The Endless Errors in U.S. Korea Policy That Has Brought Us to the Brink of Nuclear War

His article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

Back in 2015, I published the second edition of Dancing with the Devil, an academic and policy study of more than a half century of US attempts to engage and negotiate with so-called rogue regimes, a moniker embraced by the Clinton administration to address those states which did not abide by the norms of diplomacy and which engaged in terrorism or nuclear proliferation.

North Korea, of course, was perhaps the first rogue regime to confront the United States.

What follows is a much abridged version of the study of US diplomacy with North Korea and how we got to where we are.

The Korean War never ended. The 1953 Armistice merely ended the most active phase of the conflict, but more than a million troops still face each other across a demilitarized zone (DMZ) less than three miles wide.

By the end of the 1960s, it appeared fighting could again erupt on the peninsula. Between 1966 and 1969, there were more than 280 North Korean attacks on Americans or South Koreans around the DMZ.

North Korean commandos staged attacks on the presidential mansion in Seoul and North Korean forces seized the USS Pueblo , a US Navy intelligence-gathering ship operating in international waters off the North Korean coast and took hostage all the ship's personnel.

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An undated photo released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on November 11, 2016 showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un at the defense detachment on Mahap Islet in Ongjin County, South Hwanghae. KNS/AFP/Getty

Only after Lyndon Johnson dispatched the USS Enterprise battle group did the North Koreans even agree to discuss the Pueblo, but when North Korean leader Kim Il Sung concluded that American military force was off the table, talks went nowhere.

It was almost a year before the North Koreans released the Pueblo 's crew, and then only after Gen. Gilbert Woodward signed a humiliating "confession" on behalf of the US government.

North Korea often couples provocation with outreach. On April 15, 1969 – Kim Il Sung's birthday – and just day after North Korean officials proposed a meeting in the DMZ, two North Korean MiG-21s shot down an unarmed U.S. surveillance aircraft over the Sea of Japan, killing 31 American servicemen.

Nixon contemplated military action but embraced diplomacy. Talks failed.

Over the next four months, North Korean soldiers attacked United Nations Command guard posts and personnel, and North Korean saboteurs attempted to infiltrate South Korea by sea four times.

Then, four days after the two sides again met, North Korean forces shot down an unarmed American helicopter on a training mission along the DMZ. North Korean authorities demanded the United States acknowledge its criminality and apologize.

Even as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger moved to warm relations with Beijing, America's relationship with North Korea remained frozen.

As the Ford administration wound down, North Korea struck at Americans in the DMZ. As American Cpt. Arthur Bonifas supervised a work crew trimming a tree, some 20 North Koreans soldiers knocked Bonifas and Lt. Mark Barrett to the ground and hacked them to death with axes. The brutality shocked even North Korea's traditional allies.

In response, the United States launched Operation Paul Bunyan, deploying fighter-jets, B-52s, and the USS Midway to support the tree-trimming exercise. Credible force worked. Not only did North Korea stand down, but Kim Il Sung offered regrets.

Jimmy Carter rejected the lessons of his predecessors. On January 16, 1975, shortly after declaring his candidacy for president, he declared his intent to withdraw American forces from Korea.

The Democratic National Convention adopted Carter's platform calling for the gradual withdrawal of U.S. ground forces and nuclear weapons from South Korea. Carter's more worldly advisors sought to rein him in.

Believing Carter hopelessly naïve, Kim Il Sung wasted no time in offering diplomacy. He also sought to lull Carter into complacency. The DMZ enjoyed the longest pause in provocations, although violence escalated toward Japan (this is the period in which many of the abductions of Japanese citizens occurred). Simply put, Kim sought to divide the U.S. from its allies.

Carter never gave up hope that he might broker peace on the Korean Peninsula. He had uncritical trust in his own power of persuasion. His aides and the U.S. ambassador in Seoul talked the president out of a "flaky" proposal to invite both leaders to the DMZ. Other Carter proposals also went nowhere, and Carter lost his re-election.

Ronald Reagan inherited a more dangerous Korea largely because Carter's desire for diplomacy had emboldened Kim Il Sung.

