Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Clinton official tells of monitoring Korea nuclear centers

Behind Enemy Reactors – by JON B. WOLFSTHAL

I CELEBRATED New Year’s in 1996 by drinking cheap sparkling wine at the Yongbyon nuclear center, where North Korea produced the plutonium for its first nuclear test. Like dozens of dedicated civil servants, I served as an “on-site monitor” under the 1994 United States-North Korean nuclear agreement known as the Agreed Framework.

Those of us who served as monitors are proud of what we accomplished. I am not alone in being concerned that many commentators and government officials are trying to lay the blame for at least some of the current nuclear crisis at the feet of the previous administration’s efforts to end North Korea’s nuclear program. These allegations have little bearing on the facts and minimize the contribution of the Americans who served their country in dangerous circumstances.

In 1994, the situation with North Korea had become so fraught that the Clinton administration was considering military strikes to prevent North Korea from extracting plutonium from spent nuclear fuel at Yongbyon. At the time, North Korea might have had enough plutonium, produced in 1989, to build one or two nuclear devices. The fuel being discharged contained enough plutonium for five to six additional weapons.

Last-ditch talks between former President Jimmy Carter and President Kim Il-sung of North Korea defused the crisis and led to the framework. The deal, which helped us avoid a military conflict that could have destroyed Seoul, froze Pyongyang’s plutonium program; eventually, it could have led to North Korea abandoning its nuclear efforts in exchange for diplomatic recognition by the United States and economic incentives.

In 2002, however, American intelligence agencies confirmed that North Korea was trying to acquire a uranium enrichment program in violation of the deal. But instead of working within the framework to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear efforts, the Bush administration terminated the agreement altogether. It also began arguing for regime change.

In jettisoning the framework, the administration jettisoned something of great diplomatic value. A key part of the agreement was the willingness of North Korea to let Americans — with whom they were legally at war — into their nuclear center to secure plutonium-bearing fuel rods for internationally monitored storage. In other words, the framework put Americans behind enemy lines.

As you might imagine, the daily circumstances were nothing short of insane. Assigned to North Korea for a month or so at a time, we were put up in a hastily constructed cement “guest house” a half-mile from the most secret nuclear site in North Korea. The 10 people on each rotation were watched by armed guards; our rooms were monitored at all times. No phone calls home or outside communication was possible. When I was there in the winter of 1996, temperatures at night hit 30 below. To get to work every day, we would pass through no fewer than four police and military checkpoints, some with machine-gun nests. The site itself was highly unsafe and radioactive and would have been shut down by safety officials in seconds had it operated in the United States.

Those who took the assignment left families and friends behind and bounced between acute stress and extreme boredom. Some read to escape the monotony, some played cards. I “borrowed” an International Atomic Energy Agency VCR to watch movies. We all knew that at any moment, should the political winds change, we would be hostages deep in hostile territory with no American embassy to protect us. But we took the job to make our country more secure and to pursue an end to North Korea’s nuclear program.

Now that North Korea claims to have tested a nuclear device, administration supporters and commentators are seeking to blame the framework for all our problems.

They should look elsewhere. Without the framework’s freeze, North Korea would have immediately acquired enough plutonium to produce more nuclear weapons and would have completed construction of two much larger weapon production reactors. By now, North Korea would have been capable of producing 20 nuclear weapons per year.

The prolonged freeze on North Korea’s production and nuclear construction delayed the acquisition of nuclear materials — and it appears to have prevented North Korea from completing the larger reactors. The testing of a nuclear device by Pyongyang was pushed back at least a decade.

Those of us who served in North Korea risked our personal safety and comfort for our country. We protected America from danger and our efforts delayed the onset of the nuclear crisis we now face. To argue otherwise is to play politics with history.

(Jon B. Wolfsthal, who monitored North Korea’s nuclear program for the United States, is a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.)

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