N. Korea, 6, and Bush, 0

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

New York Times

April 26, 2005

Here's a foreign affairs quiz:

(1) How many nuclear weapons did North Korea produce in Bill Clinton's eight years of office?

(2) How many nuclear weapons has it produced so far in President Bush's four years in office?

The answer to the first question, by all accounts, is zero. The answer to the second is fuzzier, but about six.

The total will probably rise in coming months, for North Korea has shut down its Yongbyon reactor and says that it plans to extract the fuel rods from it. That will give it enough plutonium for two or three more weapons.

The single greatest failure of the Bush administration's foreign policy concerns North Korea. Mr. Bush's policies toward North Korea have backfired and led the North to churn out nuclear weapons, and they have also antagonized our allies and diminished America's stature in Asia.

The upshot is that there's a significantly greater risk of another Korean War, a greater likelihood that other Asian countries, like Japan, will eventually go nuclear as well, and a greater risk that terrorists will acquire plutonium or uranium.

In fairness, all this is more Kim Jong Il's fault than Mr. Bush's. Right now some administration officials are glaring at this page and muttering expletives about smarty-pants journalists who don't appreciate how wretched all the options are.

But if the Bush administration had just adopted the policies that Colin Powell initially pushed for - and that Mr. Bush largely came to accept several years later - then this mess could probably have been averted.

You don't have to take it from me. Charles Pritchard, the ambassador and special envoy who was the point man for North Korea in the first Bush administration, says of this administration's decision-makers: "They blew it." Another expert still involved in North Korea policy puts it this way: "Their A.B.C. approach - 'Anything but Clinton' - led to these problems."

A bit of background: North Korea made one or two nuclear weapons around 1989, during the first Bush administration, but froze its plutonium program under the 1994 "Agreed Framework" with the Clinton administration. North Korea adhered to the freeze on plutonium production, but about 1999, it secretly started on a second nuclear route involving uranium.

That was much less worrisome than the plutonium program (it still seems to be years from producing a single uranium weapon), and it probably could have been resolved through negotiation, as past crises had been.

Instead, Mr. Bush refused to negotiate bilaterally, so now we have the worst of both worlds: that uranium program is still in place, and the plutonium program is churning out weapons material as well.

Now the administration talks about asking the Security Council for some kind of limited quarantine for North Korea. That won't fly, because China and South Korea won't enforce it.

It's more likely that North Korea will continue to churn out plutonium as well as uranium, and perhaps conduct an underground nuclear test. And administration hawks will again consider a military strike on Yongbyon, even though that would risk another Korean War.

North Korea is the most odious country in the world today. It has been caught counterfeiting U.S. dollars and smuggling drugs, and prisoners have been led along with wire threaded through their collarbones so they can't run away. While some two million North Koreans were starving to death in the late 1990's, Mr. Kim spent $2.6 million on Swiss watches. He's the kind of man who, when he didn't like a haircut once, executed the barber.

But Mr. Bush seems frozen in the headlights, unable to take any action at all toward North Korea. American policy now is to hope that Mr. Kim has a heart attack.

Selig Harrison, an American scholar just back from Pyongyang, says North Korean officials told him that in direct negotiations with the U.S., they would be willing to discuss a return to their plutonium freeze. Everything would depend on the details, including verification, but why are we refusing so adamantly even to explore this possibility?

The irony is that Mr. Bush's policies toward North Korea have steadily become more reasonable over time. Perhaps by the time he leaves office, he'll finally be willing to negotiate seriously with the North Koreans.

But by then North Korea will have well over a dozen nuclear weapons, the risks of a terrorist nuclear explosion at Grand Central Terminal will be increased, and our influence in Asia will be in tatters.