North Korea's nuclear program has been a problem for US presidents going back to Reagan, and the conflict between North and South has been a key issue for US presidents going back to Truman. As recently as 1994, the US came far closer to war with North Korea than most Americans realize.
President Clinton eventually concluded a complicated and multipart agreement in which the North Koreans would suspend their production of plutonium in exchange for fuel oil, help building light water nuclear reactors (the kind that don't help making bombs) and a vague promise of diplomatic normalization.
President Bush came to office believing that Clinton's policy amounted to appeasement. Force and strength were the way to deal with North Korea, not a mix of force, diplomacy and aide. And with that premise, President Bush went about scuttling the 1994 agreement, using evidence that the North Koreans were pursuing uranium enrichment (another path to the bomb) as the final straw.
All diplomatic niceties aside, President Bush's idea was that the North Koreans would respond better to threats than Clinton's mix of carrots and sticks.
Then in the winter of 2002-3, as the US was preparing to invade Iraq, North Korea called Bush's bluff. And the president folded.
Threats are a potent force if you're willing to follow through on them. But he wasn't. The plutonium production plant, which had been shuttered since 1994, got unshuttered. And the bomb that exploded [this past weekend] was, if I understand this correctly, almost certainly the product of that plutonium uncorked almost four years ago.
Hawks and Bush sycophants will claim that North Korea is an outlaw regime. And no one should romanticize or ignore the fact that it is one of the most repressive regimes in the world with a history of belligerence, terrorist bombing, missile proliferation and a lot else.
But facts are stubborn things. The bomb-grade plutonium that was on ice from 1994 to 2002 is now actual bombs.
[Excerpts of an article by Josh Marshall]