Features » June 8, 2004
Politics, profit, and Bush’s North Korea policy
The Bush administration’s neoconservatives purport to seek security through military might. But last year, the administration surrendered its dominance over North Korea when Pyongyang separated enough plutonium to deter any U.S.-threatened regime change.
In addition to destabilizing East Asia, Pyongyang’s advances in nuclear warhead and long-range missile technology spur Star Wars missile defense spending here at home. And that raises a question: Will President Bush’s questionable management of national security policy allow him to keep his 2000 campaign pledge to deploy missile defense?
Relations between the United States and the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea declined precipitously in 2002 when the Bush administration claimed that Pyongyang had admitted to a secret nuclear weapons program and Washington cut off bilateral talks. Predictably, North Korea expelled International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors and rushed to reprocess its spent nuclear fuel rods into plutonium for nuclear weapons.
Bush had earlier announced that he “loathed” North Korean head of state Kim Jong Il, stationed the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk in the Sea of Japan, readied a bomber squadron in the South Pacific and threatened regime change. The administration trained intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads on Kim’s isolated republic shortly after taking office.
Ambassador Charles Pritchard was President Bush’s Special Envoy for Negotiations with North Korea. He resigned last August, after the State Department barred him from attending crucial meetings with North Korean representatives. Speaking of Bush’s North Korea policy, Pritchard, wrote in a January 21 New York Times Op-Ed: “At best it can be described only as amateurish. At worst, it is a failed attempt to lure American allies down a path that is not designed to resolve the crisis diplomatically. The Bush administration needs to reassert itself … responsibly [and] bring sanity and adult supervision to the administration’s infighting.”
Contrary to its bellicose stance, the Bush White House overlooked intelligence that North Korea was building nuclear weapons for use against the United States and its allies. In effect, the Bush administration reversed nuclear proliferation policy successes that had been years in the making.
Hard line or bottom line?
As an advisor to former Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary, Robert Alvarez helped diffuse North Korea’s threat to reprocess in 1994, a situation far more volatile than what the Bush administration inherited upon taking office.
“The United States was preparing to go to war over this in 1994,” says Alvarez. “I sat in on conversations between the National Security Council, State, Intelligence, Pentagon, Energy. We called it the ‘million/trillion’ problem. War with North Korea would probably cost a million lives and a trillion dollars worth of damage in a very short period of time.”
In 1994, the Clinton administration signed the “Agreed Framework” treaty with North Korea to avert a nuclear crisis. As a result, North Korea shut down its reactor at Yongbyon, north of the capital, and allowed close supervision of 8,000 spent fuel rods at the site. Washington provided Pyongyang with oil to substitute for nuclear energy and began constructing a pair of new reactors less adaptable to weapons production than the Yongbyon plant.
The treaty foresaw steps toward full disarmament in exchange for Washington’s pledge of “no hostile intent.” Long-range missile development was halted as well. The fuel rods would be surrendered upon the completion of confidence-building measures.
Newt Gingrich’s Contract-for-America Congress of 1994 forcefully contested Clinton concessions to North Korea. Notably, its platform called for missile defense. The difference between Republican and Democrat approaches to North Korea continue to the present.
“In the Clinton administration, which has come under a great deal of criticism for its soft manner, they established early on, that the reprocessing of plutonium … would lead to U.S. military action. There are no red lines established by this [Bush] administration,” said Pritchard.
What the Bush administration did establish was rhetoric. In his 2002 State of the Union address, Bush called Iraq, Iran and North Korea an “Axis of Evil.”
The administration finally sent an envoy to North Korea in late 2002, but not to finalize the long-range missile development ban that was close to being signed under Clinton. The Bush administration claimed that North Korea admitted during an October 4, 2002, meeting to having a clandestine highly enriched uranium (HEU) program—another material used for nuclear warheads. If confirmed, such a program would have violated Clinton’s Agreed Framework treaty. (While Pyongyang may have such a program, the Bush administration estimates that, at earliest, uranium weapons will take another year to be produced.) North Korea denied making such an admission, transcripts of the meeting make no mention of it, and no intelligence has proved such allegations. Regardless, Washington ordered its bombers into forward positions.
