Nuclear Credulity

By Carolyn Leddy. She covered North Korea's nuclear program as director for counterproliferation strategy on the National Security Council staff from July 2006 to November 2007 (THE WASHINGTON POST, 06/01/08):

Paying off terrorists doesn't work; it only encourages more terrorism. The same is true with nuclear proliferators. They tend to take the bribe and hide the program, and the next thing you know, they're testing nuclear weapons. That was why so many nonproliferation experts welcomed the Bush administration's repudiation of the 1994 "agreed framework" with North Korea. It is also why, after nearly five years of working on nonproliferation issues in the Bush administration, I chose to leave government.

Dec. 31 was the deadline for North Korea to disable its Yongbyon nuclear facility and to provide a full declaration of all its nuclear programs and facilities. A muted news release from the State Department lamented the missed deadline as "unfortunate." White House statements were similarly tepid.

It's well known that most of the administration's nonproliferation experts were unhappy with the agreement reached with North Korea last February. Nonproliferation analysts and experts throughout the administration have been marginalized on national security issues for years. The nuclear agreement with India was negotiated largely absent senior participation from our ranks; the dialogue with allies regarding Iran's nuclear program has been conducted almost exclusively on a political level.

Given that history, few were surprised that the North Korea deal was reached so easily by political and regional officials. But we were assured that President Bush had a personal desire to seek, through the six-party process, an end to North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

To support the president, we labored to define nebulous terminology -- "nuclear programs," say, and "disablement" -- crafted by the negotiators. Nonproliferation experts and verification specialists endured accusations of disloyalty to the administration and of political and international naivete. Our expertise was faulted. Yet we continued to try to strengthen the hand dealt to the president by the State Department and to close the glaring loopholes in the agreement.

Ultimately, it became clear that honest assessments of intelligence on North Korea's nuclear program were not of interest to the administration's "regional specialists." They wanted a deal. They continue to keep the deal afloat even as North Korean intransigence continues.

Last fall the chief U.S. negotiator to the six-party talks, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, testified to Congress that disablement measures underway at the Yongbyon facility would "effectively end" North Korea's plutonium production capability by year's end and that its uranium enrichment program would cease to exist as well. Yet media reports indicate that disablement activities at Yongbyon have slowed to a crawl. In a statement Friday, North Korea professed to have already disclosed all nuclear programs.

Were this merely a matter of a missed deadline, it would hardly be cause for concern. And the deadline reportedly became part of the deal only at President Bush's insistence -- reiterated in his groundbreaking letter to dictator Kim Jong Il last month.

Yet, perhaps anticipating the lapse, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last month that she wasn't "too concerned about whether [the deadline] is December 31 or not."

This view is misguided. As with all things regarding North Korea, the devil is in the details. Deadlines matter. I took part in a U.S. delegation's trip to survey the Yongbyon nuclear facility in September. Afterward, it was clear that North Korean officials view all elements of the six-party agreement as negotiable. If the deadline can be overlooked, so can the "disablement" and the "disclosure." This is how the Clinton administration's agreed framework unraveled.

Declarations are key to arms control and nonproliferation. They are invaluable when judging the sincerity of the state in adhering to its commitments. Any credible declaration from a "nuclear weapons state" should include a thorough accounting of all its plutonium, uranium and weaponization programs. For each of these programs North Korea should be asked to include the specific amounts of nuclear materials; all associated equipment, facilities and components; the organizations and personnel involved; and records (hours of operation, periods of maintenance, etc.) from all associated facilities.

The rubber meets the road here not only for North Korea but also for President Bush's legacy on one of the most pressing threats of our time. The president has already achieved several landmark nonproliferation successes, including the Proliferation Security Initiative and the disarmament of Libya. Ideally, his administration will attain the complete, irreversible and verifiable dismantlement of all aspects of North Korea's nuclear weapons program. At this point, though, I have my doubts.