Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Okay, I admit it. Even I'm a bit North Korea-ed out at this point. But let's run down a few quick points.

War may not be likely on the Korean Peninsula and not even a certainty in Iraq, but the White House's war against the English language is already into its second or third major engagement. Yesterday at the White House just about every reporter in the press corps, it seems, took a stab at getting Fleischer to explain why Jim Kelly's suggestion that energy aid might come in response to North Korean nuclear cooperation wasn't what it sounded like, i.e., a possible quid pro quo. It's an entertaining performance. Even some of the more adminstration-helpful members of the press couldn't help calling Fleischer out on this ridiculousness.

Meanwhile, we have another example of the administration's incompetence and disorganization which played a major role in getting us to this point in the first place. Yesterday, as we just noted, Jim Kelly laid out the possibility of a new aid-for-nuclear-cooperation agreement with the North. In this morning's Washington Post, however, an unnamed administration official from the hawk camp says "Kelly went off the reservation" and that "he should not have planted that seed."

Here's the point: if your chosen Korea point man (Kelly) goes to the region and makes a major announcement and is then undercut or repudiated by other officials back home, by definition, that's a screw up. Whoever's right, whoever's got the right policy, it's a screw up. One hand doesn't know what the other's doing. The administration can't negotiate effectively with its allies or 'talk' with the North Koreans because it hasn't even gotten to the bottom of its negotiations with itself.

And the game seems to be commenced on this issue of when the administration found out about the North Koreans uranium-enrichment program. In his comments yesterday Fleischer seemed to say that the administration was readying a new package, a new overture to the North Koreans last Fall, before it found out about their violation of the 1994 agreement ...

Q Ari, on North Korea, are you saying it is now okay for American officials to talk about what North Korea could expect from good behavior after it comes back into compliance?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, it's nothing new. American officials have said that since Jim Kelly went to Korea and met with Korean officials and said we are prepared to offer a bold package for North Korea, until it was clear that you had violated the existing agreements that you made.

However, as we've noted, former Clinton administration officials are saying this was known about in 1999 and 2000 and that they briefed the incoming Bush administration officials on this in January 2001. That raises the question of why the administration chose to press the matter when they did and, more importantly, why they failed to press it earlier. (We'll say more on what we think the answer to that question is in a subsequent post.) The administration's claim seems even more strained given the fact that this unclassified (i.e., public) CIA report to Congress, covering the second half of 2001, states...
"During this time frame, P'yongyang has continued attempts to procure technology worldwide that could have applications in its nuclear program. The North has been seeking centrifuge-related materials in large quantities to support a uranium enrichment program. It also obtained equipment suitable for use in uranium feed and withdrawal systems."
Perhaps it's possible that this report was retrospectively revised to cover information discovered later? But I find that unlikely. In any case, there's still that matter of Clinton's waiver, which seems to tell the story. If the CIA was saying in public reports back then that the North Koreans had embarked on a uranium enrichment program you have to figure that they had much more extensive information which they were not publicly disclosing. If that's the case, is it all credible that the administration didn't know about it until just a few months ago?

Second or third-level State Department appointees seldom get that much attention in the press. But the crisis on the Korean Peninsula has made Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly an exception.

It was Kelly, as noted in the post below, who just announced that the Bush administration is now willing to make a deal not unlike the one the Clinton administration made in 1994. Indeed, almost all the major exchanges between the US and the South Koreans and the North Koreans over the last couple months have been with Jim Kelly.

Now, let's run through some basic points about Jim Kelly.

I would argue that, broadly speaking and in the context of the Korea situation, Kelly is one the administration's good guys. (This is at least a bit generous of me since last March Kelly personally accused me of being a practitioner of "hack journalism" during a question and answer session after a speech before the US-China Policy Foundation. I had just written an article in the New Republic sharply critical of the appointment of Kelly's friend Douglas H. Paal as US envoy to Taiwan.) As Colin Powell's Asia policy person, Kelly has been one of those in the administration trying to keep the administration to something like a sensible policy in North Asia. In many respects they were unsuccessful. But they were on the right side of the debate and now it's left to them to clean up the mess the hawks made.

In any case, here are a few other issues which have come up during Kelly's tenure and place that tenure in some perspective.

Prior to joining the administration, Kelly was the head of something called the Pacific Forum, the Hawaii branch of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a major DC think tank.

