WASHINGTON, Feb. 28 — Last October, the North Koreans tested their first nuclear device, the fruition of decades of work to make a weapon out of plutonium.
For nearly five years, though, the Bush administration, based on intelligence estimates, has accused North Korea of also pursuing a secret, parallel path to a bomb, using enriched uranium. That accusation, first leveled in the fall of 2002, resulted in the rupture of an already tense relationship: The United States cut off oil supplies, and the North Koreans responded by throwing out international inspectors, building up their plutonium arsenal and, ultimately, producing that first plutonium bomb.
Okay, now this nuclear program stuff is a little confusing, so Josh explains:
Speaking very broadly, there are two big ways to make nuclear weapons -- with uranium and plutonium. Each involves different technical challenges and processes. And each has a different bang you get versus the complexity of the task of putting the thing together.
The big issue with North Korea has always been their plutonium production. Back in 1994, they were on the brink of being able to produce bombs with the plutonium they were making. The US came close to war with the North Koreans over it. But the two countries settled on something called the 'Agreed Framework' in which the North Koreans' plutonium production operation was shuttered and placed under international inspection in exchange for fuel oil shipments and assistance building 'light water' nuclear reactors.
We don't need to get into the details of the agreement at the moment. The relevant point is that from 1994 to 2002 the North Korean nuclear weapons program was frozen in place. The strong consensus judgment was that they had not yet made any nuclear weapons. And during that period they could not access the plutonium they had already produced.
It was on the basis of this alleged uranium enrichment program -- which may well not even have existed -- that the US pulled out of that agreement. This allowed the North Koreans to get back into the plutonium business with a gusto. And they have since produced -- by most estimates -- at least a hand full of nuclear weapons, one of which, albeit a rather feeble one, they detonated last October.
As he rightly notes, this is a pretty serious fuck-up even if the uranium program was real. But it's entirely possible that the Bush Administration undermined the one and only working deterrent to a North Korean nuclear arsenal and then did NOTHING while Kim Jong Il developed just such a thing over a figment of the CIA's imagination.
It's difficult even to articulate how big of a botch this was, what supreme incompetence at the highest levels this required. Like the Iraq War and the Bush Administration itself, this is a fuckup that has transformed world politics. Of all the nations that could've gone nuclear, North Korea was the worst case scenario (the second worst, incidentally, is Iran). Bill Clinton achieved a diplomatic solution that at worst slowed North Korean nuclear development to a crawl, and at best halted it entirely, yet after only a single year in office, George W. Bush demolished it and replaced it with... nothing.
And here we are, with a world that is significantly more perilous than it was only a decade ago, due perhaps single-handedly to George W. Bush.