As has become so very typical, the Bush 43 administration and its defenders suggest that either 1) the Clinton policy is responsible for N. Korea's test, or 2) that their policy is certainly not to blame and no worse than Clinton's. Let's examine the history.
After seriously considering bombing N. Korea's nuclear facilities in 1994 Clinton decided that taking the risk that N. Korea might militarily retaliate against S. Korea was not wise. Seoul, the capital of S. Korea, is one of the smallest and most densely populated major cities (Greater Seoul area population 23 million) and is only 30 miles from the DMZ border with North Korea. Also, the U.S. had troops within shot of the DMZ. Moreover, such an action could provoke China into a reaction or, if N. Korea's government was to fall, destabilize the region sending thousands of refugees into China.
Clinton decided upon a policy of engagement and negotiation with N. Korea and this policy was enthusiastically supported by S. Korea's government which was similarly engaged at the time. The Clinton administration negotiated an Agreed Framework with N. Korea; the North agreed to freeze plutonium reprocessing and in return "the United States agreed to provide heavy fuel oil... and to assume leadership of a multinational project to build two 'proliferation resistant' light water reactors." ( See Jonathan Pollack, "The United States, North Korea, and the End of the Agreed Framework", Naval War College Review, Summer 2003, Vol. LVI, No. 3, pp. 11-49) As part of this serious attempt to engage with the North, Secretary of State Madeline Albright visited Pyongyang and a possible visit by President Clinton for December 2000 was also planned. The Agreed Framework was flawed (what possible agreement between opponents wouldn't be?) and consideration was given to renegotiations to tighten it up.
While there were suspicions of cheating a 1999 U.S. inspection found no evidence of nuclear activity. (Many pseudo-conservatives, in their habitually mistrustful and fear-inspiring manner, allege the North cheated in 1998 as did American Enterprise Institute "scholar" Danielle Pletka on Bill Maher's TV show of October 13, 2006. I'm not aware of evidence supporting this claim but pseudo-conservative ideologues seldom allow evidence to infringe upon their fear-mongering.) Pollack (p. 24) stated: "During 1999 and 2000 had begun to receive scattered reports that North Korea was exploring a covert nuclear enrichment option [an alternative to plutonium reprocessing] in evident violation of its commitments under the Agreed Framework. But the evidence was far from definitive." As far as Pollack is concerned there was no definitive evidence that the North had broken its agreements between 1994 and 2002.
Enter George W. Bush on January 20, 2001. Like typical hyper-suspicious, mistrustful, "hard-line" pseudo-conservatives the Bush 43 administration believed Clinton "had been far too solicitous of North Korea" (Pollack, p. 24). On March 7 Bush met with President Kim Dae-jung of South Korea and his hostile and mistrustful "remarks were a sharp and humiliating rebuke to Kim Dae-jung, and the ROK president reportedly took ample offense. North Korea wasted little time in reacting to the president’s statement, canceling ministerial-level talks scheduled for Seoul the following week and harshly criticizing what it characterized as 'hostile' U.S. policy. Pyongyang reiterated that it was 'fully prepared for both dialogue and war'(Pollack, p. 25)." In other words, because South Korean President Kim Dae-jung was looking forward to continuing the Clinton policy of engagement with the North, he found Bush's hostility to and dismissiveness of the policy offensive. Another example of Bush's arrogance toward even our allies immediately upon taking office. Note that this was "achieved" only about a month and a half after Bush 43's inauguration.
Although Secretary of State Colin Powell apparently hoped to continue Clinton's policy he soon got the message that this was not to be. As is so typical of Bush, now their policy toward N. Korea was that the North had to first demonstrate its good behavior to the Bush administration's satisfaction before further dialogue could occur. This is an example of why pseudo-conservatives can't do foreign policy. They somehow think haughtiness, the cold shoulder, and aggressive public statements will bring another sovereign nation to heel. Actually, I'm not sure they do believe this; its possible such attitudes are meant to prove to their domestic pseudo-conservative base that they are sufficiently "tough". Perhaps it is more strut and swagger for the home audience.