The Bush administration unveiled its North Korea policy in the form of an ultimatum in November 2002. “U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs James Kelly was sent to Pyongyang,” says Alvarez, with “only an all or nothing offer: Cease and desist on the [alleged] enrichment program or we terminate the [fuel assistance].” The North Koreans perceived this as an aggressive act and decided to separate plutonium for the first time in eight years. “It was a virtual fait accompli,” says Alvarez.
Sig Heckler, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, accompanied Pritchard on a private visit to North Korea this past January. Heckler reported that Vice Minister Kim Gye Gwan told him that hostile U.S. actions in 2002 led North Korea to conclude the Agreed Framework was no longer in its interest. Pyongyang predictably terminated IAEA inspections and withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. U.S. oil deliveries ceased. Yongbyon was soon back on line.
“They stated that they reprocessed all 8,000 spent fuel rods starting in mid-January 2003 and finishing by the end of June 2003,” adds Heckler. North Korean delegates told him that once they produced enough plutonium for a substantial deterrent, they shut down the facility. Now Pyongyang says it’s no longer needed and has offered to have it dismantled.
Kenneth Quinones, who held the North Korea desk at the State Department before Pritchard, gives this blunt assessment of Bush’s handling of North Korea: “In 1993, we could have had a sit down with North Korea and simply told them, ‘You want nukes. Done. We’ll blow you away.’ Instead, we said, ‘If you get rid of them we’ll help you rebuild your economy.’ Now things have changed. Now the line from Washington is nothing but, ‘Surrender, capitulate or we’ll blow you away.’ Washington says, ‘Just give up.’ But it just doesn’t happen, I don’t know any nation in history that has ever voluntarily disarmed.”
Proliferation and profit
What possible rationale could Washington have to bluff a stubborn enemy into arming itself with nuclear missiles without a contingency plan in case it didn’t flinch?
“[Bush] points to North Korea as the reason why the United States has to have national missile defense,” says Alvarez. “You have got to have an enemy in order to justify large expenditures on weapons.” Alvarez, the highest-ranking U.S. official in North Korea during the 1994 crisis, adds that by using a North Korean nuclear threat this way, the Bush administration “degrades nuclear danger.”
In other words, the arming with several new nuclear weapons of a volatile enemy state raises questions as to whether Bush’s East Asian strategy was subject to a good faith foreign policy or the same kind of manipulation shown to have predicated Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“Maybe they want North Korea to be armed,” says retired Lieutenant Colonel Karen Kwiatkowski, who recently resigned from the Pentagon’s office of the Near East South Asia directorate when she saw that intelligence assessments of strategic conditions in the Middle East were being manipulated by Pentagon insiders. “The neocons are very Machiavellian. If it justifies missile defense, they would not be shy about it. Just look at the Project for a New American Century’s report, ‘Rebuilding America’s Defenses’. It says we need another Pearl Harbor-type incident in order to get the support necessary for growth in defense spending. That doesn’t mean they wanted 9/11,” but it does intimate that, “North Korea serves a useful function as long as it’s a threat.”
“One can take the view that there was a need for new enemies when the Cold War ended,” suggests Kwiatkowski. “Just like Osama, who serves as a huge icon, North Korea’s missile threat equals a million images. Can we eliminate the possibility that Bush went to war on the profit motive? No we can’t. Is it possible to divorce the profit motive from the job? Yes it is. But that’s not the way it’s done.”
Former Pentagon weapons analyst Theodore Postol agrees. “The profit motive is a big factor,” he says. “So is the ideology that dominates the upper reaches of the administration. This small group has a lot of sway.”
