid for attention from the Obama administration.

I agree about the “bid for attention” part. Of course, the big reason North Korea is a problem is that its sitting on a pile of plutonium, which it took out of storage and began processing after ham-handed treatment by the Bush II Administration pissed them off. I have a background post on North Korea and its nukes here. See also the North Korea archive.

North Korean Uranium: Never Mind

Do you remember back in October 2002, when the Bush Administration threw a major hissy fit over the “discovery” that North Korea was processing uranium? And do you remember how this “discovery” touched off a spasm of hysteria on the Right, along with a collective denunciation of Bill Clinton’s handling of North Korea, most especially a 1994 agreement negotiated by Jimmy Carter that stopped North Korea from processing plutonium? I rant about this from time to time.

In today’s New York Times, David Sanger and William Broad write that the U.S. might have been, um, wrong about the uranium.

For nearly five years, though, the Bush administration, based on intelligence estimates, has accused North Korea of also pursuing a secret, parallel path to a bomb, using enriched uranium. That accusation, first leveled in the fall of 2002, resulted in the rupture of an already tense relationship: The United States cut off oil supplies, and the North Koreans responded by throwing out international inspectors, building up their plutonium arsenal and, ultimately, producing that first plutonium bomb.

But now, American intelligence officials are publicly softening their position, admitting to doubts about how much progress the uranium enrichment program has actually made. The result has been new questions about the Bush administration’s decision to confront North Korea in 2002.

The 2002 hissy fit, and President Bush’s decision of November 2002 to stop oil shipments to North Korea (per the 1994 agreement), destroyed years of careful diplomatic efforts by many nations to minimize the threat posed by North Korea and its military capabilities. In December 2002, North Korea notified the International Atomic Energy Agency that it was re-starting its plutonium reactors, which had been idle since 1994. And last October, North Korea tested a plutonium bomb. This timeline from the Arms Control Association can walk you through some of the background. See also “Rolling Blunder” by Fred Kaplan (Washington Monthly, May 2004) and my own
Blame Bush for North Korea’s Nukes” archive.

So now the administration is acknowledging that the “intelligence” about uranium in 2002 was questionable and probably wrong. The Sanger & Broad article linked above suggests that this admission might “be linked to North Korea’s recent agreement to reopen its doors to international arms inspectors.” Was the concession part of the deal? Did Kim Jong Il stipulate that the Bushies admit their mistake about the uranium before he allowed weapons inspectors back in to North Korea? (Not everyone in the Bush Administration is conceding the mistake, so maybe I’m reading too much into this.)

In 2002, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly claimed that a North Korean official, Kang Sok Ju, had admitted there was an ongoing uranium weapons program. But Kang Sok Ju has denied this all along. The recent disclosure suggests that Kelly was fibbing.

And all this nonsense is tied in to Iraq. The hysteria ginned up by the Bushies in 2002 was part of their “regime change” saber rattling. The Bushies held up North Korea as an example of how Bill Clinton’s and Jimmy Carter’s wussy diplomacy had failed. A confident Condi Rice made the rounds on cable TV politics talk shows and declared that the Bush Administration knew just how to handle North Korea. Eventually, of course, the Bushies would depend on China to take the lead in negotiations and clean up the mess they had made.

In December 2002 the Bushies tried to tie North Korea to Iraq. At the request of the U.S., Spanish warships stopped the North Korean freighter So San. Its cargo of Scud missiles and unidentified chemicals were bound for Iraq, the Bushies claimed. This claim quickly fizzled, and the U.S. turned the cargo over to its rightful owner, Yemen.

Sanger and Broad continue,

The disclosure underscores broader questions about the ability of intelligence agencies to discern the precise status of foreign weapons programs. The original assessment about North Korea came during the same period that the administration was building its case about Iraq’s unconventional weapons programs, which turned out to be based on flawed intelligence. And the new North Korea assessment comes amid debate over intelligence about Iran’s weapons.

The public revelation of the intelligence agencies’ doubts, which have been brewing for some time, came almost by happenstance. In a little-noticed exchange on Tuesday at a hearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee, Joseph DeTrani, a longtime intelligence official, told Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island that “we still have confidence that the program is in existence — at the mid-confidence level.” Under the intelligence agencies’ own definitions, that level “means the information is interpreted in various ways, we have alternative views” or it is not fully corroborated.