Pollack wrote (p. 26): "In the absence of substantial changes in North Korean policy, the United States would not undertake major new initiatives with the North, let alone be drawn into open-ended negotiations akin to those of the Clinton administration, which many senior officials judged demeaning and simply not worth the effort. Improved relations with the North would not be a high priority for the new administration; the DPRK had first to address major U.S. policy concerns before the United States would pursue improved relations. Pending future developments, U.S. policy toward North Korea was on hold."
So pseudo-conservative "policy" toward the North was: "talk tough", "make demands" and then "turn one's back" and wait for the North korean government to comply. Pollack continued (p. 26): "North Korean officials took undoubted offense at the sharp turn away from Clinton administration policy and at the president’s clear distaste for Kim Jong Il. Kim nonetheless sought to keep the door ajar to the United States, informing a visiting European Union delegation in May 2001 that North Korea would maintain its promised moratorium on missile testing until 2003. He reiterated this pledge in a second meeting with Russian president Putin in August. U.S. officials took note of these pledges but judged them an insufficient basis for high-level exchanges.... The Bush administration, seeing no particular need or incentive to invest major time and effort in conciliating the North, had opted for a waiting game with Pyongyang (emphasis added)." More "arrogance" in place of policy toward N. Korea.
Finally, in his State of the Union address of January 29, 2002, President Bush publicly labeled the North Korean government as a charter member of "the axis of evil." In other documents the administration said other highly threatening things applicable to North Korea. Pyongyang's "officials had long and assiduously followed U.S. security policy debate, with North Korean media paying exacting attention to various U.S. policy documents.... Once the renewed nuclear crisis unfolded fully in October, North Korean statements regularly cited President Bush’s inclusion of the North in the “axis of evil” and the administration’s preemption doctrine as virtual declarations of war that justified the DPRK’s withdrawal from the NPT.... However, North Korea did not close all doors to discussions with Washington. On 31 July 2002, Secretary of State Powell met briefly in Brunei with the DPRK minister of foreign affairs, Paik Nam Sun (Pollack p. 28)."
But, in the summer of 2002, there was increasing evidence that the North Koreans had resumed their nuclear program. What a shock! We insult them, repudiate the previous policy, refuse to negotiate with them and call them names before the world and what do they do? Instead of bowing and scraping and begging the Bush 43 administration's forgiveness, they start up their nuclear program again.
When Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi had announced a visit to Pyongyang in September "President Bush personally briefed the [Japanese] prime minister on North Korea’s nuclear activities during the latter’s visit to the United Nations on 12 September. According to one Japanese analyst, the prime minister was 'shocked at the harshness' of the president’s comments. (Pollack, p. 34)." In October Assistant Secretary of State Kelly went to Pyongyang to personally confront the North Koreans about U.S. intelligence that the North had resumed its nuclear program. During this meeting the North Koreans made it clear they were indeed proceeding with a highly enriched uranium program and that they considered the the Agreed Framework "nullified". Secretary Kelly stated that the North Korean Minister "tried to blame the situation on U.S. policy under the current administration.... (Pollack, p. 36)" Of all the nerve; these commies will say anything!
After Kelly's visit the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement that said (Pollack, p. 37): "American characterizations of North Korea as part of the 'axis of evil' and as a prospective target for 'preemptive nuclear strike' were 'a gross violation of the basic spirit of the Nonproliferation Treaty, [and] reduced the inter-Korean joint declaration on denuclearization to a dead document.' The statement concluded, 'Nobody would be so naïve as to think that the DPRK would sit idle under such a situation.'" But apparently, if the Bush 43 administration thought about it at all, they were "so naïve as to think that the DPRK would sit idle under such a situation."
