President Trump has come under fire for his response to the growing threat from North Korea, but in the context of Washington’s repeated failures with the North Koreans, the criticisms of the president seem overblown.
Responding to reports that North Korea has developed a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit on an intercontinental ballistic missile, President Trump announced Tuesday that further threats from the rogue regime would be met with “fire and fury.”
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” President Trump declared. “They will be met with the fire and fury like the world has never seen. He has been very threatening beyond a normal state, and as I said, they will be met with the fire and fury and, frankly, power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
The common criticism seems to be that the president is overturning decades of U.S. strategy towards North Korea with his aggressive rhetoric. The fear is that the president is bringing us closer to nuclear war. But how exactly has the status quo policy deterred the North Koreans from pursuing nuclear weapons and kept America safe?
The “strategic patience” of the D.C. foreign policy establishment has failed to stop the North Koreans. For decades, the policy in Washington was to engage in diplomacy with the regime, make agreements to ease sanctions in return for guarantees that Norks would halt their pursuit of nuclear weapons, and watch helplessly as they violated the terms of the agreements repeatedly.
Consider how President Bill Clinton reached an agreement in the 1990s that he thought would end North Korean nuclear ambitions and make the world safer. The U.S. would provide oil, two light water reactors, and an electric grid, all worth billions of dollars, in exchange for promises that the regime would cease its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
“This is a good deal for the United States,” Clinton said in 1994. “North Korea will freeze and then dismantle its nuclear program. South Korea and our other allies will be better protected. The entire world will be safer as we slow the spread of nuclear weapons.”
Fast-forward to 2017, and President Clinton’s assurances seem laughably naïve. The North Koreans deceived the U.S., advancing their nuclear program and conducting their first nuclear test just over a decade after this deal. Two decades later, they reportedly have a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit on an intercontinental ballistic missile and a stockpile of as many as 60 nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, in 1999, Donald Trump pointed out the weaknesses of Clinton’s 1994 deal with the North Koreans, negotiated by former President Jimmy Carter, in an interview with NBC’s Tim Russert that resurfaced Wednesday morning.
At the time, Trump was mulling a bid for president on the Reform Party ticket. His criticisms of Clinton’s negotiations and appreciation for the gravity of the North Korea situation are striking in hindsight.
RUSSERT: You say … as president, you would be willing to launch a preemptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear capability.
TRUMP: First I’d negotiate. I would negotiate like crazy. And I’d make sure that we tried to get the best deal possible. Look, Tim. If a man walks up to you on a street in Washington, because this doesn’t happen, of course, in New York … and puts a gun to your head and says give me your money, wouldn’t you rather know where he’s coming from before he had the gun in his hand?
And these people, in three or four years, are going to be having nuclear weapons, they’re going to have those weapons pointed all over the world, and specifically at the United States, and wouldn’t you be better off solving this really, potentially, unbelievable — and the biggest problem, I mean we can talk about the economy, we can talk about social security, the biggest problem this world has is nuclear proliferation. … If that negotiation doesn’t work, you better solve the problem now than solve it later, Tim, and you know it and every politician knows it, and nobody wants to talk about it. Jimmy Carter, who I really like, he went over there, it was so soft, these people are laughing at us.
RUSSERT: Taking out their nuclear potential would create a fallout.
TRUMP: Tim, do you know that this country went out and gave them nuclear reactors[,] free fuel for 10 years? We virtually tried to bribe them into stopping and they’re continuing to [do] what they’re doing. And they’re laughing at us, they think we’re a bunch of dummies. I’m saying that we have to do something to stop.
RUSSERT: But if the military told you, ‘Mr. Trump, you can’t do this’ …
TRUMP: You’re giving me two names. I don’t know. You want to do it in five years when they have warheads all over the place, every one of them pointing to New York City, to Washington and every one of our — is that when you want to do it? Or do you want to do something now?
Recall that in 1999, Clinton had struck another deal with the North Koreans to ease economic sanctions in exchange for a moratorium on long-range missile tests. The sanctions were lifted in June 2000.
Trump’s point was the tepid negotiations by President Clinton, the 1994 attempt to pay off the North Koreans with billions of dollars in aid in exchange for freezing their nuclear program, was a bad deal that failed to address the threat of nuclear proliferation.
Ultimately, Donald Trump was right about the weakness of Clinton’s diplomacy, as North Korea now has nuclear ICBMs and is threatening to point them at the U.S. The question is, what is President Trump planning to do to avoid the mistakes of the past and keep America safe from the threat of nuclear war?
Editor's note: This article has been updated to include a different tweet of the video of Bill Clinton.