In his first weeks in office, Bush cast aside the
Clinton administration’s delicate negotiations that had hemmed in North
Korea’s nuclear ambitions. The new President then brushed aside worries
of Secretary of State Colin Powell and South Korean President Kim Dae
Jung about dangerous consequences from a confrontation.
At a March 2001 summit, Bush rejected Kim Dae
Jung’s détente strategy for dealing with North Korea, a humiliation for
both Kim, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Powell, who wanted to continue
pursuing the negotiation track. Instead, Bush cut off nuclear talks with
North Korea and stepped up spending on a “Star Wars” missile shield.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Bush got
tougher still, vowing to “rid the world of evil” and listing North Korea
as part of the “axis of evil.”
More substantively, Bush sent to Congress a
“nuclear posture review,” which laid out future U.S. strategy for
deploying nuclear weapons. Leaked in 2002, the so-called NPR put North
Korea on a list of potential targets for U.S. nuclear weapons.
The Bush administration also discussed lowering the
threshold for the use of U.S. nuclear weapons by making low-yield
tactical nukes available for some battlefield situations.
By putting North Korea on the nuclear target list,
Bush reversed President Clinton’s commitment against targeting
non-nuclear states with nuclear weapons. Clinton’s idea was that a U.S.
promise not to nuke non-nuclear states would reduce their incentives for
joining the nuclear club.
But to Bush and his neoconservative advisers,
Clinton’s assurance that non-nuclear states wouldn’t be nuked was just
another example of Clinton’s appeasement of U.S. adversaries. By
contrast, Bush was determined to bring these “evil” states to their
In March 2002, however, Pyongyang signaled how it
would react, warning of “strong countermeasures” against Bush’s nuclear
North Korea accused the Bush administration of “an
inhuman plan to spark a global nuclear arms race” and warned that it
would “not remain a passive onlooker” after being put on the Pentagon’s
list of nuclear targets.
A commentary by the official Korean Central News
Agency cited Bush’s threat in the context of the U.S. nuclear bomb
dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945.
“If the U.S. intends to mount a nuclear attack on
any part of the D.P.R.K. [North Korea] just as it did on Hiroshima, it
is grossly mistaken,” the communiqué read.
In March 2002, the New York Times reported that
“North Korea threatened … to withdraw from the [1994 nuclear suspension]
agreement if the Bush administration persisted with what North Korea
called a ‘hard-line’ policy that differed from the Clinton
administration’s approach. North Korea also renewed its complaints
against delays in construction of two nuclear reactors promised in the
1994 agreement to fulfill its energy needs.” [NYT, March 14, 2002]
The North Koreans were telegraphing how they would
respond to Bush’s nuclear saber-rattling. They would create a nuclear
threat of their own.
But Bush was in no mood to seek accommodation with
North Korea. During one lectern-pounding tirade before congressional
Republicans in May 2002, Bush denounced North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Il
as a “pygmy” and “a spoiled child at a dinner table,” Newsweek magazine
Clearly, North Korea was on Bush’s menu for “regime
change,” but it wasn’t the first course. The “Bush Doctrine” of
preemptive wars was to have its first test in Iraq, where Saddam
Hussein, along with his two sons and top associates, would face
By early July 2002, U.S. intelligence agencies had
picked up evidence that North Korea had acquired key equipment for
“On Sept. 12, , the same day Mr. Bush
addressed the U.N. about the dangers posed by Iraq, the President met
quietly in New York with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to
brief him on the U.S. intelligence findings about North Korea,” the Wall
Street Journal reported. [WSJ, Oct. 18, 2002]
In early October 2002, U.S. diplomats confronted
Pyongyang with this evidence and were surprised when North Korean
leaders admitted that they were working on building nuclear weapons.
Despite North Korea’s public warnings seven months
earlier, official Washington was stunned. Many analysts puzzled over
what might have caused Pyongyang to violate its earlier promises about
suspending its nuclear program and then admit to it. Bush formally
canceled the 1994 agreement.
For its part, North Korea issued a press release at
the United Nations on Oct. 25, 2002, explaining its reasoning. The
statement cited both Bush’s “axis of evil” rhetoric and the
administration’s decision to target North Korea for a possible
preemptive nuclear strike.
