The key question of the book is posed: How did North Korea, a poor and isolated country in the crosshairs of every U.S. administration during the past 30 years, progress from no nuclear weapons in 2001 to a threatening arsenal of 30 to 50 weapons in 2021? I posit that the conventional wisdom that America's good faith diplomatic efforts were circumvented by the North's repeated violations of diplomatic agreements is neither true nor helpful. I take a different look at the problem, one of critical introspection that combines rigorous analysis of political and technical developments. The rest of the book demonstrates that the past three U.S. administrations have failed to effectively respond to North Korea's dual-track strategy of pursuing nuclear development and diplomacy concurrently. Consequently, they misinterpreted some of the North's actions and missed key opportunities that led to bad decisions with bad consequences at critical "hinge points."
This chapter provides a primer on the technical knowledge and resources required to build the bomb and how much of that North Korea had in place through the mid-1990s. The approach is based on what has worked in the courses I have taught at universities and the public lectures I have presented. I describe the horrors of the million-fold increase in destructive power of nuclear over conventional technologies unleashed during the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. I highlight the dual-use problem of nuclear technologies to do good or to cause destruction, and what has been done internationally in the decades since World War II to control the spread of nuclear weapons.
President Bush inherited from President Clinton a better situation on the Korean Peninsula in January 2001 than any U.S. administration in the previous 50 years. At the end of the Cold War, Kim Il Sung, the country's founder, decided to explore a long-term strategic relationship with the United States through diplomacy by projecting strength, not weakness. This position gave rise to the dual-track nuclear and diplomacy strategy. The landmark 1994 Agreed Framework came close to ending enmities on the Korean Peninsula. It was terminated by the Bush administration. When the administration confronted Pyongyang with purported evidence that it was covertly pursuing the bomb through uranium enrichment, the death of the Agreed Framework swiftly followed. By accusing Pyongyang of a covert uranium enrichment program and killing the Agreed Framework, the administration allowed the North to take decisive and threatening steps toward the bomb by reactivating its plutonium complex.
I describe my visit to North Korea in an unofficial, non-governmental capacity. Discussions with foreign ministry officials were eye opening. The visit highlight was to the Yongbyon nuclear complex and discussions with scientific personnel. The technical knowledge I gleaned demonstrated just how disastrous it was for the administration to walk away from the Agreed Framework and let North Korea build the bomb. It resulted in the first hinge point where bad decisions led to bad consequences. I take the readers through an unanticipated moment when Director Ri Hong Sop allowed me to hold the North's recently produced plutonium in my hands (in a sealed glass jar) to see if it was warm to the touch and confirm that it was plutonium. I describe the congressional hearing in Washington upon my return, explaining what I saw and why it mattered to entranced senators, including Senator Joe Biden.
I describe what happened when the administration wielded Bolton's hammer to smash the Agreed Framework and how unprepared it was when North Korea proceeded to build the bomb. In keeping with its dual-track strategy, Pyongyang engaged in diplomacy, but mostly to buy time for its nuclear weapon program. The North agreed to engage in a nuclear dialogue with its four neighbors and the United States. These "six-party talks" made little progress until President Bush's re-election in November 2004, which was followed by the departure or re-assignment of key administration hard-liners. Ambassador Christopher Hill was chosen as the new negotiator and given greater leeway that allowed him to meet bilaterally with the North. Pyongyang continued to consolidate its nuclear advances and in 2005 appeared to return to pursue diplomacy seriously. It insisted that any new agreement must include the future provision of light water reactors.
Back in Pyongyang with John Lewis in August 2005, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan told us they were ready to return to a nuclear deal, but they wanted Washington to provide a light water reactor. We met with Yongbyon director Ri Hong Sop, who told us we could not visit the nuclear facilities because they were extracting plutonium from their latest reactor operation. Director Ri provided important updates on the status of the Yongbyon complex. We briefed Secretary Condoleezza Rice and found the Bush administration bitterly divided about proceeding with a new agreement with North Korea. Nevertheless, in September, the Americans signed a six-party joint statement for the elimination of nuclear weapons, only to issue a follow-up unilateral statement that walked back key provisions. Unsurprisingly, North Korea walked, built more bombs, and prepared for a nuclear test. It was another a hinge point with bad consequences.
This chapter covers the interim between the six-party joint statement in September 2005 and my next visit to North Korea only weeks after the North tested its first nuclear device underground at the Punggye-ri test site in October 2006. Having felt betrayed by having the Americans issue their own unilateral statement, North Korean diplomats remained engaged but mostly to buy time for the North to prepare for a long-range missile test in July 2006, followed by its first nuclear test in October.
