Weve already been noting

January 13, 2003 8:08 a.m.

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?

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