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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kicking the (Korea) Can

On North Korea, the conventional wisdom in Washington, which happens to be the same as the conventional wisdom in Pyongyang, goes roughly like this: U.S. President George W. Bush triggered the crisis by excessive hardening-of-line and axis-of-evil-calling; Bush is compounding his hard-lining error by irresponsibly refusing to negotiate with Pyongyang; and, paradoxically, Bush is guilty of foreign-policy incoherence or worse in adopting a harder line toward Saddam Hussein than toward Kim Jong Il.

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Conventional wisdom tends by its nature to get things wrong, but seldom this wrong and seldom this dangerously wrong. This is wrong to the point of divorce from reality.

The reality, in brief, is as follows (in large part taken from reports by the Congressional Research Service, the Federation of American Scientists and the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control):

North Korea has been working on developing nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons delivery systems for at least three decades.

Since the 1970s, North Korea has agreed to inspection regimes, treaties and other agreements intended to curb its bomb-building, and it has violated all of these agreements.

In fact, North Korea has used episodic violation as a tool of foreign policy, periodically forcing confrontation to produce fresh agreements and fresh outpourings of money and other aid from its neighbors, the United Nations and the United States.

In the latest of such successful blackmailings, North Korea won an agreement with the United States -- the Agreed Framework of Oct. 21, 1994, negotiated, after Jimmy Carter's intercession, with the Clinton administration.

This agreement was never more than a kicking of the can. Indeed, it was so by its very own definition.

South Korea agreed to construct for North Korea two light-water (non-plutonium-producing) reactors at a cost of $4.5 billion, and the United States promised annual gifts of half a million tons of heavy fuel oil until the reactors were built. In exchange, North Korea agreed only to "freeze" -- emphatically not to abandon -- its bomb program.

Specifically, North Korea promised to halt the construction of two major nuclear reactors at its Yongbyon facility, capable of annually producing enough weapons-usable plutonium to make 30 bombs; to shut down its plutonium reprocessing center also at Yongbyon; and to not refuel an already constructed plutonium-producing reactor. But the agreement delayed for five years any inspection regime serious enough to ensure verification.

Moreover, the framework made no provision for dealing with the gains North Korea had already made in its decades-long nuclear program. With an estimated 3,000 scientists working at Yongbyon alone, this program had by 1994 already produced enough weapons-grade plutonium to make anywhere from two to six small atomic bombs, according to the intelligence estimates of several countries, including the United States, South Korea, Japan, Germany and Russia.

A 1990 KGB report to the Soviet Central Committee asserted, based on "available data," that North Korea had "completed" its "first nuclear device," and in 1994, before the agreement, the director of the CIA said that the agency believed North Korea had already produced one to two bombs.

Current U.S. intelligence assessments are that North Korea has probably produced at least one nuclear weapon.

The United States government had so little faith in the 1994 agreement that it did not define it as a formal treaty -- it did not wish to be legally bound by an agreement it had so little reason to think would be kept.

And the agreement was not kept -- the can was merely kicked, and not very far.

In October 2002, after years of mounting evidence of North Korean violations, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly confronted North Korea with evidence that it was conducting a clandestine bomb-building program based on a process of enriching uranium.

North Korea had begun this program only a few months after the signing of the 1994 Agreed Framework -- and, note, seven years before George Bush called anybody evil, in that storied January 2002 State of the Union address. North Korea first denied the truth, then admitted it -- and then unilaterally "nullified" the 1994 deal.

We were bound to arrive at this point, no matter which president ended up holding the can kicked in 1994. North Korea never had any intention of living up to the agreement, and it never did. Eventually, it was going to get caught, and it did.

Bush has reacted as probably any responsible president would. He has refused to back down. Well, what else?

Would it be better that he "renegotiate" -- that he give North Korea another seven years of bomb-building time?

He has promised not to wage war against North Korea, not to treat this particular evildoer as he is threatening to treat another. Well, what else again?

There is, in the end, one stark difference here. We are trying hard to stop Iraq's madman from acquiring the Bomb. North Korea already has one.

Michael Kelly is a columnist for The Washington Post, where this column first appeared.