“The administration appears to have made a very costly decision that has resulted in a fourfold increase in the nuclear weapons of North Korea,” Senator Reed said in an interview on Wednesday. “If that was based in part on mixing up North Korea’s ambitions with their accomplishments, it’s important.”

Get this — part of the 2002 claim was based on aluminum tubes!

Outside experts, including David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a private group in Washington that tracks nuclear arms, have suggested in recent days that something similar happened in North Korea’s case. “The evidence doesn’t support the extrapolation” to the judgment that North Korea was making crucial strides in its uranium program, Mr. Albright said in an interview. “The extrapolation went too far.”

He said administration analysts were right in thinking that Dr. Khan had sold North Korea about 20 centrifuges. Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president, confirmed that in a memoir published last year. But, Mr. Albright said, intelligence agencies overstated whether North Korea had used those few machines as models to construct row upon row of carbon copies.

His report zeroed in on thousands of aluminum tubes that the North Koreans bought and tried to buy in the early 2000s. The C.I.A. and the Bush administration, the report said, pointed to these tubes as the “smoking gun” for construction of a large-scale North Korean plant for the enriching of uranium. It was assessments about the purpose of aluminum tubes that were at the center of the flawed Iraq intelligence.

In the North Korea case, intelligence analysts saw the tubes as ideal for centrifuges. But Mr. Albright said the relatively weak aluminum tubes were suitable only for stationary outer casings — not central rotors, which have to be very strong to keep from flying apart while spinning at tremendous speeds.

Moreover, he added, the aluminum tubes were “very easy to get and not controlled” by global export authorities because of their potentially harmless nature. So that purchase, by itself, Mr. Albright added, was “not an indicator” of clandestine use for nuclear arms.

In the January/February 2005 issue of Foreign Affairs, Selig Harrison questioned the Bush Administration’s claims and wrote that it was doubtful North Korea had the capacity to produce weapons-grade uranium. And about the aluminum tubes —

The limited evidence that has, in fact, been provided to South Korea and Japan does confirm that North Korea has made efforts to buy equipment that could be used to make and operate centrifuges. This equipment includes electrical-frequency converters, high-purity cobalt powder for magnetic-top bearing assemblies, and high-strength aluminum tubes.

In most of these cases, however, it is not clear whether the purchases were ever made and, if so, how much North Korea bought. For example, in April 2003, French, German, and Egyptian authorities blocked a 22-ton shipment of high-strength aluminum tubes to North Korea, the first installment of an order for 200 tons. But no evidence has been presented to establish that any of the order was delivered. Similarly, a U.S. Department of Energy intelligence study reported a North Korean “attempt” to buy two electrical-frequency converters from a Japanese firm in 1999. But the report concluded that “with only two converters, [North Korea] was probably only establishing a pilot-scale uranium enrichment capability.”

Again in 2003, Japan blocked a renewed North Korean effort to buy frequency converters, this time three. But as a careful study by the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) observed, “hundreds” of such converters would be required for a production-scale enrichment facility equipped with enough centrifuges to make weapons-grade enriched uranium. The IISS study concluded that such “failures in Pyongyang’s procurement efforts suggest that North Korea may still lack key components,” especially a special grade of steel for rotors and caps and rotor bearings.

The Sanger & Brooks article says,

The strongest evidence for the original assessment was Pakistan’s sale to North Korea of upwards of 20 centrifuges, machines that spin fast to convert uranium gas into highly enriched uranium, a main fuel for atom bombs. Officials feared that the North Koreans would use those centrifuges as models to build a vast enrichment complex. But in interviews this week, experts inside and outside the government said that since then, little or no evidence of Korean procurements had emerged to back up those fears.

Not everyone in the Bush Administration is admitting the mistake.

The continuing doubts prompted the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Wednesday to declassify a portion of the most recent, one-page update circulated to top national security officials about the status of North Korea’s uranium program. The assessment, read by two senior intelligence officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity in a joint interview, said the intelligence community still had “high confidence that North Korea has pursued a uranium enrichment capability, which we assess is for a weapon.”

It added, they said, that all the government’s intelligence agencies “judge — most with moderate confidence — that this effort continues. The degree of progress towards producing enriched uranium remains unknown, however.”

In other words, while the agencies were certain of the initial purchases, confidence in the program’s overall existence appears to have dropped over the years — apparently from high to moderate.