Postol, now a professor at MIT, left the Defense Department more than a decade ago when he found that his critical assessment of missile defense programs were not welcomed by generals who, he says, were dependent on optimistic reports of the program for career advancement. Neocons “wouldn’t … favor building a (missile) defense that does not work, unless they wanted to make money.”
Still, he adds, while “there may be one or two on the Defense Policy Board who would like to see North Korea armed in order to sell missile defense, I don’t think they’re the driving force behind the administration. They are a very important force.” Among the better known members of the board are Henry Kissinger, ex-CIA director James Woolsey, the Board’s past chairman Richard Perle, and Perle’s American Enterprise Institute colleague, Newt Gingrich.
A former colleague of Pritchard’s, who remains in government and wishes to remain anonymous, also expresses frustration. In an interview last year outside his office at the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, the body through which the U.S. has communicated with North Korea since 1995, he said: “The United States government will not allow any serious U.S.-D.P.R.K. bilateral contact. Prior to the current administration, there were all sorts of discussions. There were over 1,000 hours of talks with North Korea. They had been productive too. We could have arrived at new plateaus in our talks, such as limiting missile development and sales, had they continued without a break.” The first 20 months of the Bush administration were just such a break, explains the official.
The talks with North Korea broke down in 2002 in a manner that foreshadowed Washington’s ending weapons inspections in Iraq in 2003. In the same way that Pyongyang may well have developed into a nuclear power, Bush policy has seen Iraq evolve from a dormant dictatorship into an active terror capital. Whether such similar outcomes at opposite ends of the globe can be explained by a neoconservative strategy, the profit motive or fear of threatening “images” that could help Bush remain in office is unclear.
Yet even before North Korea’s reprocessing campaign was purported by Pyongyang to have been completed in June of 2003, the administration was insisting that North Korean nuclear weapons threatened American lives—with the implication being that only a missile defense could protect them. At a February 12, 2003, Senate hearing, then-CIA Director George Tenet was asked whether long-range nuclear missiles from North Korea could reach the West Coast. “I think the declassified answer, is yes, they can do that,” Tenet replied.
Quinones very diplomatically calls contradictions between the Bush administration’s statements and its actions “duality.” Tenet’s statements, however, went beyond that. “When Tenet was asked whether a North Korean ballistic missile can hit us, he looked at the camera and registered a flat-out lie,” says Quinones. “The Defense Intelligence Agency and the CIA say the [long-range] Taepodong missile failed. They don’t work. The midrange missiles, the Nodong, could hit Japan. Therefore they put together a very distorted perception. Could it hit an island at the end of the Aleutian chain? Maybe. Could they reach that destination with a warhead on it? No. American people are being fed all spin.”
Asked about Tenet’s exchange the following day, then-White House spokesman Ari Fleischer responded: “Technology and time means regimes like North Korea will increasingly have the ability to strike at the United States.” That is why President Bush supports building an anti-missile shield, Fleischer indicated.
Were Tenet’s comments uttered on behalf of the major missile defense contractors? Could Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed and Northrup-Grumman imagine that the purported growth in North Korea’s arsenal could once and for all end debate on the need for a missile defense system? Was building a rationale for the missile shield one of the reasons that Bush gave North Korean nuclear scientists so much time to reprocess fuel rods into plutonium?
Whatever the answers, supplanting diplomacy with a missile shield is not embraced by mainstream Pentagon officials. In a March letter to Bush, 49 senior retired military officers, including former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral William J. Crowe and former chief of the U.S. Central Command General Joseph P. Hoar, advised him to “postpone operational deployment of the expensive and untested” system. “As you have said, Mr. President, our highest priority is to prevent terrorists from acquiring and employing weapons of mass destruction.” Instead, take “the militarily responsible course of action” and spend the billions earmarked for missile defense “to secure the multitude of facilities containing nuclear weapons and materials and to protect our ports and borders against terrorists who may attempt to smuggle weapons of mass destruction into the United States.”
