Complex political stories, saddled with winding, somewhat partisan histories, aren’t exactly the friend of tight deadlines. But reporters — even those on deadline — get paid to both understand and be able to distill the history of their subject into reliable narratives that hit the most salient points. At least in theory.
It ain’t an easy job. But now that we’re a couple of days in to the story of the Bush administration’s response to the latest nuclear crisis orchestrated by the North Korean regime, we’ve grown increasingly frustrated with the Cliffs Notes version of history some reporters have been feeding the public.
It’s not that what the press has been reporting is wrong, it’s just incomplete, and the story is too important to be sold short. The crux of the problem revolves around recent comments made by President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Senator John McCain, who have made headlines savaging the Clinton administration for pursuing a “failed” policy in having signed the “Agreed Framework” deal with the North Korean government in 1994. In reporting their comments, reporters have stuck closely to the American media’s “he said, she said” script, and the vast majority of reporters have sketched the fundamentals of the deal just enough to not be wrong — but not quite enough to give the full story.
A good example of this is a front page article in today’s Washington Post, where Michael Abramowitz writes that president Bush yesterday “explained his reluctance to engage in direct talks with Pyongyang by saying that the Clinton administration tried such an approach and it did not work. He said that North Korea violated a 1994 agreement in which Pyongyang promised to shut down its nuclear reactor and keep spent nuclear fuel under international supervision, and that the U.S. government promised certain benefits such as providing oil for energy production.”
That’s what he said, all right, but that’s not the whole story.
You would have to turn to page A23 in the Post today to get Glenn Kessler’s excellent, if brief, history of the Framework, and what went wrong. Kessler quotes Robert L. Gallucci, chief negotiator of the Framework, who said it’s a “ludicrous thing” to say that the Clinton agreement was a failure. “For eight years,” Kessler writes, “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.”
There’s plenty more to the story, including the fact that in the late 90s, the North Koreans began a secret uranium enrichment program that American intelligence agencies eventually sniffed out, and which the Bush administration confronted the Koreans with in 2002 — cutting off fuel shipments to the North in response. This led North Korea to evict a team of international nuclear weapons inspectors and restart the reactor shuttered under the Clinton deal. The regime also recovered the plutonium put under lock and key under the Agreed Framework. (Slate’s Fred Kaplan wrote on Wednesday that “It should be noted that the bomb that the North Koreans set off on Sunday was apparently a plutonium bomb, not a uranium bomb. In other words, it was a bomb made entirely in Bush’s time, not at all in Clinton’s.” Kaplan also wrote a long piece in the May 2004 Washington Monthly, laying out the past decade in North Korean nuclear policy.)
And while we’re handing out gold stars for reporters who have taken the time to delve into the complicated history of the issue, the Los Angeles Times’ Barbara Demick also deserves a name-check for her great piece on Wednesday laying out the complex history of the North Korean nukes.