(CNSNews.com) – Amid the latest surge in tensions on the Korean peninsula, some critics are blaming President George W. Bush for the threat posed by Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons – despite assertions that the regime was cheating on its nuclear freeze commitments well before the end of the Clinton administration.
Responding to a tweet saying that President Obama’s “strategic patience” had not been helpful, Obama’s former deputy national security adviser for strategic communications Ben Rhodes tweeted Wednesday, “While it's certainly true and fair we didn’t solve this problem, let's remember North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006.”
“Why President Bush’s North Korea Failure Is Important to Remember,” runs the headline on an article by TalkingPointsMemo editor Josh Marshall that makes the same point.
“In almost every discussion of the North Korea situation, I try to remind everyone that North Korea made its nuclear break out under George W. Bush – not under Bill Clinton and not under Barack Obama,” he writes.
It is true that Pyongyang first tested a nuclear device in 2006 (The second, third, fourth and fifth tests occurred on Obama’s watch – in 2009, 2013 and twice in 2016).
It is also true that an earlier U.S.-North Korea nuclear freeze deal, the Clinton administration’s 1994 Agreed Framework, fell apart during Bush’s first term.
(Under the Agreed Framework – signed in Geneva after a trip to Pyongyang by former President Carter paved the way – the regime had pledged to mothball its Yongbyon plutonium-based nuclear reactor and to admit U.N. inspectors to monitor the freeze, in return for the provision of alternative energy supplies, including U.S. heavy fuel shipments.)
But the cheating – in the form of clandestine uranium enrichment – by Pyongyang that triggered the Agreed Framework’s collapse in late 2002 is believed to have begun well before Bush took office.
Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell told lawmakers in March 2003 that the violations began “before the ink was dry” on the Clinton deal – a deal which he said “got us into this problem in the first place.”
“Now, the Agreed Framework succeeded in capping Yongbyon for eight years so that no more weapons – or plutonium, weapons-grade plutonium – came out of it,” he told a House Appropriations subcommittee.
“But it just capped it; it didn’t remove it. And meanwhile, as soon as the documents were signed and agreed to, and before the ink was dry, the North Koreans started developing nuclear weapons through another technology: enriched uranium,” Powell said.
“And so there were fatal flaws in that agreement,” he added, while giving credit to the Clinton administration for having capped the plutonium program.
After receiving intelligence – in early July 2002, according to Powell – about North Korean cheating going back years, the State Department at an Oct. 4, 2002 meeting confronted the North Koreans with evidence.
The U.S. officials said North Korea admitted to having the covert uranium program; Pyongyang denied making the admission.
“We called them on it,” Powell said. “And they said, ‘You got us, we’re doing it.’”
The Agreed Framework quickly unraveled as North Korea expelled inspectors and disabled cameras, and resumed activities at the Yongbyon reactor and a reprocessing plant. It subsequently withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
In a Washington Post op-ed earlier this year, former CNN senior Asia correspondent Mike Chinoy offered a different take, arguing that the intelligence about North Korea’s cheating “was used by the conservatives [in the Bush administration] as an excuse for Washington to pull out of the 1994 framework deal.”
‘Four or five years ago’
In blaming Bush for the crisis, critics like Chinoy often point to his 2002 State of the Union characterization of North Korea as part of an “axis of evil.”
Powell tackled that head-on, on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in Dec. 2002.
“Do you believe by labeling them the ‘axis of evil’ may have motivated them to accelerate the development of nuclear weapons?” he was asked.
“They were motivated some four or five years ago, if not earlier, to make the political decision to move down the road of finding a second way of developing a nuclear weapon,” Powell replied.
“And so the ‘axis of evil’ speech which is only some 11 months old has nothing to do with the program that began four years ago.”
Powell told Fox News Sunday in Oct. 2002, “We have discovered that they have started to move in another direction, to enrich uranium, a program that they’ve been working on for the last four or five years, back to the previous administration.”
“North Korea’s secret uranium enrichment program appears to date from 1995 when North Korea and Pakistan reportedly agreed to trade North Korean Nodong missile technology for Pakistani uranium enrichment technology,” a 2003 Congressional Research Service report stated.
Other estimates of when the North Koreans began cheating by enriching uranium do not go back as far.
In Feb. 2003, then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said in congressional testimony that “anomalies” in North Korean “procurement patterns” began back in 1994 and had been noticed by the Clinton administration, “so much so that in 1999, our concerns were raised with the Nuclear Suppliers Group in Vienna.”
Armitage also said that “as we have looked back – intelligence hindsight, just like our hindsight, is clear – we find that the North Koreans were, at least from February of 2000, intent on going to a full-up production program of HEU [high-enriched uranium].”
In a Nov. 9, 2002 unclassified assessment for Congress, the CIA also timed the start of the North Korean cheating to the pre-George. W. Bush era – although not nearly as far back as Powell had.
“The United States has been suspicious that North Korea has been working on uranium enrichment for several years. However, we did not obtain clear evidence indicating the North had begun constructing a centrifuge facility until recently,” it said.
“We assess that North Korea embarked on the effort to develop a centrifuge-based uranium enrichment program about two years ago.”
Bush took office in January 2001.