Unfortunately, thanks to the Bushies, North Korea’s plutonium weapons capabilities went from low to high. Very high.

Also: See Josh Marshall, Hilzoy, Kevin Drum.

Update: Captain Ed still refuses to acknowledge that the 1994 Agreed Framework was aimed at stopping plutonium production. The distinction between uranium and plutonium is significant, but the Right still brushes it aside.


The North Korea link archive:

Selig Harrison, “Did North Korea Cheat?Foreign Affairs, January/February 2005

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

Fred Kaplan, “Rolling Blunder

The Mahablog North Korea posts (most recent first):

Bush Hides Behind China’s Skirts

Blame Everybody (But Bush)

More Bombs


Happy Talk

Bolton Lies; Righties Confused

And finally,

Blame Bush for North Korea’s Nukes

Bush Hides Behind China’s Skirts

Apparently China laid down the law to Kim Jong Il:

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il expressed regret about his country’s nuclear test to a Chinese delegation and said Pyongyang would return to international nuclear talks if Washington backs off a campaign to financially isolate the country, a South Korean newspaper reported Friday.

“If the U.S. makes a concession to some degree, we will also make a concession to some degree, whether it be bilateral talks or six-party talks,” Kim was quoted as telling a Chinese envoy, the mass- circulation Chosun Ilbo reported, citing a diplomatic source in China.

Kim told the Chinese delegation that “he is sorry about the nuclear test,” the newspaper reported.

The delegation led by State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan met Kim on Thursday and returned to Beijing later that day _ ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s arrival in the Chinese capital Friday.

We should send China a thank-you card for pulling our ass out of the fire, I suppose. Now if Condi doesn’t blow it too badly, maybe North Korea’s Dear Leader will settle down for a spell.

Naturally, rightie bloggers are crediting our Dear Leader for the apology. This poor schmuck actually titles his blog post ” Cowboy Bush Forced Apology Out Of Kim Jong-Il, WITHOUT Bilateral Talks?”

No, dear, China forced an apology out of Kim Jong Il with bilateral talks. Bilateral talks between China and North Korea.

Please understand that it’s a relief to me that Bush is being a weenie and allowing China to take the lead in handling Kim Jung Il. I trust China more than I trust Bush not to do anything really stupid. But ultimately it’s not in China’s interest to depose Kim Jung Il or allow Korean reunification. So if we want the interests of the United States to be addressed, the United States has to be the one to bring them to the table.

But once again we see that Bush doesn’t sound so tough when the enemy might hit back. As Dan Froomkin noted yesterday, the cowboy is, um, gone.

Kim Jong Il is the only leader of a nuclear weapons state who might conceivably consider it in his interests to sell a nuclear bomb to Osama bin Laden.

So forget for a moment how we got here. Put aside partisan politics. Wouldn’t this be a good moment for the American president to draw a very distinct line in the sand?

Wouldn’t it be appropriate for him to make clear to the North Koreans that if they do any such thing, they will suffer cataclysmic consequences? Wouldn’t this be a good time for some of that famous cowboy talk?

Not this time.

Last night, ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos aggressively questioned Bush on that issue. Here are some video excerpts.

Bush seemed appropriately stern, promising that North Korea would be “held to account” for any transfer of nuclear weapons, and would suffer “grave consequence[s].”

But then he seriously undermined his own rhetoric by likening those consequences to the sanctions recently imposed against North Korea — sanctions whose implementation, not to mention effectiveness, are very much in question.

Said Bush: “I want the leader to understand, the leader of North Korea to understand that he’ll be held to account. Just like he’s being held to account now for having run a test.” …

… [C]ould it be that Bush knows he’s not prepared to do what needs to be done?

Here’s part of the transcript Froomkin provided:

Stephanopoulos: “Last week, after their first test, you went into the White House and you said that any transfer of nuclear material by North Korea would be considered a grave threat to the security of the United States. I went back and checked, you’ve used that phrase once before in your presidency about Iraq. So, are you saying then if North Korea sold nukes to Iran or al Qaeda. . . . ”

Bush: “They’d be held to account.”

Stephanopoulos: “What does that mean?”

Bush: “Well, at the time they find out, George, one of the things that’s important for these world leaders is to hear is, you know, we use means necessary to hold them to account.”