“This was a clear declaration of war against the
D.P.R.K. as it totally nullified” the 1994 agreement, the North Korean
statement read. “Nobody would be so naïve as to think that the D.P.R.K.
would sit idle under such a situation. … The D.P.R.K., which values
sovereignty more than life, was left with no other proper answer to the
U.S. behaving so arrogantly and impertinently.”
Bush’s supporters blamed North Korea’s defiance on
Clinton, arguing that his 1994 agreement to stop North Korea’s nuclear
program was too weak. According to aides, Bush said he would never go
down the path of compromise that Clinton followed. North Korea “would
not be rewarded for bad behavior,” Bush aides told reporters. [NYT, Oct.
Amid Bush’s stratospheric poll numbers in fall
2002, few Washington voices dared challenge the Bush administration’s
finger-pointing at Clinton.
What then happened in Iraq only reinforced North
Korea’s thinking. Despite Saddam Hussein’s assurances that he had no
weapons of mass destruction and his granting permission to U.N.
inspectors to search any suspicious site, Bush simply ignored the U.N.’s
negative findings and invaded anyway on March 19, 2003.
Within three weeks, U.S. forces routed the
overmatched Iraqi army and toppled Hussein’s government. Later,
Hussein’s two sons were hunted down and killed by U.S. troops, and the
Iraqi dictator was captured.
Humiliating photos of Hussein being examined by
doctors and sitting in his underwear were distributed around the world.
He was then put on trial in Iraq – rather than before an international
tribunal at The Hague – so the proceedings could end with his execution
by hanging, an expected outcome that Bush relished.
The war’s consequences for Iraqis over the past 3 ½
years also have been horrific. Tens of thousands of Iraqis – men, women
and children – have died; the once-prosperous country has sunk into
chaos and poverty; ethnic cleansing and a bloody civil war have begun.
While Bush may have intended the Iraq War to be an
object lesson about the futility of defying his will, some American
adversaries learned something else – that disarmament and cooperation
with the U.N. are for suckers.
After all, Hussein had complied with U.N. demands
for eliminating his stockpiles of unconventional weapons and had
forsaken active development of nuclear weapons. He even agreed to
unfettered U.N. inspections.
Hussein’s reward was to see his two sons killed,
his country ravaged, and the almost certain end of his own life coming
as he dangles from the end of a rope, rather than his request that he
die before a firing squad.
So, instead of cowering before Bush and his
Doctrine, North Korea pressed ahead with its nuclear program, claiming
to have detonated a small nuclear device on Oct. 9.
Bush responded to the news with more threats and
more tough rhetoric, calling the explosion a “provocative act” and “a
threat to international peace and security.”
For their part, Democrats argued that Bush’s Iraq
War had distracted the United States from addressing the worse threat
from North Korea.
“What it tells you is that we started at the wrong
end of the ‘axis of evil’” said former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn of
Georgia. “We started with the least dangerous of the countries, Iraq,
and we knew it at the time. And now we have to deal with that.” [NYT,
Oct. 10, 2006]
Another lesson that could be drawn from Bush’s
cowboy rhetoric is that tough-talkin’ diplomacy may play well with
loudmouth TV pundits, newspaper columnists and radio hosts. But it
doesn’t necessarily serve America’s national security interests very
In a Consortiumnews.com story entitled “Deeper
Into the Big Muddy,” published nearly four years ago on Oct. 27,
2002, I wrote:
“As world leaders have known for centuries,
belligerent words and bellicose actions can have real consequences.
Sometimes, potential enemies take hostile gestures more seriously than
they are meant and events spiral out of control. That’s what appears to
have happened with North Korea’s nuclear-bomb program. …
“Potential enemies may come to think that the best
way to protect their nations against Bush’s unilateralist policies and
threats of invasions is to quickly add a nuclear bomb or two to the
In the past four years, Bush’s tough-talkin’
diplomacy has led the United States ever deeper – now neck deep – into
the “big muddy.”
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra
stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from
Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at
secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine,
the Press & 'Project Truth.'