Bush team blames Clinton for crisis
Says 1994 N. Korea agreement left `the difficult things' for next leader
By KAREN DeYOUNG and T.R. REID
Washington Post - 12 Jan - WASHINGTON -- A senior Bush administration official suggested Saturday that the nuclear crisis with North Korea was the predictable result of a flawed 1994 agreement signed by the Clinton administration with Pyongyang that "frontloaded all the benefits and left the difficult things to the end" -- for the next president.
The comments marked a sharp change of direction from the administration's insistence in recent weeks that only North Korea was to blame for the crisis. As recently as last week, Secretary of State Colin Powell said he gave "great credit" to the Clinton administration for freezing North Korea's plutonium enrichment program with the 1994 Agreed Framework.
On Saturday, North Korea threatened to abandon a moratorium on ballistic missile tests, further escalating a confrontation with its neighbors and the United States one day after withdrawing from a global treaty designed to halt the spread of nuclear weapons.
North Korea's ambassador to China, Choe Jin Su, issued the threat at a news conference in Beijing in which he defended his impoverished nation's right to possess "devices to save us from a nuclear attack" and accused the United States of adopting "hostile policies."
The Bush administration's new formulation of blame coincides with a spate of accusations, some from strong administration supporters, that President Bush may have antagonized North Korea by labeling it part of the "axis of evil" and helped provoke the crisis.
That sentiment appeared to be echoed by North Korean officials meeting Friday and Saturday in Santa Fe with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat and former Clinton-era official. Sources involved in those talks said North Korea's deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Han Song Ryol, had said the Bush administration's tough policy toward North Korea was motivated primarily by Bush's desire to do the opposite of what his predecessor had done on foreign policy.
The North Korean asserted that Pyongyang had been developing a working relationship with Washington toward the end of the Clinton era -- indeed, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang just before President Clinton left office -- but then faced a reversal of policy under Bush.
"They think the Bush people have closed the door on them just because Clinton had opened it," said a source involved in the Santa Fe talks.
But the senior Bush administration official said the "idea that the Agreed Framework was going along just fine" was a misperception. "We were getting to a crisis very quickly," the official said.
Under the accord, the United States agreed to move immediately toward a normalized political and economic relationship with North Korea. The Clinton administration agreed that within six months of the October 1994 accord, it would organize an international consortium and sign a contract to build light water nuclear reactors for North Korea. Until the construction was completed, the United States and its partners would supply North Korea with energy in the form of fuel oil shipments.
In exchange, North Korea agreed to freeze, within three months of signing, operations of its graphite-modulated nuclear reactor that the West believed it was using to produce weapons-grade plutonium. Pyongyang also agreed to submit the country to full International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards "when a significant portion of the LWR (light water reactor) project is completed, but before delivery of key nuclear components" for the facilities.
North Korea has admitted it was seeking weapons-grade material through another route, by secretly enriching uranium. With the foundation for the light water reactors poured last fall, the official said, "we were getting ... to the end of the road. Maybe that is what caused the North Koreans to do what they did. ... They weren't prepared to sign on to safeguards" that would uncover the secret program.
North Korea announced last week that it would put the frozen reactor at Yongbyon back into production and said Friday it was withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty under which it had agreed not to produce nuclear weapons. The administration official said Saturday's announcement about abandoning missile tests, like the others, would bring no change in U.S. policy.
"The North Koreans are quite accustomed" to these tactics, the official said. "They threaten and blackmail and people rush to deal with them, and then they keep their means of threatening and blackmailing. We will continue to consult with our allies in the region and demand that North Korea change its behavior before there are talks between the two governments."
The North Korean envoys meeting with Richardson in Santa Fe said they have tried for weeks to arrange talks with the administration but have been repeatedly rebuffed, people involved in the talks said.
Richardson's aides said he had passed along the request for dialogue to Powell. In a statement issued after the Santa Fe talks, Richardson said, "Ambassador Han told me that North Korea has no intentions of building nuclear weapons."