Current US-China Relations

Henry C.K. Liu 

Part VII: Clinton Policy on North Korea - A Belated Path to Peace
Part VI: Korea under Park Chung Hee
Part V: Kim Il Sung and China
Part IV: More Geopolitical Dynamics of the Korea Proliferation Crisis

Part III: Geopolitical Dynamics of the Korea Proliferation Crisis
Part II: US Unilateralism
Part I: A Lame Duck-Greenhorn Dance

Part VIII: GW Bush Policy on North Korea – a Path to War

VIII (a): A New Regime in Washington

This article appeared in AToL on January 5, 2007

A few days before Bush took office on January 20, 2001, Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger, Clinton administration’s out-going national security advisor, and his team crossed the Potomac River to the northern Virginia home of retired 4-star General and former Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, the popular military leader who framed the Powell Doctrine of going to war only with overwhelming force in the successful 1990-91 first Iraq War under the first Bush administration. Ten years after the first Iraq War, President-elect George W. Bush now named Powell secretary of state in his incoming administration, a choice widely viewed and praised as a signal that the new president would be following a moderate, multilateral foreign policy backed by a prudent military strategy.  The Clinton team briefed Powell for two hours on the status of the North Korean talks in the midst of which Condoleezza Rice, the new national security adviser, arrived from meetings with the president-elect in Texas. Several participants later reported that Powell at first listened to the Clinton approach of rapprochement to North Korea with open enthusiasm and thought it a good bipartisan basis for further progress, an attitude firmly disabused by Rice as soon as she joined the briefing, on the authority of the president-elect.

On March 7, barely a month into Bush’s new term, South Korean president Kim Dae Jung made a working visit to Washington in hope of keeping the Clinton policy on North Korea on track under the new Bush administration. On the eve of the Kim visit, Powell told reporters that the Bush administration would build on the Clinton momentum on North Korea. The White House instantly rebuked Powell, with Bush making it clear that his administration would do no such thing. Powell had to retreat and publicly admit that he had leaned “too forward in my skis.” This would be the first of many other instances when Powell would find himself out of step with the rest of the Bush team as the lone multilateral moderate in a solid neo-con gang of unilateral hardliners.

The Nuclear Crisis in North Korea

The new crisis over the October 9, 2006 North Korean nuclear test began unfolding six years back, as soon as Bush entered the White House and flared into public view a year later right after Bush’s first State of the Union speech on January 29, 2002, four months after the 9:11 terrorist attacks and three months after the commencement of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan to oust the Taliban as the opening salvo of the expectedly long war on terrorism through selcetive regime changes around the world. In his speech Bush labeled North Korea, Iran and Iraq an “axis of evil” and declared that “by seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger.” It was an unmistakable invocation of the image of a righteous struggle against the evil Axis Powers of World War II, with an implication that the “War on Terrorism” would involve moves to change these evil regimes by force and to punish all those who support them. By declaring the doctrine of “those who are not with us and against us”, Bush served notice that the war on terrorism could well evolve into World War III and possibly lasting longer.

US State Department Annual Report on Terrorism released on May 21, 2002 again listed North Korea along with six other nations as “terrorism sponsoring nations”, claiming that “North Korea did not take substantial steps to cooperate in efforts to combat terrorism.” Three days later, on May 24, 2002 a Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) Foreign Ministry spokesman denounced the US State Department Annual Report on Terrorism: “It is a trite method employed by the US for the pursuance of its ‘big stick policy’ to label those countries disobedient to it as ‘terrorists’ … The report is deliberately choreographed by the US [itself] censured and ridiculed by the public for being a kingpin of international terrorism.”