Stephanopoulos: “So if you got intelligence that they were about to have that kind of a transfer. . . . ”

Bush: “Well, if they get – if we get intelligence that they’re about to transfer a nuclear weapon, we would stop the transfer and we would deal with the ships that were taking the – or the airplane that was dealing with or taking the material to somebody.”

Stephanopoulos: “And if it happened, you’d retaliate.”

Bush: “You know, I’d just say it’s a grave consequence.”

Stephanopoulos: “And that’s about as serious as it can get.”

Bush: “Well, my point is, is that I want the leader to understand, the leader of North Korea to understand that he’ll be held to account. Just like he’s being held to account now for having run a test.”

Jeebus, what a weenie.

Just as a reminder of what a real leader sounds like, here is JFK’s address to the American people regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis. Snips:

Our policy has been one of patience and restraint, as befits a peaceful and powerful nation which leads a worldwide alliance. We have been determined not to be diverted from our central concerns by mere irritants and fanatics. But now further action is required, and it is under way; and these actions may only be the beginning. We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth; but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced. …

… It shall be the policy of this Nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.

Bush has been downright wobbly in dealing with nasty foreign people lately. You might remember the G8 Summit dinner last July in which the President was caught by an open microphone —

“See the irony is that what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this (expletive) and it’s over,” Bush told Blair as he chewed on a buttered roll.

He told Blair he felt like telling U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who visited the gathered leaders, to get on the phone with Syrian President Bashar Assad to “make something happen.” He suggested Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice might visit the region soon.

So his “solution” is for somebody else to talk to Syria. He goes running to others to fix his problems. Laura Rozen reported at the time:

… [R]ather than hold direct talks between Washington and Damascus, the Bush administration was leaning on Saudi Arabia to negotiate with Syria, with the aim of trying to drive a wedge between Damascus and Tehran, both supporters of Hezbollah. Rice also met with Lebanese Parliament speaker Nabih Berri, widely understood to be an unofficial liaison with Hezbollah. In both cases, the Bush team preferred proxies to direct conversation.

But Saudi Arabia and China have their own agendas. Why are we relying on Saudi Arabia and China to handle American foreign policy matters?

This is just weird.

See also: North Korea links.

Update: Is Bush having his Fisher King moment?

News That Isn’t News

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.

Robert Farley writes

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):

Blame Everybody (But Bush)

More Bombs


Happy Talk

Bolton Lies; Righties Confused

And finally,

Blame Bush for North Korea’s Nukes

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About North Korea’s Nukes

I’ve written so much about North Korea I get tired just thinking about it, so I’m grateful when someone else takes up the slack. Here are some new links, plus links to oldie-but-goodie stuff, all in one handy-dandy post to bookmark for future reference..

Some links I haven’t posted before:

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

Linked before, but not to be missed:

Fred Kaplan, “Rolling Blunder

The Mahablog North Korea posts (most recent first):

Blame Everybody (But Bush)

More Bombs


Happy Talk

Bolton Lies; Righties Confused

And finally,

Blame Bush for North Korea’s Nukes

Update: New links:

Eric Alterman, “Blaming Success, Upholing Failure

Rachel Weise, “North Korea Nuclear Timeline

Blame Everybody (But Bush)

Someone’s leaking again. Bill Gertz writes for The Washington Times (emphasis added):

Recent U.S. intelligence analyses of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs were flawed and the lack of clarity on the issue hampered U.S. diplomatic efforts to avert the underground blast detected Sunday, according to Bush administration officials.

Some recent secret reports stated that Pyongyang did not have nuclear arms and until recently was bluffing about plans for a test, according to officials who have read the classified assessments.

The analyses in question included a National Intelligence Estimate a consensus report of all U.S. spy agencies produced several months ago and at least two other classified reports on North Korea produced by senior officials within the office of the Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte.

And these classified reports were leaked by … ?

The officials said there were as many as 10 failures related to intelligence reporting on North Korean missile tests and the suspected nuclear test that harmed administration efforts to deal with the issue.

Like they didn’t know North Korea was processing plutonium? It’s been in the news, dudes. You can find out about it by googling. I realize that having plutonium is not the same thing as having a bomb, but if somebody’s got enriched plutonium, I understand that making the bomb itself is the relatively easy part. On top of that, it has been widely believed for years that North Korea built one or two nuclear bombs back in the 1970s.