Reagan turned Carter's approach on its head. Carter wanted to evacuate troops from the Korean peninsula; Reagan added to them. It was against this backdrop that China again became central to the Korean conflict.

A decade after Nixon visited China, Beijing was finding its stride. China became a middleman. On October 8, 1983, Chinese diplomats passed the American embassy in Beijing a North Korean message expressing Pyongyang's willingness to participate in tripartite talks.

Soon after, Kim Il Sung's eldest son and future successor, Kim Jong Il launched an terrorist attack in Burma which killed 21 South Koreans, including the foreign minister. Reagan had no patience for North Korea only seeking to engage in order to escape accountability for its actions.

After the 1988 Olympics hosted by Seoul ended, South Korean President Roh Tae Woo announced that the South would no longer seek to isolate the North. He unveiled a program to promote trade, exchanges, and humanitarian contacts with the North. The State Department effusively enthused, calling it "a major — indeed historic — reversal of traditional" South Korean policy. Skeptics abounded, but it was hard to argue when America's Korean allies wanted to talk.

After Roh informed the Americans that he would seek a summit with Kim Il Sung, the State Department let Pyongyang know that Washington would also like to improve relations should North Korea cease its belligerence and terrorism. The North Koreans agreed, and so began a series of nearly three dozen bilateral meetings spread over five years.

While the State Department considered the talks a success, they did little to address the chief US concerns: North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.

The Origins of North Korea's Nuclear Program

This brings us to the nuclear program. In 1980, a spy satellite spotted construction of a nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. Four years later, satellites detected craters suggesting North Korea was experimenting with detonators used in nuclear bombs.

That North Korea had signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1985 should not have assuaged diplomats; the Soviet Union had promised North Korea four nuclear plants should it accept the Non-Proliferation treaty. The NPT allowed Pyongyang to import dual use equipment. Pyongyang simply rebuffed the requirement that it sign a safeguards agreement with the IAEA.

By February 1987, it was clear that North Korea intended to produce plutonium. The next year, satellites detected evidence that North Korea was experimenting with the explosions needed to set off a nuclear warhead.

Whereas Reagan had kept concerns about Yongbyon secret to keep surprise attack an option, George H.W. Bush put diplomacy front and center. Secretary of State James Baker explained, "Our diplomatic strategy was designed to build international pressure against North Korea to force them to live up to their agreements."

North Korea responded with bluster. Bush agreed to remove American nuclear missiles from South Korea in order to jumpstart talks.

Initially, it looked like Bush had found the magic formula. North and South Korean officials signed a North-South Denuclearization Declaration in which the two Koreas foreswore plutonium reprocessing and uranium enrichment, and agreed not to test, manufacture, produce, possess, deploy, or use nuclear weapons.

Both sides also agreed to inspections by a joint commission. In his memoirs, Baker credited patient diplomacy for "an end to six years of intransigence by the North."

But while Baker congratulated himself, the Dear Leader recognized Baker was desperate and concluded he could outlast the Americans. In order to get the deal done, Baker acquiesced to a clause which limited inspections to sites "agreed upon between the two sides," in effect giving North Korea a veto.

National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft sought to leverage the success of the deal with new high-level talks. Arnold Kanter offered the North Korean team good relations and perhaps even normalization should North Korea adhere to its commitments, including the Denuclearization Declaration which it had signed only weeks before. That North Korea refused should have raised red flags, but, for diplomacy's cheerleaders, the fact that talks occurred was success enough.

In hindsight, the removal of U.S. nuclear arms from Korea and the subsequent cancellation of its military exercises with South Korea in 1992 were mistakes. By the end of the year, all signs of progress had evaporated.

Channels between the Koreas froze, and Pyongyang again blocked inspections, although not before inspectors learned that North Korea was on pace to produce more plutonium than Americans had earlier estimated.

As Bush prepared to leave office, the depth of North Korean duplicity became clear.

The Agreed Framework

Bill Clinton won the presidency as the crisis on the Korean peninsula peaked. Clinton had barely been president a month when Pyongyang not only refused to allow IAEA inspections but, just weeks after that, also announced that it would withdraw from the NPT in three month's time.

