CAMBRIDGE, England — If it weren’t for the fact that the lives of several million people are at stake it could be fun watching the game of diplomatic poker being played by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and U.S. President George W. Bush. Those lives are at stake, however, as is the future stability of East Asia.

Last month, a “White House spokesman” said wearily that he expected that it would not be long before someone started saying that the United States started it. OK, so let me say it: the U.S. started it. Or to be more exact, the Bush administration started it.

They started it the day Bush was inaugurated and came into power with what Washingtonians called the “ABC foreign policy.”

ABC stood for “anything but Clinton’s.” The Bush administration had no policy on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Clinton didn’t for a long time too. Suddenly toward the end of his term of office he decided that maybe he should have one. Quite simply it was to meet the U.S. obligation under the 1994 Agreed Framework. These are obligations that tend to be forgotten at present.

Feverish diplomatic activity culminated with a visit to Pyongyang by the outgoing secretary of state, Madeleine Albright. The intention was that she would move things forward to the point that former President Bill Clinton could go to Pyongyang before he left office and sign an agreement leading to normalization of relations between the two countries. Such normalization was to have been the main commitment of the U.S.

Clinton never got to Pyongyang. He never did say why he didn’t go.

The North Koreans were very frustrated, and even more so later when it became clear that Bush’s ABC foreign policy meant that not only was normalization of relations with North Korea off the agenda, so was any form of dialogue with that country.

I was with a group of high-ranking Foreign Ministry officials from North Korea when when it became clear that the Bush administration’s policy toward North Korea was simply to ignore it. The North Koreans found it totally incomprehensible that they could have spent so long negotiating with a government and have reached agreement on the basics only to have it torn up and thrown away by a new government.

Even more, they could not understand how a deal freely reached between two sovereign states could be reneged on, just like that.

The North Koreans were the first victims of the new administration’s self-centered myopic unilateralism. Within a few months the world got used to the United States tearing up treaties and reneging on agreements. But worse was to come: Washington started turning the hands back to the Cold War.

“Axis of evil,” shrilled Bush in his State of the Union speech in January 2002. That raised a few eyebrows. Even more were raised when Bush showed off his diplomatic skills on a visit to the Republic of Korea when he said publicly that he loathed Chairman Kim Jong Il. Not the best way to make friends or influence people.

As it happens I had just come back from Pyongyang at the time of the axis-of-evil speech and also met several senior figures from the North Korean government on my return to the U.K. They were stunned by the speech.

What, they asked, had they done to deserve that? As far as they could see nothing had changed on their side since they had engaged in what to them were the successful negotiations with the Clinton administration. They were keen to take up those negotiations where they had been left off.

Bush’s people simply said that they would not sit down with North Korean officials on the basis of the position agreed by the Clinton administration. They wanted the agenda changed, they would they said, be happy to sit down any time any place if extra items were added to the agenda. In particular they wanted to talk about the size and disposition of North Korea’s conventional forces.

As far as the North Korean leaders were concerned this was moving the goalposts way too far. Their position was that the negotiations were about Washington fulfilling its commitments under the 1994 Agreed Framework, the one drawn up by former President Jimmy Carter. The only outstanding issue left that Clinton was supposed to have dealt with had he gone to Pyongyang was the timing by which those commitments were to be met.

The level and disposition of conventional forces on both sides of the demilitarized zone separating the Koreas could be the subject of future negotiations but only when normalization was in place, offering some sort guarantee of nonaggression on behalf of the United States. The North Koreans were not to get this.

The flawed mission

What they did get was a visit from the assistant secretary of state for East Asia-Pacific, James Kelly, in October last year. Kelly is not a career diplomat, as was to become obvious. His was a political appointment. His previous job was running the right-of-center think tank, the Pacific Forum, in Hawaii.

Many people hoped that Kelly’s visit to Pyongyang represented a shift in the Bush administration’s policy. Some hoped that it would be the beginning of a more positive period of engagement, getting the relationship back on the road to normalization. We could not have been more wrong!

I was in Seoul when Kelly made his visit to Pyongyang last October. After that visit we expected him to come to Seoul and make a positive announcement along the lines that the U.S. had decided to take up Kim Jong Il’s various offers to stop missile tests, production, deployment and sales.

