After Trump’s UN Speech, Why Would Anyone, Ally Or Enemy, Trust US Anymore

George Santayana is credited with the saying that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. For Americans, the capacity for willful amnesia seems to be boundless and, correspondingly, our capacity for repeating the same mistakes again and again seems unlimited.

While the North Korea is always depicted as a rogue regime, and there is no doubt it is brutally cruel and has no regard for anything other than the continuation of the regime, there was a time when the North Koreans nuclear threat was largely contained and able to be monitored. That was just 15 years ago.

The North Koreans initial nuclear adventurism began early in the George H. W. Bush administration when the Koreans began building a nuclear reprocessing facility that would give them the capability to make weapons-grade plutonium. When the North Koreans completed the facility early in the Clinton administration, they were ready to up the ante by threatening to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT), expel international inspectors, and begin to process plutonium. After using both the carrot and the stick approach, Clinton, with help from Jimmy Carter, was able to hammer out an agreement where the North Koreans would re-enter the NNPT, lock of the spent fuel rods needed for plutonium, and allow inspectors back in. In addition, the US, South Korea, and Japan agreed to provide North Korea with two light water nuclear reactors, enormous amounts of fuel oil, and an agreement not to invade North Korea. Most importantly, when the second reactor was delivered, North Korea would send its fuel rods out of the country, effectively ending its ability to create plutonium and build a nuclear bomb.

That might have been the end of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions except that the US and its allies decided not to keep their end of the bargain. In the US, funding for the nuclear reactors was never provided and South Korea pulled its financing for them as well. Japan dropped out when the North Koreans launched a satellite over Japan as a test of its missile technology. When a North Korean submarine ended up on South Korea’s coast, South Korea stopped the fuel shipments too. In response, the North Koreans started to export its missile technology to Pakistan in return for centrifuges that could be used to enrich uranium. The Clinton administration again entered into negotiations to restrict those missile exports, this time with support from a new South Korean leader, but time ran out on those talks when G.W. Bush “won” the 2000 election.

The Bush administration’s position was hostile, not only to the North Koreans, but also to the new South Korean leader who was eager to normalize relations with the North as much as possible. Bush made that position clear with his famous “axis of evil” speech that included North Korea, Iran, and Iraq. Meanwhile, it was becoming clear that the North Koreans were violating the spirit of the Clinton agreement, which covered the creation of plutonium, with the purchase of centrifuges capable of enriching uranium. When confronted by the Bush administration, the North Koreans readily admitted that they had those centrifuges but that they were still abiding by the agreement they had made with Clinton, including keeping those spent fuel rods locked away.

Needless to say, that was the excuse Bush needed. The US announced that it was pulling out of the agreement that Clinton made because of those centrifuges, although Bush waited to make that announcement until he had received Congressional approval to invade Iraq. The nuclear reactors would never be delivered, the fuel shipments would stop, and the US encouraged other countries to isolate North Korea economically. In response, the North Koreans pulled out of the NTTP, restarted the nuclear reactor, threw out the inspectors, and unlocked the fuel rods. The response from the Bush administration was essentially to do nothing, primarily because, by this time, all the focus was on creating momentum for the war in Iraq and North Korea’s nuclear program would just be a distraction in that effort. Instead, the North Korean nuclear program was rolling again and has continued to grow, reaching the crisis point we see today.

When Bill Clinton went to North Korea in 2009 in attempt to free and again restart talks on the nuclear program, Kim Jong-Il declared, “we [North Koreans] found ourselves missing the earlier, better relationship with the previous Administration.” That was not because of the harshness of the Bush administration but instead reflected the missed opportunities in the early 2000s. Some in the Clinton administration believe that real steps toward some degree of normalization of relations with North Korea was in reach but time ran out as the 2000 election approached.

The North Koreans were also quite aware of what was happening to other leaders that made deals with the US. In particular, they point to what happened to Qaddafi in Libya. Eight years after agreeing to give up Libya’s weapons of mass destruction, Qaddafi was overthrown by a Western coalition eight years later. They saw Saddam Hussein agree to let UN weapons inspectors in to search for Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Despite Hans Blix and his team finding nothing, again a US-led coalition invaded Iraq and killed Saddam. From the North Korean point of view, especially in the wake of the collapse of the agreements in the early Bush administration, they believe they will only be safe if they have a nuclear deterrent.

None of this makes Kim Jong-Un’s provocations any less reckless and dangerous or his motives any more suspect. But it does help explain the relentless drive the North Korean’s have had in getting a nuclear deterrent. The question now is whether Kim will use that capability for more aggressive and offensive actions.

This long history helps to bring us to Iran and Trump’s apparent willingness to follow through on his threat and abrogate the Iran nuclear deal. Like North Korea, Iran’s missile tests are violating the spirit but not the letter of the agreement. And, like Bush with North Korea, Trump may be using Iranian actions outside the scope of the agreement to end it unilaterally. The Iranians look at the same history as the North Koreans as well as their own history of a devastating war with Iran and the constant saber-rattling from Israel and probably feel the same urgency to get a nuclear deterrent as the North Koreans. The only difference is that Iran will probably not be subject to the re-imposition of the crippling sanctions if Trump unilaterally withdraws from the deal.

The Europeans, who are also a party to the nuclear deal, have no interest in seeing it ended but would instead prefer to see it expanded to address missile development and support for terrorism. But Trump’s threats to end the agreement are just part of the continual nightmare that Trump presents for our European allies. His months-long refusal to endorse Article V of the NATO agreement and his refusal to even criticize, much less sanction, Russia for its adventurism in Ukraine and interference in European elections has made Europeans begin to doubt the strength of the US commitment. Additionally, Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement increase the suspicion that the US cannot be counted on to adhere to its agreements when a new administration takes over.

Similarly, Trump’s abandonment of TPP disheartened our Pacific allies, Australia in particular, leaving them with the impression that the US might be abdicating influence in the region to the Chinese. Not having an ambassador in Canberra does not help our relationship with the Aussies either. As a result, The Australians may not exactly pivot their foreign policy toward China and away from the US but they will probably be strengthening and deepening their relationship with the Chinese. In addition, Trump’s constant badgering of the Chinese to do more to restrain North Korea may reflect political reality but it also reinforces the notion that China is becoming the dominant Asian power.

The reality of a nuclear North Korea, along with questions about the strength and continuity of US foreign policy, will likely lead to nuclear proliferation in Southeast Asia. Assuming Trump abrogates the Iran deal, we may see ourselves in a similar position in the Mideast in another decade, with a nuclear Iran and a corresponding nuclear proliferation. While the Koreans and Iranian are ultimately responsible for their nuclear ambitions, there is no good reason that the US has to consistently repeat its own mistakes that eventually help feed the crises we face.

Originally published at on September 25, 2017.