Seven years of tough talk by President Bush failed to stop North Korea from enlarging its stockpile of nuclear bombs on his watch and Bush's administration is winding down with deep doubts about whether Pyongyang really intends to abandon its program.
“We will not tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea,” the president said in May 2003, three weeks after declaring an end to major combat operations in Iraq. “We will not settle for anything less than the complete, verifiable, and irreversible elimination of North Korea's nuclear weapons program.”
In the end, Bush settled for far less. Way short of his grand goal, Bush instead can claim only inching progress toward getting the unpredictable government in North Korea to peel back the lid of secrecy about a nuclear weapons program that startled the world and brought together a coalition of five nations to put pressure on Pyongyang.
On Thursday, North Korea produced an accounting of its plutonium production for nuclear weapons. It was six months late and a scaled-down version of what the U.S. had once demanded.
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There was no accounting of North Korea's nuclear bombs. Likewise, there were no details about the North's alleged attempts to enrich uranium.
In what many experts believe was a miscalculation, Bush in 2001 cut off the direct dialogue with the North that had been established by the Clinton administration. Later, the U.S. joined with Japan and South Korea in halting heavy fuel oil shipments to the North after accusing it of trying to build a uranium enrichment facility. North Korea subsequently withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Thursday's move by North Korea was seen by Bush as a step in the right direction and by his conservative critics as a sellout.
In return for North Korea's declaration, Bush lifted trade sanctions against the North and moved to take it off the U.S. terrorism blacklist.
“It's shameful,” John Bolton, Bush's former U.S. ambassador at the U.N., said of the president's decision. “This represents the final collapse of Bush's foreign policy.”
Bush said North Korea would remain the most heavily sanctioned nation on Earth because of U.N. and other U.S. penalties. National security adviser Stephen Hadley said Bush's action was more symbolic than substantive.
One area where there is widespread agreement is that North Korea has more nuclear weapons now – or at least the plutonium to make them – than when Bush came into office.