I can’t believe even Bush Administration diplomats are so stupid they wouldn’t have been working under the assumption North Korea could have nuclear weapons, or might get them at any time, no matter what some NIE said.

And if they were genuinely surprised by the recent alleged nuclear test, is there something they would have done differently had they known? Like, maybe, take North Korea talks more seriously?

Even more astonishing, White House mouthpiece John Hinderaker admits his masters leaked the reports to get back at the CIA. Get this:

We’ve reported many times on the four-year-long war the CIA has carried on against the Bush administration. Today the administration returned the favor by telling Bill Gertz of the Washington Times that the intelligence community failed to foresee the recent North Korean nuclear test.

Of course, this isn’t really about North Korea. It’s about making excuses for George W. Bush’s sorry ass and setting up a scapegoat to take the blame. Oh, and selectively leaking intelligence for political purposes. Same old, same old.

More Bombs

Following up the last post, which is long enough already — here’s something I didn’t know. Selig S. Harrison writes for Newswseek:

On Sept. 19, 2005, North Korea signed a widely heralded denuclearization agreement with the United States, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea. Pyongyang pledged to “abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.” In return, Washington agreed that the United States and North Korea would “respect each other’s sovereignty, exist peacefully together and take steps to normalize their relations.”

Four days later, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sweeping financial sanctions against North Korea designed to cut off the country’s access to the international banking system, branding it a “criminal state” guilty of counterfeiting, money laundering and trafficking in weapons of mass destruction.

The Bush administration says that this sequence of events was a coincidence.

Frankly, as incompetent as the Bushies are, you can’t rule that out. But Michael Hirsch says,

Bush administration officials will not concede this publicly, but hardliners in Washington have long been pushing for a policy of regime change against Pyongyang. President Bush himself subtly underlined that threat when, at a Monday morning news conference, he said “the oppressed and impoverished people of North Korea deserve” a “brighter future.” Hence, only days after China orchestrated a framework agreement in September 2005 that promised the North it would be rewarded if it abandoned its nuclear program, including with a civilian nuclear reactor, the Bush administration imposed sanctions on the Macao-based Banco Delta Asia that effectively froze the accounts of Kim and other North Korean elites. The action is believed to have so riled Kim that he refused to return to the talks.

Let’s go back to Harrison for a moment:

Whatever the truth, I found on a recent trip to Pyongyang that North Korean leaders view the financial sanctions as the cutting edge of a calculated effort by dominant elements in the administration to undercut the Sept. 19 accord, squeeze the Kim Jong Il regime and eventually force its collapse. My conversations made clear that North Korea’s missile tests in July and its threat last week to conduct a nuclear test explosion at an unspecified date “in the future” were directly provoked by the U.S. sanctions. In North Korean eyes, pressure must be met with pressure to maintain national honor and, hopefully, to jump-start new bilateral negotiations with Washington that could ease the financial squeeze. When I warned against a nuclear test, saying that it would only strengthen opponents of negotiations in Washington, several top officials replied that “soft” tactics had not worked and they had nothing to lose.

If you know the history of the Bushies and North Korea, you understand that last sentence is a joke.

It was no secret to journalists covering the September 2005 negotiations, or to the North Koreans, that the agreement was bitterly controversial within the administration and represented a victory for State Department advocates of a conciliatory approach to North Korea over proponents of “regime change” in Pyongyang. The chief U.S. negotiator, Christopher Hill, faced strong opposition from key members of his own delegation at every step of the way.

You get the picture, I’m sure.

Back to Michael Hirsch:

Indeed by late last week, when U.S. officials grew increasingly certain that North Korea would detonate a nuclear device, there was a sense of resignation in Washington—almost a feeling of relief that, at long last, strategic clarity had arrived. “At least there would be a unified front against North Korea” if Pyongyang tested, one senior official told NEWSWEEK on Friday. “And it would light a fire under some parties.” He was referring to China. For the last year Washington had effectively subcontracted nuclear negotiations to Beijing, which was given the lead in the “six-party” talks that pitted Pyongyang against the United States, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea. China was key because, as Pyongyang’s longtime ally, it held the strongest hand against North Korea, controlling more than 70 percent of its energy supplies.

