Suggesting that both Clinton and Bush buckled on NK nuke program, Russert ignored halt of plutonium production under Clinton

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

NBC host Tim Russert suggested that both the Bush and Clinton administrations "talk[ed] tough with North Korea" but allowed its nuclear program "to go forward." But Russert ignored the fact that North Korea did not produce any plutonium, nor build or test any nuclear bombs, during Clinton's eight years in office.

While moderating a debate between the U.S. Senate candidates from Minnesota on the October 15 edition of NBC's Meet the Press, host Tim Russert played a clip of then-President Bill Clinton saying in 1993, "North Korea can not be allowed to develop a nuclear bomb." Earlier in the show, Russert had aired a clip of President Bush declaring in 2003, "We will not tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea." Russert went on to say: "When President Clinton said that, the North Koreans probably had the potential to build two nuclear devices. It's now up to 13. And if nothing is done, when George Bush leaves office, it could reach 17. It seems as though the United States talks tough with North Korea, but allows the program to go forward." But in suggesting that both Clinton and Bush reneged on their "red line" against a nuclear weapons capability for North Korea, Russert ignored the fact that North Korea did not produce any plutonium, nor build or test any nuclear bombs, during Clinton's eight years in office, as Media Matters for America has noted. Indeed, the plutonium that gave North Korea the estimated potential "to build two nuclear devices" in 1993 was produced during former President George H.W. Bush's term. And the plutonium that has since increased the estimated potential number of its weapons "to 13" has been produced since George W. Bush took office in 2001.

From the October 15 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press:

RUSSERT: Let me show you what Bill Clinton, when he was president 13 years ago, said about North Korea right here on Meet the Press.

CLINTON [video clip]: North Korea can not be allowed to develop a nuclear bomb. We have to be very firm about it.

RUSSERT: So we've had two presidents -- one Democrat, one Republican. When President Clinton said that, the North Koreans probably had the potential to build two nuclear devices. It's now up to 13. And if nothing is done, when George Bush leaves office, it could reach 17. It seems as though the United States talks tough with North Korea, but allows the program to go forward.

By lumping the Bush and Clinton records together as consisting of "tough" talk and little action, Russert suggested that the estimated increase in North Korea's weapons capacity -- from potentially two weapons in 1993 to potentially 13 weapons in 2006 -- occurred steadily over the past 13 years. In fact, while North Korea increased its supply of plutonium during the presidencies of both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, this program remained frozen during Clinton's two terms in office under a 1994 agreement between the two countries.

According to U.S. intelligence estimates, North Korea may have separated as much as 10 kilograms of plutonium during George H.W. Bush's single term in office -- enough fissile material to produce one or two nuclear weapons. In late 1992, the North Koreans agreed to allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections of its nuclear sites. Shortly after Clinton entered the White House in 1993, however, the North Koreans threatened to kick out the IAEA inspectors and resume their plutonium production. Clinton drew up plans for a military response if they went forward with these plans, and dispatched negotiators to the region.

Ultimately, the negotiations were successful, and North Korea and the United States signed the so-called Agreed Framework on October 21, 1994. The pact stipulated that North Korea would halt its plutonium production and lock up its stockpile of spent fuel rods (used to make weapons-grade plutonium). In return, the United States, along with the European Union, Japan, and South Korea, would assist with the country's energy needs. During the next eight years, North Korea abided by the agreement, and its plutonium-based facilities and materials remained under constant United Nations surveillance. An October 12 Washington Post article quoted former Clinton administration official Robert L. Gallucci, the chief negotiator of the Framework, citing the fact that the agreement kept North Korea's plutonium reactor "frozen" for eight years, likely preventing the production of enough fissile material to produce 100 nuclear weapons:

Robert L. Gallucci, the chief negotiator of the accord and now dean of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, said it is a "ludicrous thing" to say that the Clinton agreement failed. For eight years, the Agreed Framework kept North Korea's five-megawatt plutonium reactor frozen and under international inspection, while North Korea did not build planned 50- and 200-megawatt reactors. If those reactors had been built and running, he said, North Korea would now have enough plutonium for more than 100 nuclear weapons.

By Gallucci's account, North Korea may have produced a small amount of plutonium for one or two weapons before Clinton came into office -- during the administration of Bush's father -- but "no more material was created on his watch."

As the Post went on to note, the Agreed Framework collapsed in 2002, when the Bush administration confronted North Korea with evidence that the regime had taken steps as early as 1997 to develop a clandestine uranium-based nuclear program. Although the 1994 agreement covered only North Korea's plutonium-based nuclear facilities, the Bush administration considered the newly disclosed uranium program a violation of the "spirit" of the agreement. In response, the Bush administration eliminated funding for fuel oil shipments to North Korea, an act contrary to the terms of the Agreed Framework. North Korea subsequently claimed to have begun producing plutonium in early 2003. The country has since accumulated an estimated 20-43 kilograms of the fissile material, enough for two to 12 nuclear weapons.

In a June 2006 report by the Institute for Science and International Security, former U.N. weapons inspector David Albright used U.S. intelligence estimates to document North Korea's estimated plutonium production since 1989. Following is a table summarizing his findings:

Date

U.S. president

Plutonium production (tons)

Weapons equivalent

1989-1992

Bush (41)

0-10

0-2

1993-2000

Clinton

0

0

2001-2004

Bush (43)

20-28

4-7

2005-2006

Bush (43)

0-15

0-3

Total

20-53

4-13

In response to recent public criticism of the Clinton administration's North Korea policy by President Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), numerous former Clinton aides have highlighted the fact that all the plutonium currently in North Korea's possession was produced under the previous two Republican administrations. For instance, former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said: "During the two terms of the Clinton administration, there were no nuclear weapons tests by North Korea, no new plutonium production, and no new nuclear weapons developed in Pyongyang. Through our policy of constructive engagement, the world was safer. President Bush chose a different path, and the results are evident for all to see." Nonetheless, Russert ignored this fact in suggesting that both Clinton and Bush "talk[ed] tough with North Korea but allow[ed] the program to go forward."

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy
Network/Outlet
NBC
Person
Tim Russert
Show/Publication
Meet the Press
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