(CNSNews.com) – Russian President Vladimir Putin in a surprise admission Wednesday said that in the early 2000s, then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il told him personally that his regime had an atomic bomb.
Putin, speaking at an energy efficiency forum in Moscow, raised the issue while arguing that decades of sanctions against Pyongyang had proven counterproductive and ineffective in curbing its nuclear and missile ambitions.
In doing so, he indirectly accused the United States of provoking North Korea – by targeting its banks – into withdrawing from previous agreements and accelerating its nuclear program, to the point where it now possesses a hydrogen bomb.
“In 2001, when I was on my way to pay a visit to Japan, I made a stop in North Korea, where I had a meeting with the father of the country’s current leader [Kim Jong-un],” Putin said, according to a Tass news agency translation.
“It was back then when he told me that they had a nuclear bomb,” he continued.
“When was that? In 2001! It is 2017 already, the country has been living under permanent sanctions, and instead of a nuclear bomb they have now a hydrogen bomb,” Putin said.
He said “someone” later decided to block North Korean bank accounts, because it was felt Pyongyang was not doing enough to meet its obligations in previous agreements to curb its nuclear and missile programs.
“What was the reason for provoking them? They immediately withdrew from all agreements and began developing their nuclear program,” Putin said. “Now we have what we have.”
In recalling his meeting with Kim, Putin got the date wrong. He in fact paid the visit to Pyongyang – the first by a Russian leader – in July 2000, en route to a G8 summit in Japan.
The date is significant, because whereas President Bush was in office in 2001, Putin’s July 2000 visit came during the last year of the Clinton administration.
Furthermore, one month to the day before Kim’s admission, on June 19, 2000, President Clinton had relaxed a range of sanctions on Pyongyang, including removing prohibitions on personal and commercial financial transactions.
One day after ostensibly hearing the atomic bomb claim by the North Korean dictator, Putin sat down in Okinawa with Clinton and other G8 leaders.
Presumably he did not relay the information to Clinton, whose administration at the time was focused on getting North Korea to maintain a moratorium on ballistic missile launches which it had agreed to in 1999.
The nuclear threat, meanwhile, was thought to have been defanged by Clinton’s 1994 Agreed Framework deal, under which Kim agreed to mothball a plutonium-based nuclear reactor and to admit U.N. inspectors to monitor the freeze, in return for alternative energy supplies, including U.S. heavy fuel shipments.
Just months after Kim’s reported atomic bomb admission to Putin, Clinton sent then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on a historic visit to Pyongyang. Accompanying her, Albright’s counsellor Wendy Sherman later described Kim as “smart, capable and supremely confident” and “not a lunatic.”
The Bush administration later learned North Korea had been cheating on the Agreed Framework by carrying out covert uranium-enrichment activity. The illicit activity had been taking place for a number of years, in other words, before Bush took office.
After the Bush State Department in October 2002 confronted the North Koreans with evidence of the violations, the deal began to falter. The U.S. suspended the fuel shipments, Kim expelled the inspectors, resumed activities at the reactor and reprocessing plant, and withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Four years later he carried out the regime’s first nuclear test.
While Putin suggested the U.S. imposition of sanctions on North Korea had been a provocation that prompted the regime to withdraw from agreements and advance its nuclear program, it was self-evidently the discovery in 2002 that it was cheating on the Agreed Framework that led to the accord’s unraveling.
Commenting on the current crisis, Putin said Wednesday that while a military strike aimed at disarming North Korea was possible, it was not guaranteed of success, since no-one knows with 100 percent certainty where its nuclear facilities may be hidden.
He also urged all sides to tone down the rhetoric, and to “find ways for face-to-face dialogue between the United States and North Korea, as well as between North Korea and countries in the region.”