We thought Kelly might go on and say that in return for North Korea’s dropping its missile program, Washington was finally going to carry out all of its commitments under the Agreed Framework and to renew the offers of aid made by Clinton. Maybe, we thought, he would go on and say that the United States was going to complete the process of removing the country from the list of those embargoed by the “Trading With the Enemy Act.”

Kelly did not make the usual press statement after his visit. But the North Koreans did. They denounced him as “high-handed and arrogant” and as displaying a “hardline policy of hostility.” In response, Kelly issued a statement in Tokyo, where he was briefing the Japanese government on his mission, simply saying that in Pyongyang he had just spelled out Washington’s “serious concerns” over North Korea’s weapons programs and human rights issues in a “frank and useful way.”

It was a few more days before we learned why the North Koreans had been so upset. After leaks from Tokyo, the U.S. announced that the North Koreans had confessed to Kelly that they had not mothballed their nuclear arms capability, as they were required to under the 1994 Agreed Framework.

The North Koreans immediately denied that they had made such a confession. They claimed that all they had said in response to Kelly’s “arbitrary, arrogant and unilateralist demands” was that they had a right to have a nuclear arms research program as this was not prohibited under the Agreed Framework.

The North Koreans are correct.

They have kept to their side of the bargain they signed up to in the 1994 Agreed Framework. The United States has not. Right from the beginning the U.S. has failed to meet fully its commitments under the Agreement. In contrast, North Korea has gone further than the U.S. in meeting its commitments and has on several occasions offered to do more.

Pyongyang committed itself in the Agreed Framework to mothball a specific list of nuclear facilities known to exist at the time the agreement was signed: the 5-megawatt (MW) experimental reactor at Yongbyon; a radiochemical reprocessing laboratory; a fuel fabrication plant; and two partially built 50-MW and 200-MW nuclear power plants.

North Korea also agreed to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to supervise and monitor the mothballing. Nobody has claimed that, until last December, these commitments were not being met.

Nuclear verification

The Agreed Framework also calls on North Korea to “come into full compliance with its safeguard agreement with the IAEA” including allowing inspections to verify the accuracy and completeness of the North Korean report on all nuclear material in the country. However, this verification process is not to begin until the 2,000-MW light water reactors, which the U.S. promised would be built to replace the mothballed facilities, is completed and ready for the delivery of key nuclear components.

The light water reactors were supposed to be completed and supplying power by 2003. They were not. At the time of Kelly’s visit there was no likelihood that they would be until 2005 at the earliest. Thus there was no requirement on North Korea to allow inspections other than those in place.

In fact they did. In 1999 and 2000 the U.S. claimed that nuclear material was being produced at some specified sites in North Korea. The Pyongyang government invited the United States to send inspectors to those sites. The inspectors went and found nothing amiss.

Various claims have been put forward by the U.S. about North Korean nuclear weapons capability, all based on information provided by North Korea over the period 1992 to 1994. On the basis of those reports, U.S. nuclear scientists concluded that the country might have fissionable material that could have been used to produce two atomic bombs. The Pyongyang government has always denied that it has made any bombs. No evidence has ever been produced that they have, despite the massive intelligence effort of the United States.

Chinese sources sometimes claim that the North Koreans have five atomic bombs and sufficient material to make five more. This claim is based on two sources. The first was a statement made in 1994 by a defector said to be the son-in-law of the North Korean prime minister.

Another refugee who escaped to China and who was a North Korean scientist made a similar claim before the Chinese shipped him back to North Korea to almost certain execution. South Korean experts and U.S. scientists laughed off both claims as being impossible in view of their own assessments of the North’s access to weapons grade nuclear material.

Neither Kelly nor the U.S. government has made any new evidence available to support their claim that North Korea is in breach of any of its obligations under the Nonproliferation Treaty or of the Agreed Framework. The whole crisis is based on what Kelly says he heard the North Koreans say.

The North Koreans have offered to allow IAEA and other inspections to fully verify their compliance with all of their obligations and also to cease exporting, testing, production and deployment of missiles with range of over 500 km.

They made this offer as part of the deal to be signed with Clinton. In return the U.S. would have launched satellites for the North Koreans and made substantial aid available, in kind rather than cash to prevent misuse. This deal was scuppered when Clinton canceled his trip in the face of Republican pressure.

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