Again on May 27 the official North Korean Central News Agency dismissed the US charge as “a foolish ruse to tarnish the international prestige of the DPRK, isolate and stifle it at any cost.” Pointing to the efforts Pyongyang has made to combat terrorism, the KCNA said: “Proceeding from the principled stand on combating terrorism after the September 11, 2001 incident alone, the DPRK signed and acceded to the ‘International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism’ and the ‘International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages’ and it is taking active part in the efforts of the international community to eradicate international terrorism as evidenced by its close cooperation with the United Nations Security Council regarding legal and administrative steps it deemed necessary for combating terrorism … … Lurking behind the US fallacy is a foolish attempt to justify Bush’s remarks about the ‘axis of evil’ censured worldwide … … Rumsfeld, US Defense Secretary, recently told [a] sheer lie that ‘North Korea is offering weapons of mass destruction to terrorists’ … … It is nonsensical that the US is imprudently talking about ‘cooperation with the DPRK in anti-terrorism’ after ditching the DPRK-US Joint Statement (released on October 6, 2000 [jointly with the Clinton Administration] in New York) that clarifies the political willingness to remove the DPRK from a US list of ‘sponsors of terrorism’.”

On October 4, 2002, Bush state department officials flew to Pyongyang, and confronted DPRK foreign ministry officials with evidence that North Korea had acquired centrifuges that could be used for processing highly-enriched uranium necessary for building nuclear weapons. North Korean officials surprised their US counterparts by conceding, citing US failure to honor its commitment made by Clinton as justification. The unsettling revelation came just as the Bush administration was gearing up for an invasion of Iraq.

This hypothetical North Korean threat was technically not an imminent danger. Processing uranium is a tedious task and experts were in general agreement that North Korea was years away from producing bomb material from these centrifuges.  Beside, there was no evidence that the centrifuges were actually being used for that purpose and no tell-tale emissions had been detected.

But the North Koreans had a shorter route to nuclear weapon material: a stockpile of radioactive fuel rods, taken a decade earlier from its nuclear power plant in Yongbyon, which the Clinton administration had managed to keep under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) control with the 1994 Agreed Framework. These rods could be processed into plutonium for use in nuclear weapons in a matter of months. Common sense would dictate that the Bush administration, notwithstanding moralistic hubris, needed to do everything possible to keep the fuel rods stay locked up; but common sense was not part of the neo-con mentality which insisted on “moral clarity” by refusing to “reward bad behavior” with bilateral negotiation with the evil regime of North Korea, notwithstanding that the “bad behavior” had been triggered by US default on its earlier agreement.

In response, North Korea expelled IAEA inspectors on December 31, 2002, broke the locks on the fuel rods, trucked them to a nearby reprocessing facility and converted them into bomb-grade plutonium while the Bush team was preoccupied with preparing to invade Iraq scheduled to begin on March 20, 2003. Bush had made the case to Congress, the US public and skeptical allies for war against Iraq on the premise that Saddam Hussein might soon have nuclear weapons which was exposed as untrue while North Korea was unnecessarily goaded by Bush “moral clarity” from a non-proliferation mode into actually developing nuclear bombs. The Bush “moral clarity” approach to “evil” North Korea did produced a regime change: it reduced the nonproliferation regime to the equivalent of a futile campaign to promote virginity to a pregnant woman.

“moral clarity” intransigence eventually led to the North Korea nuclear test on October 9, 2006.  Thereafter, North Korea must then be dealt with as a de facto nuclear weapon state, evil or not. There is no historical precedent of any nuclear weapon state ever giving up its nuclear status once it has acquired it. History has yet to find a way to put the nuclear genie back into the bottle once it has been released.

While China maintains a steadfast policy of not interfering on the domestic affairs of other nations, it commands considerable diplomatic leverage in influencing the policies and behavior of North Korea, its closest ally, to maintain a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, which is desired by both North and South Koreas and all neighboring nations. But the limits of such leverage have been greatly curtailed by counterproductive and provocative US unilateral policy on North Korea.

The Bush unilateral and provocative approach was typical of naive neo-con geopolitical fantasy, moralistic self-righteousness, dismissal of legitimate mindsets of decision-makers of other cultures, disrespect for national sovereignty, blind hubris based on anti-equalitarian US triumphalism, contempt for multilateral diplomacy, and above all, a knee-jerk partisan penchant to reverse Clinton policies.

More than a year after the issuance of the DPRK-US Joint Communiqué of 2000 by US president Bill Clinton and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, no progress on its implementation was undertaken by the new Bush administration. Washington and Pyongyang drifted further apart over the unresolved substantive and sequencing of the Clinton deal and no follow-up talks were planned. Bush administration officials refused to engage in direct bilateral talks with their North Korean counterparts.  The impasse eventually led to the North Korean ballistic missile tests on July 4, 2006.