Last year TPM's article in Salon and another in the Washington Post revealed that Kelly had used the Pacific Forum to help Taiwan's National Security Bureau funnel $100,000 to a former minister of the Japanese government, Vice Defense Minister Masahiro Akiyama, in return for his assistance, while in office, in helping Taiwan get included under the United States' proposed missile defense shield. The money was for Akiyama's support during a two-year stint at Harvard University after his forced resignation from the Japanese government in January 1998. The money was from a secret $100 million slush fund controlled by then-Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui and used to buy influence with governments, individuals and organizations in various foreign countries, including the United States. (The details of the arrangement -- and the ethical issues raised by it -- are quite complicated. I encourage you to read either my piece or the Post piece for more details.)

Another part of Kelly's background raised the hackles of DC's China-hawks. From December 1995 to January 2001, Kelly served on the board of Dan Form Holdings, a real estate and construction company with major holdings in Hong Kong and a number of major projects on the Chinese mainland. The CEO of Dan Form Holdings was a man named Dai Xiaoming, one of the accused in the 1997 Asian fundraising scandal. In fact, Kelly served on Dai's board at the same time Dai became a key subject of controversy. As the Washington Post reported on May 13th, 1997 ...

At a $100,000 DNC fund-raiser held by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and her husband, Richard C. Blum, in San Francisco, Huang showed up with Dai Xiaoming, a Hong Kong businessman with Beijing ties. Clinton was the featured guest.

Huang told DNC officials that Dai was a prominent California businessman who wanted to contribute $50,000 to Clinton's reelection, though no such contribution shows up in contribution records. In fact, Dai had bought control of a Hong Kong property development concern from Lippo two years earlier, with financing from the Bank of China, Beijing's largest state-owned commercial bank. "John misled us on that," a DNC official said. "He really wanted [Dai] to be there."

To the best of our knowledge, Kelly has never been asked about any of this.

Of more concern to DC's China-hawks is Dan Form Holdings' ties to Chen Yuan, one of the highest profile of China's so-called 'princelings,' the sons and daughters of the elite of the Communist Party. (In 1994, The Economist called Chen "the most powerful of the princelings.") By most accounts, Chen, now Governor of the China Development Bank, is the power and the source of money behind Dai. In other words, Dai is, shall we say, Chen's man in Hong Kong. For more on the Dan Form Holdings story, see this April 5th 2002 TPM Post.

As China-hawks look at the current situation and Kelly's role in it, that connection is sure to play into their thinking.

Several days ago we predicted that the Bush administration's awkward climb-down would end with their embracing a policy close to, if not identical to, that pursued by the Clinton administration: i.e., a mix of threats and offers of aid to induce the North Koreans to abandon their nuclear program. And now we have the other shoe dropping. After a meeting with South Korean officials this morning in Seoul, Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly said that "Once we get beyond nuclear weapons, there may be opportunities with the U.S., with private investors, with other countries to help North Korea in the energy area." It's a grudging statement. But the interpretation of Lee Chung Min, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Yonsei University, quoted in the Washington Post has it just right. "It is a concession, a change of position. It's an indication of the Bush administration really wanting to settle this diplomatically and probably under a lot of pressure to do so."

We've already been noting the unseemly manner in which the Bush administration and those close to it have started picking a fight with South Korea in part because of the administration's inability to grapple with the crisis with North Korea. Now -- predictably I guess, since this is the responsibility era -- at least one "senior Bush administration official" is telling the Washington Post that it's all Bill Clinton's fault.

In fact, the article itself doesn't include any clear argument on the part of the senior official as to why it's all Bill Clinton's fault. But to shed more light on this, let's look at some emerging information about just when the US became aware of the North Koreans' clandestine uranium-enrichment program.

Last week in The Nelson Report -- which is becoming the source for information on this whole evolving story -- Chris Nelson revealed that the Clinton administration first found out about the illicit program in 1999, though at the time the much more pressing issue was North Korea's ballistic missile program. Nelson quotes a staff source saying "The Clinton Administration was near an agreement on cutting off missile production, as well as a resolution of the [uranium-based] nuclear program, to ensure North Korea did not become a nuclear power."

Now, what sort of agreement were the Clintonites near in 1999 or 2000? I don't know. Nelson's reporting makes clear, however, that whatever plan or agreement the previous administration did or didn't have in the works, they fully briefed the Bush administration on North Korea's uranium enrichment program in January 2001.

In other words, when Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly confronted the North Koreans with evidence about their uranium-enrichment program, this wasn't information the Bush administration had just discovered. It was information they'd been sitting on for almost two years.

If the uranium-enrichment program was so important -- and it is -- why didn't they do anything about it until a couple months ago? Why did they sit on this information for almost two years?

