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.

Israel asked the U.S. to destroy the reactor — something Bush in his memoir says would have been “no sweat,” and which Cheney writes could have been accomplished “with ease.” Cheney supported the Israeli request — for reasons going far beyond the reactor itself:


I believed an American military strike on the reactor would send an important message not only to the Syrians and North Koreans, but also to the Iranians, with whom we were attempting to reach a diplomatic agreement to end their nuclear program. An American strike to destroy the Syrian reactor would demonstrate that we were serious when we warned as we had for years against the proliferation of nuclear technology to terrorist states. … [O]ur diplomacy would have a far greater chance of being effective if the North Koreans and Iranians understood that they faced the possibility of military action if the diplomacy failed.

Cheney held a private lunch with Bush and urged him to act, and Rice recounts that the national security team met on the issue “for the better part of two months.” Cheney made a formal presentation to the National Security Council, but both Rice and Defense Secretary Gates were opposed, and no one else supported Cheney. The CIA had a high degree of confidence that the Syrian site was a nuclear reactor, but only a low degree of confidence that it was part of a nuclear weapons program, and Bush felt this was insufficient to justify a military strike.

They recommended a diplomatic course to Israel — multilateral action to expose Syria, with the possibility of military action later if Syria did not dismantle its plant. Rice told Bush she thought Israel would accept this advice; Cheney predicted that Israel would act if the U.S. did not. A few months later Israel struck the Syrian reactor, without seeking or receiving a green light from Bush. Israel removed the threat to itself, but the U.S. failure to act sacrificed the broader impact an American strike would have had on North Korea and Iran.

Rice writes that by 2008, opponents of continued diplomacy with North Korea were asking how the U.S. could negotiate with a country that had lied about its nuclear facilities, was still pursuing nuclear weapons, and had engaged in proliferation with Syria. She acknowledges this was “a very good and penetrating question,” but she “felt strongly that we had to go the last mile.” She decided to try one more time to get a “breakthrough.” She persuaded Bush to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in exchange for a “verbal commitment” from North Korea to address its uranium enrichment program. Bush removed it from the list; the commitment went unfulfilled; talks collapsed again; and the Bush administration ended.


Cheney catalogs in his memoir what happened during the first two years of the Obama administration: (a) in April 2009, North Korea tested an ICBM; (b) in May 2009, it tested a second nuclear weapon; (c) in September 2009, it announced it was in the final stages of enriching uranium and weaponizing plutonium; (d) in November 2010, it publicly unveiled 2,000 new centrifuges at its facility.

In February 2011, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate North Korea had continued to develop nuclear weapons; that “we do not know whether the North has produced nuclear weapons, but we assess it has the capability to do so”; that it had successfully tested ICBM technologies; and had quite possibly “has built other uranium enrichment facilities.”

This week — one year later — Clapper testified again before the same Senate committee. This time, he told the Senate flatly that North Korea “has produced nuclear weapons.” He did not specify how many.

The same day President Obama was assuring his New York audience that he would not “tolerate” an Iranian nuclear weapon, Secretary of State Clinton was asked about Iran’s recently expressed willingness to return to talks: did she believe Iran was willing to engage fully, and what steps did she want the Iranians to take? She responded as follows:

SECRETARY CLINTON: … [W]e all are seeking clarity about the meaning behind Iran’s public statements that they are willing to engage, but we have to see a seriousness and sincerity of purpose coming from them. They know we want to see them coming to the table to seriously engage about the future of a program that is prohibited under their obligations pursuant to the NPT and in light of Security Council resolutions. So we will await their response. …

QUESTION: … You didn’t say what those specific steps you wanted to see were from Iran. Can you tell us what those are?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, we won’t know until we know whether they’re serious about engaging with us.

QUESTION: You don’t have anything in mind already?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Oh, yeah. We do. They have to give up their nuclear weapons program. (Laughter.) They have to be – they have to be willing to come to the table with a plan to do that.

QUESTION: The confidence-building measures were specifically referenced in the [P5+1 October] letter [to Iran] —

SECRETARY CLINTON: … I think what’s important is that confidence will start with their conveying a seriousness of purpose to engage. … That would build confidence, and then the additional steps will await the actual resumption of negotiations.


After three years of outstretched hands, whirring centrifuges, and sanctions that “bite” but have not stopped the Iranian nuclear weapons program, the Obama administration wants to negotiate, but is a little uncertain about exactly what step it wants Iran to take first, other than build our confidence so negotiations can begin.

On the same day Obama and Clinton made their respective statements, the distinguished nuclear scientist Jeremy Bernstein published “Iran: The Scientists and the Bomb” on the New York Review of Books blog. He expressed pessimism that sanctions or negotiations will work, and he concluded that:

Thus, if the Iranians … have a goodly stock of 20 percent enriched uranium—as they now claim they do—they should be able to reach weapons-grade pretty quickly. … So far the IAEA inspectors have been able to monitor these enrichment activities to a degree. But the Iranians have a penchant for building secret enrichment sites, and for all one knows they may have one or more of these operating. Of one thing I am quite certain. They have plans that can be used to make a nuclear weapon. …

We have announced that we will not permit the Iranians to make a nuclear weapon. But where is the red line? … What if we only know after Iran has tested a device?

In the comments section to his post, Bernstein added one more observation:

[The Iranians] also see the examples of Libya and North Korea. Libya gave up its nuclear program and look what happened. The North Koreans did not and look what happened.

What happened with North Korea was a U.S. president declared he would not tolerate a nuclear weapons program, but allowed a naive secretary of state to pursue “breakthroughs” for four years. No options were taken off the table, but none were used — not even when there was blatant North Korean proliferation in violation of an express presidential warning. Under the successor — and current — U.S. president, the North Korean program continued unabated.

As Iran’s nuclear program heads toward a possible point of no return, the U.S. inaction in 2007, and three years of continued North Korean nuclear activity under the Obama administration, with U.S. intelligence now conceding publicly that North Korea has an unspecified number of nuclear weapons, may complicate the effort to persuade either Iran or Israel of the credibility of Obama’s words.


A commitment not to “tolerate” an Iranian nuclear weapon will not likely suffice, absent significant public steps to demonstrate it is not simply rhetoric that has been heard before. Last week, the Bipartisan Policy Center issued an impressive report on how to demonstrate a credible military option. It will take more than words, no matter how clearly expressed.


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