My third visit to North Korea was three weeks after the October 2006 nuclear test. Although the blast was considerably smaller than what Pyongyang had announced as their target of four kilotons, and that of the other seven nations that had tested an underground nuclear device, I believed they must have learned a lot and would almost certainly conduct another. The visit demonstrated that the North was moving full speed ahead with its nuclear operations. Despite the low yield, the nuclear test was a game changer. North Korea proclaimed its arrival on the global scene as a self-declared nuclear power. I describe how deftly North Korea was able to stare down the international community and manage the political consequences. A stop in Beijing on the way back to the U.S. provided valuable insights on the North's test from the Chinese nuclear establishment.
Having self-declared their status as a nuclear weapon state following the nuclear test, North Korea returned to the diplomatic table while continuing to advance its nuclear capabilities, apparently exercising both paths of the dual-track strategy. This time, Kim Jong Il found the Bush administration eager to engage. North Korea signed an accord under the six-party process that again promised to eliminate its nuclear weapon program, but in a systematic, phased action-for-action manner. The Yongbyon nuclear complex was scheduled to be disabled, followed by eventual dismantlement. Washington agreed to move toward normalization. Both parties took significant steps in these directions. North Korea's egregious assistance to help Syria build a plutonium production reactor was terminated by an Israeli air raid in September 2007. However, Pyongyang managed to escape international condemnation, at least at the time being, because the major parties chose to keep both the reactor's existence and its destruction under wraps.
North Korea mounted a multi-pronged diplomacy campaign based on the February 2007 six-party accord. Vice Minister Kim met with our Stanford University delegation in nearby Saratoga to engage in candid discussions about the accord, including another pitch for a light water reactor. I also share my role in assessing the North's clandestine plutonium production reactor in Syria that was destroyed by the Israeli air raid. I describe my 2007 and 2008 visits to Yongbyon to verify their disablement actions. I reported back to Washington that the North had taken serious disablement steps, but they were reversible in less than a year. I describe my visit to their plutonium glove box laboratories, which illustrated that their plutonium operation was small but functional, and their safety practices were primitive.
I describe the aftermath of the U.S. Intelligence Community's public disclosure of North Korea's role in building Syria's plutonium production reactor. The Bush administration's silence appeared to give Pyongyang a pass on one of the world's most egregious proliferation activities. Ambassador Hill put on a full court press to get a denuclearization deal with the North before the end of the Bush administration. He failed because hardline administration officials undermined his efforts, and he did not fully account for Kim Jong Il's life-threatening stroke in August derailing the North's interest in a deal. Following the stroke, the North's leadership began to consolidate the Kim family's power and plan for succession to his youngest son, Kim Jong Un. The sun set on the Bush administration in January 2009, leaving newly elected President Obama with a much greater nuclear threat than what Bush had inherited.
I describe my sixth visit to North Korea as President Obama entered the presidency. We learned that we were invited primarily to send a message to Washington that North Korea was preparing to suspend Yongbyon disablement. I provide an analysis that concludes Pyongyang had set a trap for President Obama by announcing and attempting a satellite launch shortly after his inauguration. The launch, despite failing to send a satellite into orbit, yielded the expected condemnation from Washington, giving Pyongyang what it was looking for – a justification to conduct a second nuclear test, which it did successfully in May 2009. Pyongyang pursued both the diplomacy and nuclear prongs of its dual-track strategy in 2007 and into early 2008, but by the fall had made the decision to move the nuclear program ahead of the diplomatic track, long before the Obama administration came into office.
I cover the North's failed satellite launch in early 2009. It failed its technical mission, but Pyongyang achieved its political objective - to use the UN Security Council condemnation to end all agreements, expel U.S. and international inspectors from Yongbyon, and most importantly pave the way for the North to conduct the country's second nuclear test, this one successful. North Korea continued to enhance its nuclear and missile capabilities. Pyongyang also continued diplomacy, but mostly to buy time for its nuclear program. The Obama administration settled into "strategic patience," a label it tried to disavow for the rest of its tenure. Strategic patience centered on a stated aversion to "rewarding bad behavior," coupled with a conditional willingness to return to high-level talks if North Korea showed a serious commitment to negotiate an end to its nuclear program. It resulted in the Obama administration engaging only episodically with Pyongyang.
Pyongyang surprised us by revealing a modern, small industrial-scale centrifuge facility and the construction of an indigenous LWR in Yongbyon during my last, and very tightly scripted, visit. Almost everything known today outside of North Korea about the centrifuge facility and the LWR design is based on this visit. The new first vice foreign minister, Ri Yong Ho, told us that the LWR and enrichment were for their civilian nuclear program – at least for now. He also opined that Obama's "strategic patience" policy was fine because it gives them time to finish the LWR and produce low-enriched uranium fuel. The report of our visit demonstrated how badly the Obama administration's North Korea policy had failed. We advised Secretary Hillary Clinton that the administration should stop matters from getting worse – the "Three No's" – no more bombs, no better bombs, and no export.
