STANFORD, Calif. — Since my first visit to North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear complex in 2004, I have witnessed the country’s nuclear weapons program grow from a handful of primitive bombs to a formidable nuclear arsenal that represents one of America’s greatest security threats. After decades of broken policies toward Pyongyang, talking to the North Koreans is the best option for the Trump administration at this late date to limit the growing threat.
North Korea broke out to build the bomb because President George W. Bush was determined to kill President Bill Clinton’s 1994 “Agreed Framework,” a bilateral agreement with the North to freeze and eventually dismantle the North’s nuclear program. Hard-liners in the Bush administration viewed it as appeasement. Mr. Bush labeled the North, along with Iran and Iraq, part of an “axis of evil” in January 2002.
At the first bilateral meeting with Kim Jong-il’s regime in Pyongyang in October 2002, Bush administration officials accused North Korea of violating the Clinton pact by clandestinely pursuing the uranium path to the bomb. Washington had already detected this effort in the late 1990s, but it was deemed an insufficient threat not worthy of jeopardizing the gains made by the plutonium freeze.
For the Bush administration, the clandestine uranium effort was all it needed to walk away from the Agreed Framework. Yet Mr. Bush’s team proved unprepared for the consequences and stood by as North Korea resumed its plutonium program and built the bomb.