China has not been particularly tough with North Korea in the past. However,

The hope in Washington is now that Chinese President Hu Jintao will decide he’s finally had enough of his out-of-control former junior partner. With Sunday’s test Kim has now twice rebuffed Hu’s pleas for restraint. The last time was July, when Kim ignored the Chinese leader’s request not to test missiles. This time Kim insulted Hu the day after an important Sino-Japanese summit with Tokyo’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe—a nationalist who will no doubt be probing China’s strategic determination—and on the eve of a big communist party plenary session at which Hu’s reputation will be on the line.

For Washington, almost everything is riding on this hope.

In other words, President George W. “lone cowboy” Bush is hoping China will save his ass.

U.S. officials are talking tough about beefing up their Proliferation Security Initiative, which mainly involves interdicting suspect shipments on the high seas.

Remember the So San affair?

But last week they quickly walked back any speculation that Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill’s stark rhetoric from last week—“North Korea can have a future or it can have these weapons. It can’t have both,” Hill said—meant a threat of war. The Pentagon is extremely leery of any military options, with the heavily-populated South Korean capital of Seoul lying vulnerable to missile attack just across the North Korean border. What Hill’s comment meant instead, several U.S. officials said, was that the U.N. Security Council would move to impose sanctions, and key countries such as China, Japan and South Korea would join in, ensuring that the Pyongyang regime remains utterly friendless.

At the Guardian, Simon Tisdall explains there may not be much anyone can do about Korea.

A storm of predictable condemnation rained down on the heads of North Korea’s isolated regime in the wake of its first atomic weapons test today…. But the strong words did not disguise the weakness of the international community’s position now that North Korea has finally crossed the line and indisputably become what it has long claimed to be – a nuclear weapons state. In short, the big powers can huff and puff, but there is not a lot new in practical terms that they can do. This development was expected. They simply couldn’t stop it. …

… Sanctions are the obvious tool to which the US, Japan and other concerned spectators such as Britain will now resort. But such measures have been tried before and have failed to modify Pyongyang’s behaviour. In fact, they may have made it worse.

It is only a little more than a year since North Korea agreed in principle to abandon its nuclear ambitions in exchange for US technology, aid and security guarantees. But US financial sanctions imposed on North Korean banks and businesses operating via Macau last winter appear to have caused serious pain in Pyongyang. Intentionally or not, they scuppered any chance of resurrecting the six-party process once it hit renewed difficulties. …

… The prospect that, like it or not, the international community will ultimately have to deal with North Korea on its own terms has significant implications elsewhere. Iran, whose suspect nuclear activities will soon be brought before the UN security council, may be encouraged in its defiance if no effective punitive action is taken against North Korea. Conversely, those in Washington who argue against direct talks with Iran, and against offering the sort of incentives proffered North Korea last year, may be persuaded by today’s events that dialogue is the only viable future option. Arguably, it was the Bush administration’s refusal to persist with former president Bill Clinton’s “framework agreement” with North Korea that has led to the present impasse.

Mr. Tisdall is an optimist. “Those in Washington” who helped bring the present impasse about are more likely to redouble their efforts to make matters worse.

Tim Grieve sums it up
: The hard-liners in the White House were convinced from the beginning that a confrontational approach would bring North Korea to heel. Instead, the situation has deteriorated, and continues to deteriorate as the Bushies undermine their own diplomacy and throw away one opportunity after another to lower the temperature on a hot crisis.


Well, folks, North Korea claims it tested a nuclear weapon last night. Chalk up another achievement for the Bush foreign policy. David Sanger writes in the New York Times:

North Korea said Sunday night that it had set off its first nuclear test, becoming the eighth country in history, and arguably the most unstable and most dangerous, to proclaim that it has joined the club of nuclear weapons states.

Yesterday I dug up a four-year-old news story in which Condi Rice told Wolf Blitzer that the Bush Administration knew just how to handle Ki Jong Il; it was Saddam Hussein people should be worried about.

Rice said Iraq’s history shows the Baghdad regime is harder to contain than North Korea.

“These are not comparable situations,” she said. “They’re dangerous, both of them dangerous. But we believe that we have different methods that will work in North Korea that clearly have not and will not work in Iraq.”

Meanwhile —

The North Korean disclosure comes as the Bush administration faces a possible military confrontation with Iraq over its efforts to develop nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Florida, told CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday that he considered North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and missile capability a bigger threat to the United States than Iraq.

Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, urged the White House to rethink its priorities.

