Lessons from North Korea for Israel and Iran

On January 20, President Obama told a New York reception that “we’re not going to tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of this Iranian regime.” Four days later, in his State of the Union address, he issued this declaration:

Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.

The words were as direct as presidential language gets: we will not “tolerate” an Iranian nuclear weapon and will take “no options off the table” -- complete with Obama’s trademark preface, “Let there be no doubt.” In his Super Bowl interview on Sunday, Obama reiterated that “no option is off the table.”

But this is not the first time an American president declared he would not “tolerate” a nuclear weapon, insisted on dismantlement of a nuclear weapons program, applied crippling sanctions -- and then declined to act after the regime violated an explicit presidential warning.

George W. Bush said it in 2003 with respect to North Korea; issued the warning in 2006; failed to act in 2007; and left office with an expanded North Korea nuclear weapons program in place, which expanded dramatically under Barack Obama.

The North Korea story is important not only in itself, but because of its obvious implications for the current face-off with Iran. As Iran evaluates President Obama’s seemingly clear words, it knows what happened -- or didn’t happen -- with respect to similar rhetoric in the case of North Korea. From the memoirs recently published by George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Condoleezza Rice, we can now piece together what occurred. The story places Obama’s recent words in a context that leads to an important conclusion.

In 2001, the Bush administration inherited a failed North Korea policy. The Clinton administration had negotiated an “Agreed Framework” in 1994 after North Korea threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Agreed Framework provided $4.5 billion in aid and assistance in exchange for North Korea’s promise to suspend work on its covert nuclear weapons program, but the promise was not kept. The incoming Bush administration was told that the most pressing national security question was North Korea, which was threatening again to expel all inspectors and restart its facilities.

Bush decided the Clinton approach had been backwards: U.S. concessions had been made for North Korean promises of future performance. Bush told his national security team that henceforth North Korean performance would precede any additional U.S. aid or diplomatic concessions. The new administration considered the North Korean nuclear program and its possible proliferation a global, not just a regional, issue -- a concern magnified by the events of September 11 and the inclusion of North Korea in an “axis of evil” with Iraq and Iran.

There were raucous debates within the Bush administration about how to respond to North Korea. Everyone agreed North Korea was engaged in serious violations, but they differed on how to respond. Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, together with John Bolton in the State Department, favored regime change, believing the existing regime would never make a deal (or at least not one worth making). Regime change had occurred in Iraq, and late in 2003 Libya gave up its nuclear weapons program out of concern for its own regime.

On May 23, 2003, at a joint press conference with the Japanese prime minister, Bush declared the U.S. would not “tolerate” nuclear weapons in North Korea, and he defined what that meant:

We will not tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea. … We will not settle for anything less than the complete, verifiable, and irreversible elimination of North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

Rice favored a policy of “tailored containment” -- combining pressure with sending a U.S. envoy and expanding the group of nations to negotiate. She personally prevailed on Bush to support that approach, recounting in her memoir that she had a “heart to heart” talk with him, telling him it “was surely a long shot, but maybe Kim Jong-il could be induced, step by step, to give up his nuclear ambitions in exchange for benefits, which would also be doled out step by step.” Her approach was to unite other countries on a strategy of insisting not on regime change but simply a change in regime policy, while developing defensive measures.

The “Six Party Talks” began in 2003 and from the beginning made almost no progress. But in September 2005, Rice’s envoy, Christopher Hill, reported he was close to getting agreement on a “Joint Statement” that would set a “framework” for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. In her memoir, Rice calls the Joint Statement a “breakthrough” document. But here is how she describes what happened after that:

Unfortunately, the North Korean issue would soon settle into a kind of predictable pattern; cooperation from Pyongyang and progress in negotiations followed by misdeeds and stalemate. In November, the talks stalled once again, and they would lie fallow for more than a year as North Korea probed for division among the parties and an opportunity to walk back past agreements.

The talks not only stalled but broke down. On July 4, 2006, North Korea test-fired seven missiles, including an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), ignoring multiple warnings not to do so. The United States and Japan sponsored stronger sanctions at the UN.

A few months later, North Korea exploded an underground nuclear device. The next day, Bush went before cameras at the White House and declared that North Korea was “one of the world's leading proliferators of missile technology, including transfers to Iran and Syria.” Then he issued this warning:

The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States, and we would hold North Korea fully accountable of the consequences of such action.

Rice thought the North Korean missile tests and underground explosion gave the U.S. the “upper hand” in public relations, and that it was therefore time to . . . engage. She argued for a strategy of offering North Korea a “grand bargain” (her words) -- a peace treaty recognizing the regime if it would give up its nuclear weapons.

In early 2007 she pushed ahead, sending Hill back to North Korea in hopes of moving the process forward, and the U.S. agreed to ease sanctions and provide fuel oil in exchange for North Korea agreeing once again to a process for dismantling its nuclear weapons program.

In the Spring of 2007, however, the U.S. also learned that North Korea was secretly assisting Syria in building an undeclared nuclear reactor -- one capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. The head of Israeli intelligence met at the White House with Vice President Cheney and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, going over photos and other intelligence material. The pictures showed the reactor had a “striking resemblance” (the same phrase is used by Bush, Cheney, and Rice in each of their books) to the North Korean one.