Thursday, March 03, 2005


Selig Harrison, who argued in January’s Foreign Affairs that American intelligence claims concerning a North Korean HEU program were exaggerated and that focusing on a possibly non-existent HEU program was counterproductive, continues his efforts to make the policy world agree with him.

In a revised version of a speech given to the Korea Society in New York, Harrison makes a series of arguments and observations:
My message today is simple. It's reckless to base policy on worst case scenario intelligence driven by ideology. We should take a good hard look at the intelligence we're given on North Korea to make sure we're not conned again by our own government or, for that matter, by the North Koreans.

We should take a good hard look at the North Korean claim last week that they have already "manufactured" nuclear weapons. Until they conduct a test, we should reserve judgment on that claim. I think it may very well prove to be a bluff for bargaining purposes to bolster their position in negotiating a settlement. At the same time, we do know that they have the capability to have reprocessed some or all of the 8,000 fuel rods at Yongbyon. This plutonium may not yet be weaponized but it could be transferred to third parties. Our policy should give priority to getting that plutonium under control and out of North Korea.

Here's where we see the dangerous results of worst-case scenario intelligence. Instead of focusing on the clear and present threat posed by the North Korean plutonium program, the administration has tied our policy in knots by giving priority to a suspected uranium enrichment program about which we know little.
This seems sensible enough, unless, of course, the worst-case scenario is actually the correct one.
In October, 2002, the administration announced that North Korea had a program to enrich uranium to weapons-grade and might be capable of producing one or two uranium-based nuclear weapons per year by "mid-decade". Well, it's 2005, and we've heard nothing since then about those two weapons a year. In fact, the administration has presented no evidence at all to back up the claim that North Korea has a program in place to enrich uranium to weapons-grade. They're trying to finesse the issue without admitting that they exaggerated. I challenged the administration in the January issue of Foreign Affairs to present the evidence. The State Department spokesperson issued a formal reply on December 10th that carefully omitted the accusation of a military uranium program and referred only to a "uranium enrichment program." No reference to weapons-grade. That's finessing the issue because enrichment as such is not prohibited by the NPT.
These seems excessively legalistic, deliberately obtuse or both. As I have repeatedly frequently on this blog, if the North Korean HEU program was intended for peaceful purposes, it would be a simple enough matter for the DPRK to declare such and allow IAEA inspections. Given that the DPRK has not done so, I have a hard time faulting the Bush Administration for suspecting the worst rather than hoping for the best.
Privately, people in the administration say they will eventually put forward what they know, but that they can't tell all they know without jeopardizing methods and sources, like telephone intercepts and moles inside the A.Q. Khan network. I would welcome an administration white paper putting forward credible evidence of a weapons-grade program. That would help to break the present stalemate in the six-party negotiations, putting North Korea on the defensive. China, South Korea, Japan and Russia have been openly skeptical of the weapons-grade accusation and critical of a U.S. diplomatic strategy that conditions the start of negotiations on resolving this issue. Putting forward credible evidence would lead to a united diplomatic front in confronting Pyongyang that the administration has so far been unable to mobilize. Alternatively, if, as I hypothesize, there is not enough evidence to justify accusations of a weapons-grade program, the United States should give priority to getting any plutonium so far reprocessed by North Korea out of the country, while providing for the elimination of any uranium enrichment facilities at a later stage of a step-by-step denuclearization process.
I, too, would like to see more “credible evidence” backing the Bush Administration’s claims on North Korea. It would make it far easier to try to understand North Korean intentions and to respond accordingly. But American intelligence agencies appear to be as secretive as the North Koreans.
Now there's a basic premise underlying what I'm saying, namely, that the ideological camp in the Bush administration exaggerated the intelligence relating to North Korean uranium capabilities with a broader agenda in mind: namely, reversing the Clinton policy of engagement with North Korea and, more particularly, abrogating the 1994 Agreed Framework.

The Clinton administration knew that North Korea was pursuing uranium enrichment, but they wanted to deal with the problem through quiet diplomacy. They wanted to avoid a confrontation with Pyongyang that would jeopardize the gains made in controlling the plutonium danger under the freeze agreement. By contrast, President Bush openly expressed his desire for regime change in Pyongyang soon after taking office. So his most influential advisors were looking from the start for an excuse to abrogate the 1994 accord. They were -- and are -- ideologically opposed to providing material incentives that would help to sustain the Kim Jong Il regime in exchange for denuclearization.
This makes sense to me. Of course spinning this as a purely partisan issue causes one to wonder why Bob Gallucci, the Clinton Administration’s point man on North Korea during the Agreed Framework, and presumably no fan of the Bush Administration would declare the following in response to Harrison’s arguments:
The United States, for a number of years, has had well-founded suspicions that North Korea has been working on the enrichment of uranium. Indeed, in both 1999 and 2000, the Clinton administration was unable to certify to Congress that North Korea was not pursuing a uranium-enrichment capability. (This fact alone should dispel claims of partisanship on this point.)

Harrison also asserts that the Bush administration has not made a "credible case" to Congress or to U.S. partners in the six-party talks. In fact, the case has been made and is credible. In both open and closed sessions, the intelligence community has briefed Congress on the evidence concerning North Korea's uranium-enrichment program. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, and other officials involved in the negotiating process also have frequently briefed Congress on this issue.
The Bush Administration may have used allegations of the HEU program for its own agenda. But it may have been correct about the program nonetheless.
For two years the Bush administration had conducted policy review after policy review on North Korea, but was unable to come up with a policy. The North Koreans expected Kelly to open a new chapter. Instead, they thought he was overbearing, arrogant and threatening. So they reacted in the way that North Korea will always react when it feels it is being pressured. They felt compelled to talk tough. The generals who have the last word there thought it would be helpful to keep the U.S. guessing. General Ri Chan Bok told me in so many words that the uranium issue is useful because "it strengthens our deterrent to keep you guessing."
Poor North Koreans. They had no choice but to “talk tough” when confronted by Kelly’s overbearing arrogance. Never mind that whatever Kelly might have said could only be seen as mild in comparison to the daily dose of vitriol the DPRK hurls at the U.S., Japan or another target of the day. Never mind that if there were no viable program or if the program were intended for peaceful purposes only the DPRK could have declared this, allowed inspections, and left Bush with nothing but egg on his face (doesn’t anyone remember Kumchangni?) Never mind that a declared policy of keeping the outside world guessing is, on its face, a poor foundation for any sort of negotiation or agreement.

As for Harrison’s apparently unprecedented and unequalled access to hawks, doves and other factions in the DPRK, I am reminded of Brian Myer’s trenchant critique of this kind of reporting:
When he gets his next update on the hawk-dove struggle from officials in Pyongyang, a city where most foreigners count themselves lucky to learn their tour guide's name, he should perhaps keep in mind that North Korea has always viewed the existence of similar factions in Washington as the manifestation of a ludicrous disunity. No one under Kim Jong Il would describe his government in such terms to a Yankee visitor unless the goal were to extract more concessions from the outside world."
In the end, however, I find Harrison’s ultimate conclusion to be quite compelling:
The North Korean nuclear problem could eventually be resolved if President Bush would utter two little words -- "peaceful coexistence." We have to say explicitly that we are prepared to coexist with them regardless of differences in our systems. If we do that we can negotiate a step-by-step denuclearization agreement that will enable us to find out the truth about the uranium mystery. We can open up North Korea, let in the winds of freedom, and liberalize the totalitarian system there over a period of years as we are doing in China.
Such an approach risks much. It dooms the North Korean people to continued oppression for an indeterminate length of time, but, in a world in which all choices are bad, it may very well be the least worst choice of all.

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