[Update: Please note that Senator Graham, who is now retired, said this in 2002, while the Bushies were busy whipping up hysteria over Saddam Hussein.]

So far, has the Bush foreign policy team gotten anything right? If they have, I don’t remember what it is.

I’ve already spent considerable blog time and bandwidth explaining why the current, um, challenge posed by North Korea is George W. Bush’s doing, and not Bill Clinton’s and/or Jimmy Carter’s, as righties would have you believe. See this post for the short explanation, and “Rolling Blunder” by Fred Kaplan and the Blame Bush for North Korea’s Nukes page from The Mahablog archives if you want more detail. I’m not going into all that again this morning, except to say that any troll who is dumb enough to repeat the “it’s Clinton’s fault” propaganda here without reading my long and carefully documented proof that it isn’t will be mercilessly ridiculed. Mercilessly, I say.

Here’s something I don’t believe I’ve said before, although others have — at Huffington Post, David Wallechinsky wrote,

The North Koreans and the Iranians looked around the world and saw that countries that had nuclear weapons, like Pakistan and China, were not in danger of being invaded by George Bush, while Saddam Hussein, who didn’t have a nuclear weapons program, was in prison and being tried for war crimes. If you were the leaders of North Korea or Iran, what would you do to ensure that your country would not be invaded by the United States? Easy call: you build nuclear weapons, which is exactly what both of them are doing. Nice going, Mister President.

From the Arms Control Association, in a review of At the Borderline of Armageddon: How American Presidents Managed the Atom Bomb by James E. Goodby.

In an excellent chapter on George W. Bush, Goodby characterizes the current president’s mindset as believing that “the time had finally come to scrap the old order.” To date, he has been quite successful in this objective. Goodby notes that other presidents helped build up the international nonproliferation and arms control regimes that they saw as supporting U.S. national security. Yet, Bush clearly believes that the United States, as the only remaining superpower, should be prepared to shape the international order unilaterally and has rejected treaties that would in any way restrict U.S. freedom of action. To this end, he withdrew from the ABM Treaty, despite strong Russian objections, and replaced the unratified START II with the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT). Also known as the Moscow Treaty, SORT lacks verification provisions, and its limits on future U.S. strategic forces are effectively toothless.

Although Bush has given high priority to preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons to perceived U.S. enemies, his actions have either been ineffectual or counterproductive. At the beginning of his term, he overruled the decision of Secretary of State Colin Powell to continue very promising negotiations that the Clinton administration had begun with North Korea, thus spurring Pyongyang to advance its nuclear weapons program. Disregarding the precedent followed by previous presidents, he initiated a preventive war against Iraq on the false grounds that it was illegally developing nuclear weapons. Most recently, he has agreed to negotiate a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with India, despite long-standing U.S. and Nuclear Suppliers Group policy to deny such aid to Pakistan, India, and Israel because they have not signed the NPT and are known to have nuclear weapons.

Today, confronted with the difficult problem of Iran’s potential nuclear weapons ambitions, Bush has made clear that all options are on the table if Iran refuses to terminate its uranium-enrichment program. Because UN agreement on effective sanctions is unlikely, rumors abound that Bush is seriously considering military actions in another preventive war. Given the international hostility that his policies have created, it is clear that any such action would have to be carried out unilaterally, with disastrous results to long-range U.S. security.

I take it from the review that Goodby approved of policies by Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan (as well as Kennedy and Johnson), but he had a little disagreement with Carter and was downright ambivalent about Clinton. So you can’t say the guy dislikes Bush just because he’s partisan.

(Off topic, but I got a kick out of this bit about LBJ:

President Lyndon B. Johnson, despite his growing preoccupation with Vietnam, rejected out of hand the use of nuclear weapons there. His view of nuclear war was brought home to me by his reaction at the final meeting in 1965 on the military budget to an item listed as DUCCS. In response to his question as to what this was, he was told it stood for Deep Underground Command and Control Site, a facility that would be located several thousand feet underground, between the White House and the Pentagon, designed to survive a ground burst of a 20-megaton bomb and sustain the president and key advisers for several months until it would be safe to exit through tunnels emerging many miles outside Washington. After a brief puzzled expression, Johnson let loose with a string of Johnsonian expletives making clear he thought this was the stupidest idea he had ever heard and that he had no intention of hiding in an expensive hole while the rest of Washington and probably the United States were burned to a crisp. That was the last I ever heard of DUCCS.

