President George W. Bush has complained that opponents tend to “misunderestimate” him. Could he be misunderestimating his North Korean opponent, Kim Jong Il?
At his recent press conference, President Bush's exchange with CNN White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux left observers scratching their heads.
Malveaux: “Four years ago you labeled North Korea a member of the ‘axis of evil.’ Since then it's increased its nuclear arsenal, it's abandoned six-party talks, and now these missile launches…”
Bush: “That's an interesting statement: ‘North Korea has increased its nuclear arsenal.’ Can you verify that?”
Malveaux: “Well, intelligence sources say—if you'd like to dispute that, that's fine.”
Bush: “No, I'm not going to dispute, I'm just curious.”
Malveaux: “It's increased its nuclear capabilities. It's abandoned six-party talks, and it's launched these missiles.”
Malveaux: “Why shouldn't Americans see the US policy regarding North Korea as a failed one?”
Unquestionably, Bush is familiar with the basic facts about North Korea's expansion of its arsenal of plutonium during his presidency. However, his response suggests an extreme case of cognitive dissonance. Given his image of Kim Jong Il, the score in the face-off between the leader of the world's most powerful nation and one of the weakest states on the globe does not compute.
This discrepancy is enhanced by Bush's personal distaste for North Korea's “Dear Leader,” in Pyongyang-speak. Calling him “a pygmy,” whom he “loathes,” the president views him as “irrational” and “strange.” How then is it possible that in the contest to prevent North Korea's acquisition of nuclear weapons, the score today is Kim Jong Il 8, Bush 0?
Unpalatable as they are, the brute facts cannot be denied. When Bush entered office in 2001, North Korea had one to two bombs' worth of plutonium, according to CIA estimates. That material had been diverted from its Yongbyon research reactor during the presidency of George H.W. Bush and reprocessed to extract the plutonium in 1991.
Today, according to American intelligence estimates, Kim Jong Il has acquired an additional eight bombs' worth of plutonium and thus has an arsenal of as many as 10 weapons. Furthermore, he has restarted his operational production line, making two additional bombs of plutonium every year.
If one widens the lens to the broader US objectives in its policy toward North Korea, the bottom line is even worse. After taking office in 2001, the Bush administration rejected the Clinton approach to North Korea as a “flagrant failure” and trumpeted a new approach. The essence of the Bush administration's North Korean policy was: no North Korean nuclear weapons; no ambiguity about violations of the terms of the 1994 Agreed Framework; no more missile tests; and no rewards to induce better behavior on Pyongyang's part. Before the end of the first year in office, this policy had taken the further step to “regime change.”
In contrast, Kim Jong Il's overriding objective has been regime survival, including the survival of the dear leader himself and his family. In addition to sustaining the regime, he wanted money, oil, and food to keep his desperate economy afloat. And the extent that he could get away with it, he wanted to produce additional fissile material for additional nuclear weapons as well.
Measured against their respective objectives, which of the parties deserves higher marks? Kim Jong Il often seems crazy, but he may be crazy like a fox.
Graham Allison is director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a faculty associate of the Weatherhead Center. He is a former assistant secretary of defense and author of Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe.