The North Korea Deal That Wasn't

I heard Pyongyang make a real offer -- but the Obama White House didn't even listen.

Given the torrent of threats and insults hurtling out of Pyongyang these days, North Korea's announcement Tuesday that it intends to restart facilities at its Yongbyon nuclear installation should come as no surprise. One of those facilities, a plutonium production reactor partially disabled under an agreement with the George W. Bush administration, should eventually be able to produce at least eight more nuclear weapons, adding significantly to Pyongyang's existing small inventory. What will come as a surprise is that, until recently, the North had been willing to agree to steps that could have prevented that outcome but was ignored by the United States and South Korea.

The facility in question has a long history. One of the first U.S. spy satellite pictures taken in the early 1960s was of the Yongbyon nuclear facility, where the Soviet Union had supplied the North with a small nuclear research reactor. By the early 1980s, spy satellites showed the construction of a larger 5 megawatt electric (MWe) experimental reactor, a significant development since it would allow the North to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. The reactor started operating in 1985 but was shut down in 1994 by an agreement between the United States and North Korea before any plutonium could be produced. Once that agreement collapsed eight years later, Pyongyang picked up where it left off, restarted the reactor, and produced plutonium that was probably used in the North's nuclear tests.

The 5 MWe reactor was shut down once again by a U.S.-North Korea agreement in 2007, this time under the Bush administration. As a first step toward permanent disablement, Pyongyang invited international journalists and diplomats to witness the spectacular demolition of the reactor's cooling tower, needed to carry waste heat into the atmosphere. Fuel rods for the reactor, others that might have been retooled for its use, and still others that had already been irradiated were stored and periodically inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). After Pyongyang's 2009 long-range missile test, Barack Obama's administration secured new sanctions against North Korea through the UN, prompting the furious North Koreans to stop the inspections and produce additional plutonium. The reactor itself, however, remained dormant and thousands of fuel rods also remained unused.

My personal involvement with the 5 MWe reactor dates back to 1995, when I was in charge of implementing the U.S.-North Korean agreement that required Pyongyang to shut it down and to safely store its spent nuclear fuel rods nearby. In 1996, I visited the facility for the first time to help set up the joint U.S.-North Korean project to accomplish those objectives. The reactor had been one of the most secret facilities in the country. Yet on my first visit, I was allowed to quickly pass by the guards while my North Korean Foreign Ministry escorts were barred from entering (they were eventually allowed in). The Yongbyon facility was enormous, the result of billions of dollars of investment over decades. The 5 MWe reactor itself appeared cobbled together with imperfect welds and a control room that looked straight out of a cheap 1950s science fiction movie. I imagined this was what nuclear reactors once looked like in the Soviet Union. But it worked, and that's all that counted. My visits to the facility continued, most recently in 2008 after I had left the U.S. government.

The future of the 5 MWe reactor became an important subject for unofficial contacts between the North Koreans, myself and other Americans. For example, during a Track II meeting in Pyongyang in November 2010, senior North Korean Foreign Ministry officials made it very clear that they were willing to relinquish thousands of fuel rods in their possession that could have been used by the reactor, rods that could help produce as many as eight nuclear bombs. That would have been a first step toward permanently disabling the facility, making sure the reactor would never again be a threat. Of course, the North Koreans wanted compensation -- standard practice in the international nuclear fuel industry -- and they wanted more than the rods were worth. But that was clearly their opening position. The offer was repeated during meetings in March 2011 in Berlin and once again in Pyongyang at the end of that year.

Each time, the North Korean proposal was dutifully reported to the Obama administration in briefings for the White House, the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the intelligence community.  The Lee Myung-bak administration was familiar with the offer, as they would have been intimately involved in any effort to shut Yongbyon down because Lee's predecessor had been willing to pay for the rods to take them off North Korea's hands.

The North Korean initiative was duly noted, but the United States and South Korea failed to take advantage of the opportunity to ensure that North Korea wasn't able to restart the reactor and turn the rods into new nuclear bombs. Some U.S. officials felt it wasn't worth the effort since the reactor was old and probably useless. Others believed that Washington should focus entirely on stopping Pyongyang's much more threatening program to enrich uranium, unveiled in late 2010, rather than putting the final nail in the coffin of the plutonium production program. Still others, infected by the Obama administration's policy of "strategic patience," did not want to do much of anything before the North demonstrated its willingness to reform and end its bad behavior. By August 2012, when another unofficial meeting was held in Singapore, the North Koreans' position had shifted. It was clear that Washington and Seoul were going to be in for tough times after their respective presidential elections at the end of the year.

According to an estimate by Siegfried Hecker, the former head of the Los Alamos Weapons lab now at Stanford University, the North Koreans may need as little as six months to restart the reactor. Unless they are willing to operate at very low power levels, reducing the output of plutonium, they will need to rebuild the cooling tower or put in place some sort of alternative cooling system. That might take six months. Another important job will be to modify some of the thousands of fuel rods either meant for another reactor or complete unfinished rods so that they can be used by the 5 MWe system. That task also may take six months from start to finish. Both of these tasks can be done concurrently.