The available evidence seems to suggest that while their main efforts were focused on the ballistic missile issue, the Clinton administration was trying to resolve the uranium-enrichment program issue by securing yet another deal. Conservatives may disagree with that strategy, calling it appeasement, or bribing the North Koreans, or whatever. But they seem to have been doing something -- even if it was something conservatives don't put much stock in. From the best we can see at the moment, however, the Bush administration found out about this information in January 2001 and went almost two years doing nothing about it at all.

I happen to know that at least one administration hawk is fiercely denying this rendition of events. But thus far, only with non-denial denials.

Some critics claim that what I have been arguing in these virtual pages is that the Bush administration simply shouldn't have called the North Koreans out on their uranium-enrichment program. This has never been my argument. What I am saying is, first, that the administration has spent the last two years pursuing a confused, provocative, and counterproductive policy which played a significant role in fomenting this crisis and, possibly, complicating a potential solution. Secondly, one has to question the timing of seeking a showdown over the North Koreans' uranium-enrichment program just as the US is girding itself for a major regional war on the other side of the globe. If we had just found out about it, then perhaps it's pressing enough to bring it up right now even though it complicates the Iraq situation and threatens to leave us awkwardly overextended. Perhaps. But if the administration had been sitting on the information for almost two years, what possible rationale could there be for choosing this moment to blow the whistle? What other explanation beside incompetence?

Another entry from the annals of oops.

Another crucial task for the United States is to focus on relations with other powerful states. Although the United States is fortunate to count among its friends several great powers, it is important not to take them for granted-so that there is a firm foundation when it comes time to rely on them. The challenges of China and North Korea require coordination and cooperation with Japan and South Korea. The signals that we send to our real partners are important. Never again should an American president go to Beijing for nine days and refuse to stop in Tokyo or Seoul.

Condoleezza Rice
Foreign Affairs
Jan/Feb 2000
Many analysts say the growing anti-Americanism here has emboldened North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, to ratchet up the confrontation because he is secure that the Bush administration cannot wage war against him, or even contain him, without the support of South Korea, and equally secure that such support is lacking.


Through the Cold War and the last decade, governments in Washington and Seoul danced in lockstep. But that changed under the rule of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, whose "sunshine policy" toward the North has relied upon engagement and reconciliation, expanding trade and aid while reuniting families divided by the Demilitarized Zone.

While Bill Clinton was in power, the sunshine policy caused no discord. But when President Bush came into office and branded North Korea part of an "axis of evil," along with Iraq and Iran, it embarrassed Kim and caused a cleavage in Seoul's dealings with Washington.

Peter S. Goodman and Joohee Cho
Washington Post
January 09, 2003
Oops ...

TPM on C-Span's Washington Journal from 9 to 10 AM EST on Friday morning.

If you're interested in national security issues and defense technology, take a look at Noah Shachtman's new blog, Defensetech.org.

Does the Republican party have a problem with race?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Does the Republican party have a problem with uranium?

You better #$%@#&% believe it!

The previous two days I've been on TV (Crossfire) and radio (The Hugh Hewitt Show) discussing the North Korea crisis. In each case my Republican interlocutor either misunderstood, mistated or simply ignored the key difference between the North Koreans' plutonium-based and uranium-based nuclear weapons programs. Without understanding that difference it's really hard to have any idea what's going on.

Last night on Hugh Hewitt's show I said that everyone agrees that the North Koreans' uranium enrichment program is years away from making actual bombs. Hugh said I was flat wrong, simply making it up. I think there was even an Alice in Wonderland comment. Everyone knows, he said, that the clandestine uranium-enrichment program had already produced probably two bombs and would soon produce more. It's up and running, he said. He pointed to Michael Kelly's column in yesterday's Post and another article by Glenn Kessler, saying they refuted my contentions about the North Korean uranium program.

Not only is what Hewitt said patently false. But neither Kessler nor even the characteristically hot-headed Kelly support his claim. They say no such thing. Conservatives might have a better time making their arguments on this issue if they got a handle on the most basic factual issues involved in the debate.

Meanwhile, we now have more information on the administration's awkward climb-down and the resultant sell-out of the abandoned-on-the-battlefield conservative scribes who prematurely leapt forward to carry the administration's water. We have this today from the Washington Post ...

While many senior administration officials have been critical of Clinton's 1994 deal, saying it allowed an inevitable problem to fester, Powell lauded what is known as the Agreed Framework. "The previous administration I give great credit to for freezing that plutonium site," he said. "Lots of nuclear weapons were not made because of the Agreed Framework and the work of President Clinton and his team."
It would be easy to knock Powell for this, but also unfair. The truth is that Powell wanted to keep to at least the broad framework of the Clinton policy from the beginning. He just got outgunned by the hawks.