Over subsequent weeks, North Korea's sabre-rattling grew. Rumors swirled that North Korea was expelling or quarantining foreign diplomats, recalling its own delegations from abroad, and cutting telephone lines.

If Kim Il Sung expected Washington to flinch, he was right. The State Department sought to keep North Korea within the NPT at almost any price.

Unwilling to take any path which could lead to military action, Clinton's team sought to talk Pyongyang down from its nuclear defiance. The State Department sought to leverage China's influence upon Pyongyang, but even Beijing's limited help came at a price of watering down actions.

Clinton's willingness to negotiate North Korea's nuclear compliance was itself a concession, albeit one to which Clinton was oblivious. The 1953 Armistice Agreement demanded Pyongyang reveal all military facilities and, in case of dispute, enable the Military Armistice Commission to inspect suspect facilities to determine their purpose. By making weaker non-proliferation frameworks the new baseline, Clinton let North Korea off-the-hook before talks even began.

As the clock-ticked, US diplomats agreed to "support" provision and construction of light-water reactors which were less of a proliferation concern. The American concession, however, came absent any North Korean movement to allow IAEA inspection of suspect sites.

The IAEA held firmer to the demand that North Korea submit to inspections than did Washington. The State Department actually pressured the IAEA to compromise upon limited inspections, but Clinton was losing his patience. "North Korea cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear bomb," Clinton declared on November 7, 1993.

Still, Clinton was wary that coercion could be a slippery slope to war. Behind-the-scenes, however, Clinton's national team concluded diplomacy was their only real choice.

When North Korean officials balked at intrusive inspections or indeed any effective verification of its activities, the Clinton team agreed to discuss it, in effect turning North Korea's earlier commitment into a negotiable point. Adding insult to injury, the Clinton administration blamed the South Korean government for its unwillingness to compromise.

The more flexible Clinton became, the more intransigent North Korea grew. It refused all inspections and they threatened to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire."

The Pentagon refined its war plans. As Clinton's cabinet debated what to do, Jimmy Carter, in Pyongyang for an ostensibly personal visit, announced that Kim Il Sung would freeze North Korea's nuclear program and keep IAEA inspectors in the country in exchange for American support for North Korean acquisition of Light Water Reactors.

Carter, without authorization, conceded to Pyongyang the right to reprocess nuclear fuel rods, in effect giving Pyongyang enough plutonium to construct five nuclear bombs. Carter also told the Dear Leader that the White House would abandon its drive for UN sanctions, a concession Clinton had not authorized.

Carter believed he had achieved a breakthrough and announced as much on CNN, effectively trapping Clinton. Kim Il Sung's sudden re-embrace of diplomacy was simply the repeat of his strategy to push to the brink of war to win concessions.

On July 8, 1994, a heart attack felled Kim Il Sung. Kim Jong Il, eldest son and mastermind of past terrorist attacks, assumed command.

To the surprise of the State Department, the new negotiations progressed quickly. North Korea wanted compensation for shuttering its reactors and energy assistance until the Light Water Reactors would come on line. Chief negotiator Robert Gallucci and his team agreed that the United States would supply 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil annually.

The North Korean team agreed to submit to inspections of the suspect plutonium sites, the trigger for the initial crisis, but only after most of the Light Water Reactor components had been shipped. This effectively meant that North Korea would be inspection-free for five years.

What had begun as an illicit North Korean filibuster had netted the rogue communist regime billions of dollars in aid.

On March 9, 1995, the U.S., South Korean and Japanese governments stood up the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) to coordinate provision of the Light Water Reactors and heavy fuel oil. Shortly after oil shipments to North Korea began, Pyongyang began to divert oil to its steel industry in violation of the Agreed Framework , and balked on South Korea's role in the light water reactors.

The Four Party Talks

The Clinton administration sought to catapult its Agreed Framework "success" into new talks to address North Korea's missile program and to move to a permanent peace treaty.

On April 16, 1996, Clinton and South Korean President Kim Young Sam proposed that the United States, China, and the two Koreas participate in talks without preconditions. North Korea demanded incentives to participate, but nothing could derail Clinton's enthusiasm for engagement, even when North Korea inserted commandos into the south by submarine.

Clinton bent to North Korean demands that food aid be based not only on humanitarian need, but also as a reward for talking.

The Geneva talks accomplished little, however, besides happening. North Korea called off one missile test, but didn't stop work. When the incentives stopped flowing, Kim Jong Il stopped cooperating. In June 1997, North Korean negotiators shrugged off American demands that they not deploy the Nodong missile and cease selling Scud missiles.

The situation would soon go from bad to worse. On March 31, 1998, the North Korean News Agency charged the United States with delaying both fuel oil delivery and light-water nuclear reactor construction.

On May 8, 1998 when the North Korean foreign ministry announced it would no longer abide by the Agreed Framework. Clinton responded by augmenting its offer to Pyongyang. State Department spokesman James Rubin defended U.S. policy even as the General Accounting Office highlighted North Korean cheating, including its hiding of weapons-grade plutonium.

In the year following the North Korean abandonment of the Agreed Framework, food assistance almost tripled and American assistance to KEDO continued. It was in this context that North Korean authorities demanded $300 million simply to permit inspection of an underground suspected nuclear site near Kumchang-ni and $1 billion to stop missile exports.

Once again, Clinton succumbed to the extortion. Pyongyang gloated. "We came down hard on the United States without giving it a moment of respite and thus compelled it to partially lift the economic sanctions against us," it declared. It then increased its price of ceasing missile exports to $3 billion.

Any doubt about Pyongyang's sincerity should have ended on August 31, 1998 when, while talks were ongoing in New York, North Korea launched a new missile over Japan. The launch symbolized both the advancement of North Korea's military under the Agreed Framework.

While Washington embraced further investment in the North, Japan had had enough, and suspended its KEDO funding.

The Clinton administration did not allow the North's defiance or its failure to fulfill commitments to sidetrack diplomacy. The October 1999 missile talks went nowhere, however, and the following month North Korea resumed construction of launch pads and storage bunkers.

In May 1999, former Defense Secretary William J. Perry visited Pyongyang to present the administration's plan to scale back sanctions in exchange for North Korea's commitment to halt the deployment and export of its ballistic missiles. Kim Jong-il refused to meet him, however, but Perry settled for a promise by a lower ranking official to stop missile tests.

That was enough for Clinton to ease sanctions. This time, it took Pyongyang only one week to renege on its commitments.

South Korean President Kim Dae-jung was even more enthusiastic that Clinton talk to the North. Between June 13 and 15, 2000, he made a historic visit to Pyongyang which culminated in the signing of a Joint Declaration, long on symbolism but short on specifics.

Far from being a triumph of diplomacy, it later transpired that the South Korean government secretly paid the North an additional $200 million to enable the photo-op to happen.

Engagement did not change behavior, money did, and then only fleetingly. This may have been the reason why Kim Jong-il invited Clinton to Pyongyang. The president demurred, but sent Secretary of State Madeleine Albright instead.

She attended a mass performance with the Dear Leader which featured a depiction of a Taepodong missile launch. Albright laughed it off. Joseph Biden, then the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was ecstatic with the diplomacy, however. "The results of this comprehensive and integrated engagement strategy have stunned even the most optimistic observers," he declared.

Condoleezza Rice Makes Things Worse

When President George W. Bush took office, most of his senior advisors were skeptical of diplomacy with North Korea, though Secretary of State Colin Powell was the notable exception.

"We do plan to engage with North Korea to pick up where President Clinton and his administration left off," Powell told the press. Bush said he would not allow optimism to cloud analysis. "I've got a message to Kim Jong-il: fulfill your end of the bargain," Bush told Asian newspaper editors.

North Korean claims of aggrievement reached fever pitch after Bush placed North Korea in the Axis of Evil. Powell meanwhile pushed forward with efforts to engage, even after information surfaced with regard to the extent of North Korean uranium enrichment.

On July 31, 2002, he met his North Korean counterpart Paek Nam-sun on the sidelines of an ASEAN conference. Then, without White House clearance, Powell sent an aide to a ceremony celebrating Agreed Framework progress despite U.S. suspicion that the North was violating the accord by illegal uranium enrichment.