A lot of money is at stake with the land, sea, air and space missile defense system that the Bush administration is proposing. The Defense Department is asking for $53 billion over the next five years for the continued development of such a system, the first phase of which involves 10 interceptor missiles that will be deployed in silos in Alaska and California by September 30.
Conflicts of interest between military contractors and members of the Bush administration abound. Vice President Dick Cheney is the most recognizable contractor-cum-decision maker. Others include Paul Wolfowitz, Vice Presidential Chief of Staff Lewis Libby, Pentagon Comptroller Dov Zakheim and NASA Director Sean O’Keefe, all of whom had paid consulting contracts or were paid advisory board members for Northrup-Grumman. Indeed nine of the 30 members of the Defense Policy Board were connected to companies that accumulated more than $76 billion in defense contracts in 2001 and 2002.
In February, Richard Perle, 17-year veteran of the board, was asked by In These Times whether North Korea was brandished as a threat in order to justify missile defense expenditures. “The implication is that we didn’t have an enemy so we invented one,” he said. “But it’s not true. We didn’t define our enemies. They did the defining for us. Saddam Hussein. Osama bin Laden. Kim Jong Il.”
Of course, past Reagan and Bush administrations recruited, armed and financed Hussein and bin Laden.
The only one not “defined” by Washington was Kim. North Korea was believed to have had one or two untested warheads—loaded, coincidentally, with plutonium said to have been separated during the first Bush administration. But it had no missile system that could deliver a warhead to the continental United States. More telling is that Kim had begun sending high-level North Korean government officials to World Bank meetings in Washington, a strong indication that he was abandoning his father, North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung’s governing philosophy of international isolation and economic self-reliance.
Perle says that Bush hadn’t the option to use military force to stop North Korean plutonium separation because of rumored uranium enrichment, a South Korean government not disposed to the use of force and because Washington was already involved in Iraq. However, the only factor that truly restricted Bush’s nonproliferation policy in North Korea was one that Clinton did not have to address: Bush’s war in Iraq, a wholly avoidable circumstance.
While the cost of military action in the Korean Peninsula would be unfathomable, and best avoided completely, Bush’s Iraq policy illustrates that this administration is willing to bear collateral damage in pursuit of its priorities.
Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton had a different rationale for abandoning concessions to Pyongyang. Bolton describes the decision as a refusal to succumb to “blackmail.” “To give in to [Kim’s] extortionist demands would only encourage him, and perhaps more ominously, other would-be tyrants around the world,” Bolton said.
Postol describes such neoconservative rigidity as an ideology of, “ ‘No one tells us what to do,’ and ‘All compromise is extortion.’ ” “These arguments, of course, are false,” he says. “You always compromise.”
Pritchard disputes that the Bush administration’s actions in regard to North Korea constitute a “hard-line strategy” against nuclear proliferation. “I don’t view going into a room and holding your breath until you turn blue in hopes that somebody else is going to negotiate for you, a hard-line strategy,” said Pritchard. Adds Quinones, Washington was really saying to North Korea: “‘Take all the time you want.’”
The Bush administration’s claims of seeking to make the United States more dominant or secure simply appear disingenuous in regard to North Korea. After meeting with members of Pritchard’s delegation, IAEA’s Mohamed El Baradei announced: “North Korea may have nuclear weapons already developed. Not only the capability to make nuclear weapons, but nuclear weapons.” “Such results should have been expected” wrote El Baradei, “as long as we fail to … redress [poor countries’] security deficit,” while some countries “refine their capacities and postulate plans for [these weapons’] use.”
On the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima in 1995 the Washington Post reported, “There is a theory that Truman’s advisers insisted on using the bombs to justify the $2 billion spent to develop them.”
Today, justifying billions of dollars may be the greatest conflict of interest, if doing so means making enemies increasingly able to strike.
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Matthew Reiss reports from Washington and New York.
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