Over the past year, John Kerry and his surrogates have repeatedly attempted to suggest that the Clinton administration made significant progress in dealing with the North Korean nuclear weapons threat, and that all of this is being undone by the Bush administration. During the first presidential debate, for example, Mr. Kerry suggested that, thanks to the policies of the Clinton administration, “We had inspectors and television cameras in the nuclear reactor in North Korea. [Kerry adviser and former Defense Secretary] Bill Perry negotiated that under President Clinton. And we knew where the fuel rods were. And we knew the limits on their nuclear power.” Because of President Bush’s policy toward North Korea, Mr. Kerry says, the regime now has between four and seven nuclear weapons. Kerry advisers like Richard Holbrooke have also said that Mr. Bush is jeopardizing all of the hard-won progress the Clinton administration made with North Korea.
It would be difficult to imagine a more egregious distortion of the historical record. The reality is that Mr. Clinton’s failure to handle the problem during his eight years in office set the stage for the dangerous situation inherited by Mr. Bush. In 1992, North and South Korea agreed to “denuclearize” the peninsula. When it became clear that Pyongyang was cheating, the Clinton administration deferred to former President Jimmy Carter, hoping that he could persuade Pyongyang to behave. During this period, North Korea threatened to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.”
The result of Mr. Carter’s work was the 1994 U.S.-North Korean “Agreed Framework,” a good deal for North Korea, which received free oil and nuclear reactors in exchange for a freeze on its nuclear sites.
The United States, with financial support from South Korea and Japan, kept its part of the bargain. But North Korea cheated, and the Clinton administration pretended not to notice. In 1997, American officials learned that North Korea had built an underground nuclear facility at Kumchang-ri. On July 8, 1998, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (another current Kerry adviser) told Congress that the Agreed Framework had “frozen North Korea’s dangerous nuclear-weapons program.” But when the Kumchang-ri intelligence became public the following month, Ms. Albright said she hadn’t known that information until later in July. It turned out that Mrs. Albright had been told many months earlier. In August 1998 North Korea test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile that hit Alaska. North Korea hinted of a “preemptive strike” against the United States.
As we now know, the Clinton administration’s policy of capitulation did nothing to stop the regime’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Instead, it established a perverse policy of appeasement, one where North Korea could extract financial tribute from the United States without having to jettison its nuclear program.
It is absurd for Mr. Kerry and his surrogates to pretend that Mr. Bush should follow the Clinton example in dealing with North Korea.