While Secretary Powell’s effectiveness in diplomacy suffered from Bush’s unilateralism, South Korean president Kim Dae Jung was publicly humiliated by Bush’s insulting treatment of him during his March 7, 2001 state visit to Washington. Kim was a new kind of South Korean leader, a democratic activist who had spent years in prison for his political beliefs, a defiant characteristic that made US conservatives uneasy, despite its claim on enhancing democracy around the world, since US appreciation for political dissidents had been exclusively limited to those inside communist countries.  Kim had run on a democracy platform for president several times unsuccessfully until he ran and narrowly won on a promise to follow a “sunshine policy” of opening up relations with the North after the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. Kim, a politician who took democracy seriously, was definitely not the US neo-cons’ favorite puppet to head a client state.

Again on February 20, 2002, while on a return state visit to South Korea, Bush repeated his moralistic denunciation of North Korea in a news conference in Seoul. Selig Harrison, journalist and author of Korean Endgame: A Strategy for Reunification and U.S. Disengagement, commented the same day on PBS News Hour: “What he [Bush] should be doing is trying to open up dialogue with North Korea. And although he says he is, if you look at what he is saying and what other people in the administration are saying, they’re really not talking about a negotiation; they’re talking about a court proceeding, a trial in which North Korea is the defendant at the bar and, you know, the United States is the judge, the jury and the executioner all wrapped up into one and the verdict is already in: They're bad guys.”

In Iraq, this was exactly what happened to Saddam Hussein, a former head of a sovereign state who had been captured as a prisoner of war by US invasion forces, then tried for crimes against humanity not by an international tribunal according to Geneva Convention rules, but by a biased tribunal, a special court operating outside the normal judiciary of the US-installed puppet regime that enjoys no unified national recognition. Saddam was handed over by US occupation authorities from his cell in a US military detention facility on the morning of his execution to a sectarian Iraqi authority and promptly hanged within hours despite wide condemnation worldwide, even by US allies, of the procedure as a travesty of justice. The first chief judge who had been dismissed for trying to conduct a fair trial, declared the execution by the Iraqi government illegal. The video of the savage hanging, widely posted on the internet, confirmed the execution as a vile act of sectarian vengeance, carried out under official US sanction.

Caught up in the intense emotions of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the US Congress on October 2, 2002 passed the Joint Resolution to Authorize the Use of United States Armed Forces Against Iraq to grant President Bush authority to “use any means necessary” against Iraq (which theoretically included the nuclear option), based on Bush Administration classified testimony to Congress and open statements to the public that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, which turned out to be incorrect if not outright disinformation. Only 23 Democrat senators, led by Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia and joined by Senator Ted Kennedy, out of 44 in the 100-member Senate, voted against the resolution. Hillary Clinton, junior Democrat senator from New York, was not among them.

Three years later, Senator Clinton, now a soon-to-declare presidential candidate, wrote in a November 29, 2005 “Letter to Constituents on Iraq Policy” posted on her website: “In October 2002, I voted for the resolution to authorize the Administration to use force in Iraq. I voted for it on the basis of the evidence presented by the Administration, assurances they gave that they would first seek to resolve the issue of weapons of mass destruction peacefully through United Nations sponsored inspections, and the argument that the resolution was needed because Saddam Hussein never did anything to comply with his obligations that he was not forced to do. Their assurances turned out to be empty ones, as the Administration refused repeated requests from the U.N. inspectors to finish their work. And the "evidence" of weapons of mass destruction and links to al Qaeda turned out to be false … … The Bush Administration short-circuited the U.N. inspectors - the last line of defense against the possibility that our intelligence was false. The Administration also abandoned securing a larger international coalition, alienating many of those who had joined us in Afghanistan … … I take responsibility for my vote, and I, along with a majority of Americans, expect the President and his Administration to take responsibility for the false assurances, faulty evidence and mismanagement of the war.” Yet, twenty-three of her colleagues in the Senate and millions around the country and still more around the world were not taken in by such “false assurances.”  She could have asked her own husband, the former president who was in an authoritative position to know the facts. 

Next: The North Korean Perspective