Today, a lot of the national security-related news and commentary is dominated by a small but important detail about the Bush Administration's confrontation with North Korea. Here's the short version:
In 1994, the Clinton Administration very nearly took the United States to war over North Korea's nuclear weapons program, based on plutonium enrichment. Thankfully, the DPRK backed down. American and North Korean officials encapsulated their understanding in the Agreed Framework. The DPRK agreed to end its plutonium enrichment program and allow international inspectors to monitor their compliance; the United States agreed to some economic assistance (assistance with single-use nuclear power and fuel shipments). Of course, the United States didn't have to make clear the threat of future military action, if the DPRK tried to cheat on this arrangement.
In 2002, the Bush Administration was convinced that the North Koreans were cheating. Specifically, US officials accused the DPRK of carrying out a clandestine uranium enrichment program. (Note the difference--uranium, not plutonium.) How North Korean officials responded is still under dispute. The US official who delivered the accusation, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, says that his North Korean counterpart confessed to the uranium enrichment program. The North Korean official, First Deputy Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju, says that he only admitted to the DPRK's right to develop nuclear weapons, and muddied the waters further by claiming a "neither confirm nor deny" stance about any nuclear program.
Whatever anyone said or meant to say doesn't change the outcome, the Bush Administration's public confrontation with North Korea over the uranium enrichment program. Until the agreement a few days ago, the United States had effectively broken off all but a few minor channels of communications with the DPRK, and the North Koreans threw out the international inspectors.
With the new agreement now announced, US officials are obliged to give Congress some account of what's been happening. During one such briefing, another Assistant Secretary of State, Christopher Hill, admitted that, in hindsight, there was very little evidence that the DPRK had a uranium program at all. Certainly, the North Koreans still had the knowledge to build plutonium-enriched warheads, which is what they were doing during the time that the international inspectors were gone.
The North Korean nuclear test may have been one of North Korea's biggest miscalculations. China, which in other circumstances has defended the DPRK, turned on Kim Jong Il. While the DPRK can survive near-total isolation, it can't suffer total isolation. At the same time, the North Koreans still have a big bargaining chip, the dismantlement of their small nuclear arsenal and production facilities, that probably would not have existed, if the events of 2002 had gone differently.
Who's to blame? The North Koreans certainly share some culpability. Their diplomatic finesse is not what it should be, for the kind of brinksmanship they like to play. In fact, the DPRK seems incapable of anything but brinksmanship, threatening to build nuclear weapons, threatening to fire missiles at Japan, threatening to flatten Seoul... However, the Bush Administration certainly bears some responsibility, too. American culpability goes beyond the sneering at international arms control regimes that was all too fashionable in 2002 and 2003.
When the Bush team took office in 2001, they largely felt that the Clinton Administration had given the DPRK too much in the Agreed Framework. The economic assistance seemed unwarranted, particularly since "rogue states" like North Korea and Iran were, in the new President's worldview, the chief cause of national and international insecurities.
Aside from having a definite perspective on world events, the Bush team also had a clearly preferred approach. The United States needed to rattle its saber more often. Force was necessary to end Saddam Hussein's occupation of Kuwait; force (or the threat of it) was the only thing that the DPRK would understand. Economic assistance was equivalent to being conned by the trickster in charge in Pyongyang.
Clearly, the Administration measured its own success in dealing with the North Koreans by how effectively they "stood firm" against granting any concessions. With nothing to offer other than another day without an American attack on the DPRK, the two countries stood in deadlock. Meanwhile, the DPRK saw how consumed the United States was with the Iraq mess, and calculated that it would experience little or no backlash if it were to announce it had nuclear weapons.
The Bush Administration has also left itself open to criticism that, yet again, it was seeing WMD programs that weren't really there. In a sense, the US was conned twice about nuclear weapons: once, by Saddam Hussein's ambiguous statements about having them at all; and again, by the DPRK's vague statements about its uranium enrichment program.
You definitely can't say that the Administration was completely bamboozled by US intelligence agencies, who had not given a clear verdict that the DPRK was in the uranium enrichment program. At best, there was only circumstantial evidence of this program. Much of the case depended on centrifuge purchases and contacts with the A.Q. Khan "Nukes R Us" network. Doubts were big enough that, two years ago, this Foreign Affairs article argued that the North Koreans in 2002 may not have cheated on the Agreed Framework.
It's still too early to declare the final verdict on what really happened here. However, the information available today seems to point to an unfortunate conclusion: senior US officials confused means (confronting a rogue state) with ends (preventing the North Koreans from developing nuclear weapons).