On October 4, 2002, Kang Sok Ju acknowledged that North Korea had maintained a covert uranium enrichment program in violation of both the 1992 Denuclearization Declaration and Agreed Framework. KEDO responded by cutting off heavy oil shipments. Pyongyang responded by announcing withdraw from the NPT, expelling of IAEA monitors, and restarting of the Yongbyon reactor.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage wanted to jump start diplomacy and so down-played North Korean allegations of cheating and said, "There is nothing in itself wrong with [North Korea's test-firing of missile engines."

North Korea seized upon Armitage's statements to affirm its own behavior. Kim Jong-il's regime further justified its violations in delays in the construction of the promised light water reactors. While there was disagreement over schedule, that did not justify North Korea's wholesale violation of its agreements.

On February 12, 2003, CIA director George Tenet reported that North Korea might already possess missiles capable of reaching the continental United States. Two months later, French, German, and Egyptian authorities intercepted a 22-ton shipment destined for Pyongyang of aluminum tubing matching specifications needed for vacuum casings for an Urenco centrifuge. The regime had been caught red-handed.

Bush sought to resolve the crisis in Six-Party talks to include both Koreas, China, Japan, and Russia. Li Gun, the head of Pyongyang's delegation, told his American counterpart, "You have always thought we had nuclear weapons; well, I am here to tell you that we do. And what we do with them is up to you," he declared.

In June 2004, the U.S. team declared that if North Korea froze and then dismantled its nuclear program, it would receive incentives and regime rehabilitation. North Korea refused, instead gambling that a John Kerry defeat of Bush in 2004 would lead to a more generous package.

Kerry lost, but Kim Jong-il's gamble paid off anyway. Condoleezza Rice, the new secretary of state, sought to jumpstart diplomacy, at almost any price.

Rice and Assistant Secretary Christopher Hill sought to infuse Bush's black-and-white approach with shades of gray. Rice ordered concessions on other counts. No longer would the U.S. demand that North Korea cease its nuclear program. The State Department also ended its focus on highly-enriched uranium.

Pyongyang's decision to launch seven ballistic missiles on July 4 and 5, 2006 and then conduct an underground nuclear test three months later underscored, if not insincerity, then consistent defiance amidst American outreach. Pyongyang's production of weapons-grade plutonium also belied diplomacy's success.

With the war in Iraq growing so unpopular, Rice had decided to double down on efforts to win a breakthrough on North Korea in order to cement a positive legacy for Bush.

In November 2006, Rice and Hill offered to remove North Korea from the state sponsors of terrorism list and Trading with the Enemy Act, scrapping the Clinton team's demand that North Korea provide a written guarantee that it had ceased terrorism, would acquiesce to international agreements combating terrorism, and would address its past terrorism.

Between September 2007 and April 2008, the United States negotiated an agreement with North Korea which obliged the regime to disable its plutonium facilities at Yongbyon and provide a "complete and correct" description of its nuclear programs. In exchange, the United States would lift economic sanctions and finalize North Korea's removal from the terrorism list.

In effect, the United States would no longer demand an end to and reversal of North Korea's illegal actions. All Bush's team demanded was that Pyongyang acknowledge American concerns.

It was the diplomatic equivalent of letting a serial killer go free if he only promised to say sorry. Rice was so desperate for a deal, though, that she simply ignored North Korea's failure to uphold even this watered down agreement.

Even the North Korean demolishing of its cooling tower at Yongbyon was less than met the eye, as it did not set back North Korea's plutonium program appreciably. North Korea's declaration of its plutonium reserves was also far less than American estimates.

As for President Obama? He was more skeptical of North Korea than his predecessors, even if he did repeat their mistakes with regard to Iran.

The point is this: It is easy to play the partisan blame game, but North Korea's development of nuclear weapons and its slow progress on the means to deliver them to U.S. territories like Guam if not to Hawaii, Alaska, and the U.S. West Coast, is a testament to decades of diplomatic and strategic failure on the part of almost every U.S. administration, regardless of party.

The cost of this failure is grave and growing, and may be counted not only in billions of dollars but also in millions of lives.

Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official who instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. He has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.

The Endless Errors in U.S. Korea Policy That Has Brought Us to the Brink of Nuclear War | Opinion