The missed opportunity to stop the restart of the 5 MWe reactor and make sure Pyongyang has eight fewer nuclear weapons is now water under the bridge. More importantly, if the North Koreans make good on their threat, it's one more sign, if we need it, that Pyongyang is moving full-steam ahead with becoming a small nuclear power. How many nuclear weapons they will eventually produce is anyone's guess. But one thing should be clear by now: The Obama administration's policy toward North Korea has failed.



Humility Now!

The miseducation of Jackson Diehl.

In a Washington Post column published yesterday, "What the Iraq war taught me about Syria," Jackson Diehl takes on the criticism of hawks like himself who have been pilloried for supporting intervention in Syria even though the U.S. intervention in Iraq, which they supported, turned out so poorly. But, he writes, Syria is not Iraq, so President Obama and others are being too cautious if they assume the United States cannot help the rebels without stepping into a 10-year-long quagmire. "The problem here," he writes, "is not that advocates of the Iraq invasion have failed to learn its lessons. It is that opponents of that war, starting with Obama, have learned the wrong ones."

It would be a plausible argument if Diehl had not clearly missed many of the most basic lessons of the Iraq War. For example, he writes that "in the absence of U.S. intervention, Syria is looking like it could produce a much worse humanitarian disaster and a far more serious strategic reverse for the United States." It is certainly true that Syria is a humanitarian disaster on a regional scale, and that the lack of a clear strategy by the United States for the past two years has limited our ability to shape the nature and trajectory of the conflict today. But the phrase "in the absence of U.S. intervention" suggests a degree of American agency that Iraq showed we simply don't possess.

Military intervention by the United States cannot spawn democratic governments at will, and it cannot save the local population from violence and chaos. "Shock and awe" do not automatically lead to nation-building or even to regime change without a considerable commitment. To realize those objectives, you need to engage in a clearly articulated strategy of nation-building -- a strategy that must encompass the State Department; regional actors such as Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon (some of which are grappling with their own internal issues); and international, regional, and local non-governmental organizations. Intervention is not simply a switch that you can flip with an order to deploy the military.

Diehl continues to extoll the effectiveness of the U.S. military in Iraq in ways that are almost willfully indifferent to historical realities. For example, he writes: "The difference is that the U.S. military triggered the transformation of Iraq, quickly disposing of the old regime and buffering the subsequent sectarian struggle." Um, no. Iraq's dissent into chaos was largely a result of a power vacuum left by de-Baathification, which left no security in place to maintain stability. (The CIA's chief of station in Baghdad, for example, in 2003 was said to have claimed that the de-Baathification, as implemented by the Coalition Provisional Authority, would "drive 40,000 to 50,000 Baathists underground by nightfall. Which it did.) Yes, dismantlement of Saddam Hussein's regime triggered a transformation -- a transformation that led to a surge in violence directed at the U.S. military and across societal divides. We call that kind of transformation an "insurgency" or a "civil war."

One of Diehl's most fantastic assertions is the claim that the United States "faced down al-Qaeda and eventually dealt it a decisive defeat." Look, I was on the team after 9/11 that analyzed whether there was a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda, and I was the chief targeting officer charged with following Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The war in Iraq provided al Qaeda with a new front for its struggle with the West. After the invasion, Zarqawi -- the man who would lead al Qaeda in Iraq -- pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden and, consequently, money and weapons flowed into the country. The United States didn't "face down" al Qaeda in Iraq; it inadvertently helped Zarqawi evolve from a lone extremist with a loose network to a charismatic leader of al Qaeda. By extension, it would be safe to say that the al Qaeda in Iraq affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, exists because of the Iraq invasion, and likely would find new authority and power if the United States made Syria the next front for the global jihadist movement.

Finally, Diehl misinterprets the outcome of the Iraq War by arguing that "U.S. influence in the Middle East remained strong." A year after the Iraq War, Pew conducted a survey that revealed the "vast majorities in predominantly Muslim countries continue to hold unfavorable opinions of the U.S." Our influence has been further undercut by the fact that we are broke and our political system is dysfunctional. The U.S. government is currently operating under sequestration, struggling to fund some of the basic needs for places like Syria. It could still employ superior military power in Syria, but 10 years of war have taken a toll on its troops and materiel. (Besides which, a more bellicose North Korea might soon demand more of its attention.) And the Iraq War also left the American people wary of military engagements -- and they are the ones who will pay the bills in money and in lives.

The argument that unleashing the U.S. military industrial complex can bring about desired results during a conflict should have been deflated, beaten, and buried by now. The winner of the Iraq War was humility, and it is a prerequisite for a wiser foreign policy. That's the only lesson that matters.