The New York Times reports today that the decision by the Bush administration in 2002 to scuttle a deal by the Clinton administration that halted plutonium production by North Korea may have been based upon faulty intelligence. The Bush administration accused the North Koreans of cheating on the deal by trying to develop nuclear weaponry with enriched uranium and cut off their oil supplies. As a result, the North Koreans threw out international inspectors and developed a plutonium bomb. As reported in the Times, there is now doubt about the status of the uranium enrichment program in 2002 that the Bush administration used to justify its decision.
This is a major screw-up that has made the world a more dangerous place to live.
Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo has this assessment:
A 'senior administration official' tells the Times, "The question now is whether we would be in the position of having to get the North Koreans to give up a sizable arsenal if this had been handled differently."
That, as they say, is something of an understatement.
This gets a tad tedious. But bear with me because it's important.
Speaking very broadly, there are two big ways to make nuclear weapons -- with uranium and plutonium. Each involves different technical challenges and processes. And each has a different bang you get versus the complexity of the task of putting the thing together.
The big issue with North Korea has always been their plutonium production. Back in 1994, they were on the brink of being able to produce bombs with the plutonium they were making. The US came close to war with the North Koreans over it. But the two countries settled on something called the 'Agreed Framework' in which the North Koreans' plutonium production operation was shuttered and placed under international inspection in exchange for fuel oil shipments and assistance building 'light water' nuclear reactors.
We don't need to get into the details of the agreement at the moment. The relevant point is that from 1994 to 2002 the North Korean nuclear weapons program was frozen in place. The strong consensus judgment was that they had not yet made any nuclear weapons. And during that period they could not access the plutonium they had already produced.
It was on the basis of this alleged uranium enrichment program -- which may well not even have existed -- that the US pulled out of that agreement. This allowed the North Koreans to get back into the plutonium business with a gusto. And they have since produced -- by most estimates -- at least a hand full of nuclear weapons, one of which, albeit a rather feeble one, they detonated last October.
So now let's review that quote from the senior administration official: "The question now is whether we would be in the position of having to get the North Koreans to give up a sizable arsenal if this had been handled differently."
Frankly, it's not much of a question.
Because of a weapons program that may not even have existed (and no one ever thought was far advanced) the White House the White House got the North Koreans to restart their plutonium program and then sat by while they produced a half dozen or a dozen real nuclear weapons -- not the Doug Feith/John Bolton kind, but the real thing.
It's a screw-up that staggers the mind. And you don't even need to know this new information to know that. Even if the claims were and are true, it was always clear that the uranium program was far less advanced than the plutonium one, which would be ready to produce weapons soon after it was reopened. Now we learn the whole thing may have been a phantom. Like I said, it staggers the mind how badly this was bungled. In this decade there's been no stronger force for nuclear weapons proliferation than the dynamic duo of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush.