- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 15, 2006

In the wake of North Korea’s announcement one week ago that it had detonated a nuclear weapon, American political partisans seem to be more focused on blaming someone in the opposite party than on learning useful lessons for the future. In reality, ever since the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, it has waged an uphill fight to prevent other nations from obtaining nuclear weapons.

To be sure, there have been some successes, in particular following the end of the Cold War, when such countries as Ukraine, Kazakhstan and South Africa ended their efforts to develop nuclear weapons. And less than three years ago, Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi aborted his own nuclear weapons program (which turned out to be much further along than U.S. intelligence had estimated) less than a week after U.S. Marines dragged Saddam Hussein out of a spider hole in Tikrit. Saddam’s nuclear efforts failed due in part to Israel’s June 1981 bombing of his Osirak reactor, which was followed by U.S. military strikes during the 1991 Gulf War. After that war, Saddam again attempted to revive the program, but failed due to a combination of factors which included defections, technological problems and a modestly intrusive system of international inspections. Although Saddam’s nuclear weapons program was apparently moribund since the mid-1990s, the quality of U.S. intelligence on Iraq was abysmal, causing us to exaggerate the regime’s progress towards developing atomic weapons.

But the recent experience with Iraq was the exception. Time and again over the past 61 years, the United States has been plagued by intelligence failures and other problems that resulted in underestimations of the progress that other nations were making towards atomic weapons. When the Soviet Union broke the U.S. nuclear weapons monopoly in August 1949, it was a jarring blow to President Truman and to the CIA, which failed to provide advance warning of the Soviet test. “In my opinion, our sources of information about Russian progress are so poor as to be merely arbitrary assumptions,” the head of the U.S. government’s Atomic Energy Commission said at the time. Throughout the mid-1950s and early 1960s, CIA and other U.S. government analysts were largely flying blind when it came to the progress that Communist China was making in its nuclear program; in July 1963, for example, the CIA said that China would likely have enough uranium for a bomb by 1966 at the earliest, adding that 1968-69 was a more likely time. China detonated its first bomb on Oct. 16, 1964.

During the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations, Israel successfully concealed its development of atomic weapons from U.S. officials. India’s May 1974 nuclear test caught the CIA and apparently the entire U.S. intelligence establishment by surprise, as did India’s 1998 test. Regarding Iran, we now know that it began work on a covert weapons program in the mid-1980s. But it is only in the past three to four years — in the wake of disclosures by Iranians working to overthrow the regime — that we have come to learn the extent of Tehran’s successful deception and concealment efforts.

In the case of North Korea, the nuclear weapons program had its origins more than a half-century ago, during President Eisenhower’s first term, when representatives of the North Korean Academy of Sciences traveled to Moscow to attend a July 1955 conference on nuclear energy. One year later, North Korean leader Kim Il-sung’s government signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with the Soviet Union, and North Korean scientists began arriving at a Soviet research institute for training in 1956. During the 1960s and 1970s, Kim Il-sung unsuccessfully sought Communist China’s help in developing a North Korean nuclear weapons program, and in the late 1970s, he instructed his Ministry of Public Security to initiate a nuclear weapons program. In the 1980s, North Korea began work on a research reactor at Yongbyon. In 1994, Jimmy Carter, with President Clinton’s blessing, produced the Agreed Framework with North Korea — the latest in a long series of unsuccessful efforts to prevent more nations from joining the nuclear club.

Given the historical record, it is unseemly and dishonest for Democratic partisans like Mr. Carter and Sen. John Kerry to pretend that President Bush is the central reason for the failure to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

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