The AP's Terence Hunt and NBC News' David Gregory both reported President Bush's "veiled swipe" at the Clinton administration's North Korea policy, in which Bush said, "I appreciate the efforts of previous administrations. It just didn't work." But neither noted that, following the Clinton administration's signing of the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea, that country did not produce any plutonium until 2002, when the Bush administration abandoned the agreement.
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During an October 11 Rose Garden press conference, President Bush took what Associated Press White House correspondent Terence Hunt described as a "veiled swipe" at the Clinton administration's North Korea policy. "[B]ilateral negotiations didn't work," Bush said. "I appreciate the efforts of previous administrations. It just didn't work. And therefore, I thought it was important to change how we approached the problem." But in reporting this comment, neither Hunt nor NBC News chief White House correspondent David Gregory noted that, following a 1994 agreement negotiated by the Clinton White House, North Korea halted its plutonium production until 2002, when the Bush administration abandoned the pact. As other news outlets reported, numerous former Clinton administration officials have made this point in recent days, in response to both Bush's comments and similar remarks made on October 10 by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).
In his October 11 article, Hunt reported that Bush had taken a "veiled swipe at former President Clinton" and "suggested that direct Clinton administration contacts with the communist regime showed they were unprofitable." From the article:
Most of the questions at the news conference dealt with North Korea, with Iraq a close second.
Bush rejected criticism from Democrats that his administration had not paid enough attention to the brewing North Korean nuclear crisis. "The North Korean situation was serious for years," he said in a veiled swipe at former President Clinton.
Bush said that Pyongyang had broken a 1994 deal negotiated by the Clinton administration in which Pyongyang had promised not to develop a nuclear program.
"It's the intransigence of the North Korean leader that speaks volumes about the process," he said of Kim Jong Il. "It is his unwillingness to choose a way forward for this country -- a better way forward for his country. It is his decisions."
As to direct talks with North Korea, as the U.N. secretary general and many other diplomats have urged, Bush suggested that direct Clinton administration contacts with the communist regime showed they were unprofitable.
"Bilateral negotiations didn't work. You know, I appreciate the efforts of previous administrations. It just didn't work," Bush said.
McCain similarly criticized the Clinton administration policy on October 10, describing the Agreed Framework -- the 1994 agreement between the United States and North Korea -- as a "failure." But as Media Matters for America noted in response to the media's uncritical reporting of McCain's remarks, under the Framework, North Korea did not produce any plutonium for eight years.
The terms of the 1994 agreement stipulated that North Korea would halt its plutonium production and lock up its stockpile of spent fuel rods (used to make weapons-grade plutonium). In return, the United States, along with the European Union, Japan, and South Korea, would assist with the country's energy needs. For the next eight years, the North Korean plutonium production program remained "under lock and key," as an October 10 Los Angeles Times article reported, and the country's central nuclear facility "was monitored 24 hours a day by U.N. surveillance cameras."
By contrast to the AP, an October 12 New York Times article quoted former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright making this point:
Madeleine K. Albright, a secretary of state for former President Bill Clinton, issued a statement on Wednesday defending his administration and striking back at Mr. Bush.
"During the two terms of the Clinton administration, there were no nuclear weapons tests by North Korea, no new plutonium production, and no new nuclear weapons developed in Pyongyang," Ms. Albright's statement said. "Through our policy of constructive engagement, the world was safer. President Bush chose a different path, and the results are evident for all to see."
Despite the North's test, Mr. Bush insisted Wednesday that his diplomatic approach was the best course and that he would continue to seek support for sanctions from other nations. He resisted calls for direct negotiations with North Korea of the sort the Clinton administration had engaged in, saying "the strategy did not work."
An October 12 Los Angeles Times article noted a similar response from a Clinton spokesman, who further noted that Bush's former secretary of state, Colin Powell, had "endorsed" the Agreed Framework. From the article:
A spokesman for Clinton responded Wednesday that Republicans were attempting to "rewrite history."
After the 1994 agreement, North Korea produced no nuclear weapons during Clinton's time in the White House, and the Clinton approach was endorsed by Colin L. Powell, then Bush's secretary of State, in 2001, said Ben Yarrow of the Clinton Foundation.
"For eight years during the Clinton administration, there was no new plutonium production, no nuclear weapons tests and therefore no additional nuclear weapons developed on President Clinton's watch," Yarrow said.
Moreover, on October 12, The Washington Post devoted an entire article to taking apart the Bush administration's unequivocal assertion that the Clinton policy was a failure, noting that, contrary to Bush's assertion, "the reality is more complicated." The article by Post staff writer Glenn Kessler quoted former Clinton administration official Robert L. Gallucci, the chief negotiator of the Framework, as stating that North Korea would currently possess enough plutonium "for more than 100 nuclear weapons," if not for the agreement:
President Bush asserted yesterday that the administration's strategy on North Korea is superior to the one pursued by his predecessor, Bill Clinton, because Clinton reached a bilateral agreement that failed, while the current administration is trying to end North Korea's nuclear programs through multi-nation talks.
"In order to solve this diplomatically, the United States and our partners must have a strong diplomatic hand," Bush said at a news conference. "And you have a better diplomatic hand with others, sending the message, than you do when you're alone."
As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put it on Tuesday: "The United States tried direct dialogue with the North Koreans in the '90s, and that resulted in the North Koreans signing onto agreements that they then didn't keep."
But the reality is more complicated, according to former and current U.S. officials and a review of the diplomatic history.
Robert L. Gallucci, the chief negotiator of the accord and now dean of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, said it is a "ludicrous thing" to say that the Clinton agreement failed. For eight years, the Agreed Framework kept North Korea's five-megawatt plutonium reactor frozen and under international inspection, while North Korea did not build planned 50- and 200-megawatt reactors. If those reactors had been built and running, he said, North Korea would now have enough plutonium for more than 100 nuclear weapons.
By Gallucci's account, North Korea may have produced a small amount of plutonium for one or two weapons before Clinton came into office -- during the administration of Bush's father -- but "no more material was created on his watch."
On the October 11 edition of NBC's Nightly News with Brian Williams, Gregory reported that Bush had asserted at the press conference that the Clinton strategy "failed to deter the Kim regime" and aired a clip of Bush saying of his predecessor's policy, "It just didn't work." But like Hunt, Gregory failed to note the Clinton administration's response. From the Nightly News broadcast:
GREGORY: And a strong response, as well, today, to Democrats who charged that a White House preoccupied with Iraq failed to stop North Korea.
BUSH: It's the intransigence of the North Korean leader that speaks volumes about the process.
GREGORY: The president, adding that even the Clinton administration's direct talks with the North, failed to deter the Kim regime.
BUSH: I appreciate the efforts of previous administrations. It just didn't work.
By contrast, on the October 11 edition of ABC's World News with Charles Gibson, ABC News chief White House correspondent Martha Raddatz aired the same clip, but subsequently noted Albright's rebuttal:
KOFI ANNAN (U.N. Secretary General): I believe that we should -- that the U.S. and North Korea should talk. They did talk in the past.
RADDATZ: But President Bush shot back, saying that the Clinton administration had tried that and failed.
BUSH: Bilateral negotiations didn't work. You know, I appreciate the efforts of previous administrations. It just didn't work.
RADDATZ: Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright disputed that today, saying, during the Clinton administration, "there were no nuclear weapons tests by North Korea, no new plutonium production, and no new nuclear weapons developed in Pyongyang."