President Trump and his Cabinet have said repeatedly that the present state of affairs with North Korea represents 25 years of American foreign policy failure going back over at least three presidents — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Reviewing this disaster, there are at least three major mileposts.
The first of these would be the Dec. 1, 1994 hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the Clinton administration’s “Agreed Framework” with North Korea. The regime had agreed to give up its nuclear weapons program and in return, the United States pledged hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to substitute forms of energy for Pyongyang. Late in the hearing, Sen. Larry Pressler, South Dakota Republican, was pressing the Clinton administration’s spokesman, Ambassador Robert Gallucci, over whether the agreement permitted a “go anywhere in North Korea, anytime” inspection regime. It didn’t, as he was forced to admit.
At that moment, Sen. Pressler asked me to flip open a prepared chart standing on an easel. There was an audible gasp in the room because written on the chart was this: “Based on North Korean actions to date, DIA assesses that North Korea will continue its nuclear weapons program despite any agreement to the contrary.” The statement was made by Lt. Gen. James Clapper, then the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. At the time, Gen. Clapper had the reputation as a straight shooter and everyone in the Foreign Relations Committee hearing room knew that the emperor had no clothes: The Agreed Framework was not going to work, ever, because the Kim regime would cheat on it from the get-go.
The Clinton administration then had a choice: It could go with the judgment of Gen. Clapper and mount a worldwide diplomatic effort to shut down the North Korean nuclear program through trade sanctions and other harsh measures, or it could heed the advice of Mr. Gallucci, State Department Counselor Wendy Sherman, U.N. Ambassador and later Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and pretend that the Agreed Framework was fully clothed. Gen. Clapper lost.
The second milepost came in early October 2002. The incoming Bush ‘43 administration had learned disturbing information about North Korea, but the events of Sept. 11, 2001 had distracted top policymakers. They were just then sending out Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific James Kelly to Pyongyang. Mr. Kelly confronted North Korean diplomat Kang Sok-ju about accusations that North Korea was secretly building nuclear weapons. Kang was equally direct: “Not only yes, but hell yes, and you tell that to your president!”
At this point, the Bush ‘43 story gets murky. We know that strong, decisive action was not taken but not why it was not taken. We know that the North Koreans set off their first weapon in 2006 on George W. Bush’s watch. We know that the Bush administration launched new negotiations with the North Koreans under Ambassador Christopher Hill, National Security Adviser and later Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s old colleague from the George H.W. Bush administration. Those negotiations failed spectacularly.
Conversation among former Bush ‘43 veterans suggests that in addition to Mr. Kelly, U.N. Ambassador John Bolton and Vice President Dick Cheney’s National Security Adviser Scooter Libby also favored a get-tough policy toward North Korea before the Kim regime passed the nuclear threshold, but Mr. Bush sided with Secretary Rice and Ambassador Hill. We will have to await the opening of the Bush ‘43 files to determine what really happened, but certainly we can say that the pressure of the Iraq War sucked the air out of Bush administration policymakers on North Korea and other pressing matters.
In the case of the third milepost, the warning came from outside the U.S. government. In the early Obama administration, Stanford University professor Siegfried S. Hecker, a proponent of negotiations with North Korea, was permitted to see the inside of the North Korean nuclear weapons production facilities and he was “stunned,” he said, by what he saw. North Korea had graduated from essentially an experimental set-up to a full-scale industrial program, and they did it with outside help. As late as 2012, Mr. Hecker was ringing the alarm: “It is important, therefore, to stop Pyongyang from importing large quantities of key centrifuge materials and components to prevent it from building large additional centrifuge facilities now that it has apparently mastered the art of manufacture and operations.”
For whatever reason, neither Secretary of State Hillary Clinton nor Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman heeded his call. Nor was the State Department alert under Mrs. Clinton’s successor, John Kerry, when the North Koreans managed to obtain a supply of Soviet-era rocket engines that make a North Korean nuclear weapon deliverable to the United States.
At the end of the day, Harry Truman was right: The buck stops at the Oval Office, but in the case of the North Korean disaster, it has had a number of stops along the way.
• William C. Triplett II is the author of Rogue State (Regnery, 2004).