What do you want to bet some version of DUCCS has been resurrected by the Bushies?)

Anthony Faiola, Glenn Kessler and Dafna Linzer write for the Washington Post

The announcement [by North Korea] brought a hailstorm of swift international denunciations … South Korean officials said they detected a significant man-made explosion in the barren northeast of the peninsula, and were substantiating the Pyongyang government’s claim. The test would make the Stalinist state the world’s eighth proven nuclear power, as well as its most volatile.

Chinese authorities immediately condemned the test. North Korea “has ignored the widespread opposition of the international community and conducted a nuclear test brazenly on October 9,” China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its Web site. “The Chinese government is firmly opposed to this.”

Yet the reaction from the U.S. was more subdued.

The White House did not immediately confirm the test, but spokesman Tony Snow said in a statement: “U.S. and South Korean intelligence detected a seismic event Sunday at a suspected nuclear test site in North Korea. A North Korean nuclear test would constitute a provocative act, in defiance of the will of the international community and of our calls to refrain from actions that would aggravate tensions in northeast Asia. We expect the Security Council to take immediate actions to respond to this unprovoked act.”

Billmon predicted:

Tony Snow will step out tomorrow to tell us it’s really not such a big deal — the North Koreans and Kim Jong-il being ever so much nicer and more rational than those genocidal Iranians and their power-crazed dictator, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

This is followed by an update — a bit of transcript of Tony Snow tap dancing furiously to distract reporters from White House ineptitude. Pathetic and hilarious at once.

Via Memeorandum, a quickie survey of Right Blogosphere reactions indicates the Official VRWC Spin: It probably didn’t happen; if North Korea keeps testing, it will run out of weapons soon and we won’t have to worry about them; it’s Clinton’s and Carter’s fault.

I like this one:

I claim some credit for calling the timing just before the election [although I don’t claim to have predicted, one way or another, whether they’d go through with this]. I think this was an enormous miscalculation on North Korea’s part. The Republicans will be gleeful that no one will be talking about Mark Foley next week. The national conversation will be back to national security, and the Republicans will have the chance to do what they do best — act tough on such issues.

The operative word is, of course, act. But I’d be very surprised if North Korea’s test registers more than a blip in the national consciousness, and I’d be extremely surprised if it drives the Foley sex scandal off cable news. In the Nooz Biz, the operative word is, of course, sex.

President Bush will probably have no choice but to ignore the counsel of State Department doves who had nearly unopposed control of Bush’s North Korea policy until last August.

Yeah; until last August, he was doing a heck of a job.

Now, he’ll most likely use many of the options he didn’t use after North Korea’s July missile tests. I would expect some very severe sanctions and a move for a U.N. arms embargo.

He’s going to run to the UN for help? My, how the child has fallen.

I’m going to predict that in the next few days the Bush Administration will be taking a back seat to China and other world powers in dealing with North Korea. The Bushies might try some saber-rattling to impress the home folks (and distract reporters from Dennis Hastert), but the world knows Bush is running low on sabers to rattle. In truth, the only options Bush has, other than run to the UN, are embargos and sanctions, which is what Condi was talking about back in 2002. And embargos and sanctions just don’t have the sex appeal that war has.

For a more intelligent analysis of what Bush might do, see emptywheel.

For a different view, see Bill Scher:

As LiberalOasis has noted several times in the last four years, the Bush Administration never was interested in a negotiated deal to prevent North Korea from getting nukes.

The neocons want regime change in North Korea, in an attempt to constrict the rise of China. And they see any deal as helping the North Korea dictator remain in power.

After initially suspending talks with North Korea, and unraveling the diplomatic progress made by the Clinton Administration, the Bushies then agreed to “six-party” talks.

But the move was not intended to make new diplomatic progress. It was intended to make the Bushies look like they tried diplomatic avenues, when in fact, they made no serious proposals.

We can now see the results of this so-called “hard-line” strategy. A nuclear North Korea. A greater risk of more nuclear proliferation. A more unstable world.

Also, Glenn Kessler’s analysis in the Washington Post is pretty good, although it doesn’t clarify the uranium versus plutonium issue.

Update update: Josh Marshall has a good analysis, too, but the permalink isn’t working. You’ll have to scroll down to “(October 09, 2006 — 02:00 AM EST // link)” to read it.

More updates in the next post.