North Korea returned to diplomacy after revealing the centrifuge facility but faced a reluctant Obama administration still feeling the sting of the prior satellite and nuclear tests. Yet, special representative Bosworth and his successor, Glyn Davies, put the pieces together for a new deal just as Kim Jong Il died of a heart attack in December 2011. The new agreement, known as the Leap Day Deal, was consummated by Kim Jong Un on February 29. Each side issued their own statements with notable differences. North Korea announced it would soon launch a satellite to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the country's founder, Kim Il Sung. It argued that this space launch was consistent with its interpretation of the deal's provisions. But Washington viewed the launch as a violation of the deal. It proved too much for the Obama administration, and it decided to walk away.
I describe the consequences of the North's attempted satellite launch and Washington's "blowing up the deal." For President Obama, the launch was the final straw that demonstrated North Korea's insincerity and untrustworthiness. However, abandoning the deal sacrificed getting observers back on the ground at the Yongbyon nuclear complex, stopping the centrifuges from spinning there, and achieving a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests. All of this would have been achieved for the promise of a couple of hundred thousand tons of U.S. nutritional aid to North Korea. The technical risks posed by the satellite launch were miniscule compared to the potential benefits of the deal. It was a major hinge point. Instead of slowing the program and learning critical technical details, the U.S. was left watching from its satellites as the North doubled the size of the centrifuge facility during the next couple of years.
The administration moved from strategic patience to benign neglect. North Korea moved its nuclear track back to high priority. It expanded the Yongbyon facilities and conducted three additional nuclear tests and more than 60 missile tests during Obama's second term. Pyongyang made one more attempt at diplomacy in January 2015 by offering to trade a nuclear test moratorium for a moratorium on U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises. By this time, the Obama administration was firmly convinced of Pyongyang's insincerity that it rejected the offer out of hand the next day. Little attention was paid to North Korea as Obama focused on a nuclear deal with Iran. Yet, during his exit briefing for incoming President-elect Trump, he warned him that North Korea would be his top national security priority.
The unprepared and unpredictable new U.S. president faced off with young Kim Jong Un. The Trump administration settled on "maximum pressure" North Korea policy, essentially doubling down on what had failed for Obama. The wild card in the mix was President Trump, who took to Twitter to threaten and insult the young leader. It was a tumultuous year in which Trump unleashed a war of words, threatening Kim with "fire and fury, like the world has never seen," and warning that the U.S. might "have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea." Kim put his nuclear and missile programs into high gear, achieving both hydrogen bomb capability and ICBM missiles much sooner than anyone had predicted. Kim ended the year by indicating that he had now completed his nuclear force. Trump sent a secret message via a UN official to Kim that he was willing to meet.
President Trump did a 180-degree turn from threatening Kim with "fire and fury" to turning on his charm to reach a deal with Kim. He was strongly supported by South Korean President Moon Jae In. Their efforts cleared the way for the first U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore in June 2018. The two leaders struck up a personal relationship that lasted through Trump's term in office. In Singapore, they produced a short but important joint statement pledging to pursue denuclearization and normalization of relations. Trump was roundly criticized back home for not getting more, but I viewed it as a critical step in the right direction. However, John Bolton returned to the government as Trump's National Security Advisor. As he describes in his tell-all book The Room Where It Happened, he was determined to undermine any agreement with North Korea that sought anything short of its complete capitulation.
Kim was determined to build on personal rapport with Trump to conduct diplomacy through exchange of personal letters, which led to the Hanoi Summit in February 2019. In Washington, divisions and dysfunction failed to prepare well for the summit. Bolton was determined to prevent a deal. He convinced Trump that it was better for him to walk away unless the North totally capitulated its nuclear program. I describe the protracted discussions in Hanoi and how and why the summit ended in failure. Kim returned home angry and disillusioned. Trump continued hope for a deal, but Kim expressed his utter disappointment in personal letters to Trump. Trump had brought the Korean Peninsula close to war in 2017, then opened the door to Kim with personal diplomacy, but failed to take advantage of the good will created and left President Biden a much bigger nuclear problem than what he had inherited.
I argue that turning the lens inward to critically assess Washington's role is the most constructive way for improving U.S. policy. An honest account of the history is not kind to Washington. The failures of the Bush, Trump, and Obama administrations at key hinge points are contrasted in this chapter with the relatively successful approach of the Clinton administration during the Agreed Framework period. I summarize what happened at the key decision points in the three administrations and explain why U.S. policymakers would have benefited from a technically informed, risk management approach as they dealt with Pyongyang's dual-track, nuclear and diplomacy policy. Sadly, the hinge points were moments when Washington may have been able to effectively channel Pyongyang further down the diplomatic road toward the elimination of nuclear weapons, but instead exacerbated the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula. I conclude by reviewing other common-mode failures of the three administrations.