Clinton and North Korea

Posted: Oct 18, 2002 12:00 AM
"North Korea Says It Has a Program on Nuclear Arms" -- New York Times, Oct. 17, 2002. President Bill Clinton will be remembered by history for only one thing, which is a bit of a shame since his record is so thoroughly shabby and dishonorable that it deserves closer study. Clinton's contribution to our vulnerability to terror has been well documented, and now comes news that another of his foreign policies has come to fruition. The North Koreans have admitted what close observers have suspected all along -- that they have a nuclear weapons program and may have already produced a number of bombs. (Oh, and by the way, worshippers of arms control treaties kindly note: North Korea is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.) The only mystery is why Pyongyang has now chosen to admit it. In the early 1990s, North Korea, even more than other communist states, was drowning in the consequences of its system. People were starving. A congressional study estimated that as many as 1 million died of starvation by 1998. But the regime was no less belligerent for that. Pyongyang continued to build up its military and was aggressively pursuing nuclear capability. Though its facilities were supposed to be inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency, North Korea persistently delayed inspections. Meanwhile, its aggressive posture and rhetoric toward South Korea continued, as did its development of long-range missiles. President Clinton, observing this situation, saw what needed to be done: Pyongyang would have to be appeased. As former defense secretary William Perry put it, the administration thought it "necessary to move forward in a more positive way with North Korea." In exchange for a temporary freeze on its nuclear program and a mere promise to refrain from developing such weapons in the future, the Clinton administration extended nearly $1 billion in foreign aid for food and fuel oil, as well as promising to build two light water reactors for the North Koreans. Certainly the administration must have attached conditions? Surely it insisted that the regime provide proof that the aid was not being used for military purposes, and it must have insisted on some form of political and economic liberalization? The Clinton administration must have tied this aid package to guarantees that the North Koreans would cease exporting ballistic missiles to nations like Iran and Pakistan? Actually, no. As Perry explained, "The policy team believed that the North Korean regime would strongly resist such reform ..." The North Koreans, rewarded for their belligerence, naturally continued down the same path. (And the lesson was probably not lost on other dangerous regimes that seeking nuclear weapons can bring goodies from Washington.) In 1998, they tested a new, three-stage ballistic missile. Did the Clinton administration at last learn the lesson that appeasement does not work? Not quite. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and William Perry held a press conference to announce that the United States was continuing to pursue good relations with North Korea: "We must deal with the North Korean government as it is, not as we wish it would be." Accordingly, the Clinton administration proposed to lift economic sanctions on North Korea if it promised -- but this time really, sincerely promised -- to stop development of long-range missiles. The North Korean government didn't even deign to respond for a full week -- but the Clinton administration relaxed sanctions anyway. The Clinton administration officials believed their policies toward North Korea were a success. By "engaging" Pyongyang, they believed, they had avoided war. Neville Chamberlain thought the same. Instead, the appeasement merely emboldened the North Koreans. A Republican study group concluded in 1999 that North Korea "is a greater threat to international stability" than it had been five years before, "primarily in Asia and secondarily in the Middle East." Is it conceivable that the Clinton foreign policy team really believed North Korea could be bribed into decency? Edmund Burke warned, "There is no safety for honest men but by believing all possible evil of evil men." That includes assuming that they will lie, cheat and betray. The liberal attachment to treaties is thus laid bare for the chimera it is. When strength and resolve were required, Bill Clinton supplied weakness and legerdemain. And in this, as in the war on terror, he has bequeathed a more dangerous world to his successor.