Sen. John McCain has skidded his Straight Talk Express off the highway into a gopher’s ditch of slime. The moment came Tuesday, when he responded to charges by Sen. Hillary Clinton, his potential rival in the 2008 presidential election, that George W. Bush bears some responsibility for North Korea’s newborn status as a nuclear-armed power.
Here, according to the Washington Post, is what McCain said in a campaign speech near Detroit:
I would remind Senator Clinton and other Democrats critical of Bush administration policies that the framework agreement her husband’s administration negotiated [with North Korea] was a failure. Every single time the Clinton administration warned the Koreans not to do something—not to kick out the IAEA inspectors, not to remove the fuel rods from their reactor—they did it. And they were rewarded every single time by the Clinton administration with further talks.
McCain’s version of history goes beyond “revisionism” to outright falsification. It is the exact opposite of what really happened. Let’s take a look at the plain facts.
In the spring of 1994, barely a year into Bill Clinton’s presidency, the North Koreans announced that they were about to remove the fuel rods from their nuclear reactor (as a first step to reprocessing them into plutonium), cancel their commitment to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (which they had signed in 1985), and expel the international weapons inspectors (who had been guarding the rods under the treaty’s authority).
Did Clinton “reward” them for doing these things, as McCain claims? Far from it. Not only did he push the U.N. Security Council to consider sanctions, he also ordered the Joint Chiefs of Staff to draw up plans to send 50,000 additional troops to South Korea—bolstering the 37,000 already there—along with more than 400 combat jets, 50 ships, and several battalions of Apache helicopters, Bradley fighting vehicles, multiple-launch rockets, and Patriot air-defense missiles. He also sent in an advance team of 250 soldiers to set up logistical headquarters for the influx of troops and gear.
He sent an explicit signal that removing the fuel rods would cross a “red line.” Several of his former aides insist that if North Korea had crossed that line, he would have launched an airstrike on the Yongbyon reactor, even knowing that it might lead to war.
At the same time, Clinton set up a diplomatic backchannel, sending former President Jimmy Carter to Pyongyang for direct talks with Kim Il-Sung, then North Korea’s dictator and the father of its present “dear leader,” Kim Jong-il. (The official Washington line held that Carter made the trip on his own, but a recent memoir by three former U.S. officials, Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis, acknowledges that Clinton asked him to go.)
This combination of sticks and carrots led Kim Il-Sung to call off his threats—the fuel rods weren’t removed, the inspectors weren’t kicked out—and, a few months later, to the signing of the Agreed Framework.
McCain called the accord a “failure.” This appraisal isn’t quite as dead wrong as his claim that Clinton did nothing but toss Kim flowers. But it’s highly misleading, to say the least.
The Agreed Framework of Oct. 21, 1994—a document that many cite but almost nobody seems to read—actually bottled up North Korea’s nuclear program for eight years. Under its terms, Pyongyang kept the fuel rods locked up and kept the international inspectors on-site. In exchange, a multinational consortium, led by the United States and South Korea, was to provide North Korea with two light-water reactors to generate electricity. Gradually, Washington and Pyongyang were to establish diplomatic and trade relations. In an annex to the accord, drafted by the consortium and signed by all parties in June 1995, it was agreed that the nuclear fuel from the light-water reactors would be exported to a third country for recycling. (This, by the way, is what President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin recently proposed that Iran do with its nuclear fuel.)
The accord fell apart, but not for the reasons that McCain and others have suggested. First, the U.S.-led consortium never provided the light-water reactors. (So much for the wild claims I’ve heard lately that North Korea got the bomb through Clinton-supplied technology.) Congress never authorized the money; the South Koreans, who were led by a harder-line government than the one in power now, scuttled the deal after a North Korean spy submarine washed up on their shores.
Second, when President George W. Bush entered the White House in January 2001, he made it clear, right off, that the Agreed Framework was dead and that he had no interest in further talks with the North Korean regime; his view was that you don’t negotiate with evil, you defeat it or wait for it to crumble.
Third, a few months into Bush’s term, evidence mounted that the North Koreans had been … not quite violating the Agreed Framework but certainly maneuvering around it. Confronted by U.S. intelligence data in October 2002, Pyongyang officials admitted that they’d been enriching uranium—an alternative route (though much slower than plutonium) to getting a bomb.
It should be noted that the bomb that the North Koreans set off on Sunday was apparently a plutonium bomb, not a uranium bomb. In other words, it was a bomb made entirely in Bush’s time, not at all in Clinton’s.
After the disclosure about the uranium, Bush hardened his stance against negotiations. The North Koreans tried to replay the events of 1994. They threatened to unlock the fuel rods, expel the inspectors, and quit the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Meanwhile, through back channels (former ambassadors Bill Richardson and Donald Gregg), they signaled a willingness to back off if the Agreed Framework was resuscitated. Bush wasn’t interested in playing the game. Everything fell apart.
At the end of 2002, when the North Koreans really did unlock the rods and kick out the inspectors—when they crossed what Clinton had called the “red line”—Bush didn’t take military action, he didn’t call for sanctions, nor did he try diplomacy. It’s Bush, not Clinton, who did nothing.
And while we’re on the subject of Bushes doing nothing, George H.W. Bush, the president’s father, had just moved into the White House in 1989 when the CIA discovered that the North Koreans were building a reprocessing facility near their nuclear reactor at Yongbyon—the facility that could manufacture plutonium from the fuel rods. Five years later, Bill Clinton stopped them from moving the rods into this facility. Eight years after that, George W. Bush let them go ahead.
The rest is history. John McCain would do well to read up on it sometime.