So let's review. Colin Powell comes in with one policy. He gets outvoted by the hawks in the administration. Then after the amateurs and the hot-heads have created a mess Powell gets called back in to clean it all up.

Somehow that story line sounds oddly familiar.

Let's say a few more things about a possible withdrawal of US troops from South Korea.

First, it's important to note that few people actually expect to see a wholesale withdrawal of American troops any time soon. Yet, in a matter of such consequence, even having the possibility raised by members of congress and unnamed sources in the administration is a big deal.

In any case, is there a rationale for doing this at the present moment?

One argument is that withdrawing our troops from South Korea would make us less vulnerable to a North Korean counterstrike in the event of war. That would strengthen our hand with them militarily.

In a certain limited sense this is true: our 37,000 troops are extremely vulnerable to a North Korean lunge across the DMZ. Truth be told, that's the main reason they're there.

But strengthening our hand by withdrawing our troops is one of those gambits that is too clever by half. Or really, too clever by like four and a half. The truth is that our troops on the ground in South Korea are only one of several factors which make the possibility of war on the Peninsula all but unthinkable. The bottom line is that we're not going to invade the North. And all we really end up doing is handing the North Koreans on a platter something they've wanted for half a century -- and this in the face of their threats.

The more serious reason for suggesting this possibility is to make a point to the South Koreans. Support for our troop presence in South Korea is falling. So why not call their bluff? The thinking is that the South Koreans can afford to take more risks, be more indulgent toward the North since they know we'll be there to pick up the pieces if things go wrong. How daring would they be, how willing to embrace Kim Jong-Il, if they didn't have the safety net of the US military behind them?

Are these tough-guy tactics? Sort of. Is there are certain logic to it? Yes. But you can get so caught up in the details that you lose track of the larger ridiculousness of the whole discussion: the Koreans south of the DMZ are OUR ALLIES! We're actually in a serious crisis with the North Koreans and the hawks are too busy trying to go mano a mano with the folks who are supposed to be our friends. And this from a president whose foreign policy stump speech line was "As commander-in-chief, I will rebuild our military and strengthen our alliances."

How exactly did we get here?

Now, before we issue our nuclear demands to the North Koreans we probably first have to demand that they take a number because we can't schedule our crisis with them until we finish our crisis with our allies in the South.

Like I said, strategic ridiculousness.

What are some of the great political betrayals of history? One certainly would be the federal government's betrayal of the ex-slaves of the South at the end of Reconstruction. After a dozen or so years trying to impose biracial democracy on the conquered South, the then-party of emancipation and civil rights, the Republicans, abandoned the freedmen to the tender mercies of Jim Crow for about a century. Then there was the shameful, though likely inevitable, abandonment of the fledgling electoral democracies of Eastern Europe. Those which were occupied by the Red Army -- Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany and others -- at the end of World War II had to endure about four decades of Stalinist tyranny.

Of course, now we have a much more recent example: the Bush White House's betrayal of the administration-obedient scribes who rushed forward in recent weeks to defend the White House's folly in North Asia.

After the *$#% started to hit the fan on the Korean Peninsula a horde of eager conservative columnists rushed forward to applaud the Bush administration's unmasking of North Korean villainy and Clintonian appeasement.

Finally, a tough-minded policy had been established! Moral clarity. Resolve. Grit in the face of evil. All that good stuff.

Yes, yes, yes, the road ahead may be a difficult one and the price to be paid may be high, they said. And there might have to be, if not a long twilight struggle, then at least a serious all-nighter with some dismally poor lighting. But the weak-willed policy of the Clintonites had been revealed for all to see, a vindication of the 'axis of evil' slogan and all the rest.

Only now these worthies, having walked so far out on the plank, have to hear that sawing sound at their rear, as the Bush White House hangs them out to dry.

For everyone who has eyes to see, the Bush administration is now awkwardly climbing down from its 'negotiation equals appeasement' approach of the last two years and hoping that our allies like South Korea and Japan and our sometimes-allies like China and Russia will help us get the North Koreans back to the negotiating table and reverse the deterioration which has occurred in the last several months.

Having defended the Bush White House by contrasting it with the vile appeasement of the Clinton administration, they now have to watch their guys crawl their way back to embracing the path the previous administration favored.

Hung out to dry, fellas.

Ouch ...