The North Koreans, however, did make an offer (Pollack, pp. 37-8): "'The DPRK, with greatest magnanimity, clarified that it was ready to seek a negotiated settlement of this issue on the following three conditions: firstly, if the U.S. recognizes the DPRK’s sovereignty; secondly, if it assures the DPRK of nonaggression; and thirdly, if the U.S. does not hinder the economic development of the DPRK. . . . [T]he DPRK considers that it is a reasonable and realistic solution to the nuclear issue to conclude a nonaggression treaty between the DPRK and the U.S. . . . If the U.S. legally assures the DPRK of nonaggression, including the nonuse of nuclear weapons against it by concluding such a treaty, the DPRK will be ready to clear the former of its security concerns'.... However, the administration seemed determined to deny Pyongyang the satisfaction of a direct response to this or to succeeding statements, which senior officials contended would reward North Korea for its violations of the Agreed Framework and related nonproliferation commitments."
Am I the only one that finds this attitude on the part of the Bush 43 administration remarkable? They abruptly reverse the previous administration's policy, they make public statements calling the N. Korean regime names, they insist that N. Korea must take unspecified actions to prove it has changed its ways, and then they turn their back on them and virtually refuse to have meaningful dialogue with them. However, when the N. Koreans announce a proposal for negotiations Bush 43 refused to answer because that would be to "reward North Korea". To this observer this is a thoroughly bankrupt policy that reduces itself to "tough" posturing and absolutely nothing else; a case study in why pseudo-conservatives can't do foreign policy. Please note, dear reader, one doesn't have to like the N. Korean regime or approve of it; one merely has to recognize that we must take all necessary action to try to stop them from proliferating nuclear weapons.
Pollack reasonably observed (p. 38-40): "The administration also faced a profound disparity in its strategies and policies toward Iraq and North Korea, the only two countries identified as “rogue states” in the September 2002 national security strategy document. Despite North Korea’s far greater military power, its vastly more developed nuclear and missile capabilities, the immediate threat that North Korea posed to U.S. military personnel deployed on the Korean peninsula, and its widespread sales of ballistic missiles in highly volatile regions, President Bush continued to insist that Iraq represented a “unique” case that had to assume precedence in U.S. military plans...." Read the latter statement carefully. Instead of dealing with the most threatening opponent who really had a nuclear program Bush 43 insisted upon focusing on Iraq.
Pollack continued (p. 40): "In the aftermath of this open contention, the administration soon made its decision: the United States, with the concurrence of the ROK and Japan, opted to suspend further heavy-fuel-oil deliveries to the DPRK [November 16, 2002]. This decision proved fateful. A week later Pyongyang declared that the Agreed Framework had collapsed, arguing that the deliveries were the only portion of the agreement that the United States had ever carried out."
And Pollack described the denouement (p. 41): "[North Korea's] 12 December announcement initiated a succession of audacious, unilateral actions that in a matter of weeks began to roll back much of North Korea’s eight years of nuclear restraint. In rapid succession, North Korea requested on 13 December that the IAEA withdraw its seals and cameras from the DPRK’s declared facilities; stated on 19 December that the Agreed Framework now existed 'in name only'; removed or otherwise disabled the locks and monitoring equipment at the reactor, cooling pond, fuel fabrication plant, and reprocessing facility—all between 21 and 24 December; announced the intended expulsion of the IAEA inspectors on 27 December, even as the inspectors reported that two thousand fresh fuel rods had already been loaded into the reactor; and notified the IAEA of its intention to reactivate its fuel reprocessing facility within several months, purportedly to ensure the safety of spent fuel rods that would be removed and stored following their use in the reactivated reactor and (once completed) in the larger reactors, where construction was expected to resume.... On 10 January 2003, the DPRK announced its 'automatic and immediate' effectuation of its withdrawal from the NPT and its 'complete free[dom] from the restrictions of the safeguard agreement with the IAEA'(emphasis added)."
Based upon this information it seems this is just another example of the Bush 43 administration's very incompetent policy contributing to the worsening of a very significant world problem and then, once N. Korea tests a nuclear weapon, insisting publicly that the bad outcome was not their responsibility but that of the prior administration or the evil irrationality of the N. Koreans. Although it has usually been the Republicans accusing the Democrats of failing to be "accountable" and take responsibility for their errors, the Republicans seem to be competing to be "poster child" for the practitioners of the "Failure to Be Accountable" lobby.