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PolitiFact: Getting to the truth in North Korea talking points

The United States and North Korea, adversaries for decades, stand today at unusually heightened tensions.

Even if it weren't the dog days of August, this story would be at the center of Americans' attention. And it has inspired a wide range of commentary and talking points, from pre-dawn tweets by the vacationing president to viral images flying around social media.

However, some of the rhetoric surrounding this nuclear-armed standoff is of questionable accuracy.

On Wednesday morning, President Donald Trump tweeted, "My first order as president was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal. It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before."

That's not accurate.

A week after taking office, Trump did issue a presidential memorandum on "rebuilding the U.S. Armed Forces," in which he ordered "a new Nuclear Posture Review."

But this wasn't his first official order, and asking for a Nuclear Posture Review is par for the course for new presidents. Bill Clinton produced one in 1994. George W. Bush produced one in 2002. And Barack Obama produced one in 2010.

A larger issue with Trump's assurance: Experts unanimously said the U.S. nuclear arsenal could not have improved to the extent Trump described in just over 200 days.

As part of a plan launched under Obama, the United States is engaged in a multiyear program to modernize the nation's nuclear arsenal that is expected to cost a cumulative $1 trillion over the next 30 years. Any improvements have been incremental, and Trump's role would have been minimal.

"There is a total of nothing that has changed substantially about the U.S. nuclear arsenal over the few months that Trump has been in office," said Matthew Bunn, a nuclear-policy specialist who teaches at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "We have the same missiles and bombers, with the same nuclear weapons, that we had before."

PolitiFact rated the statement False.

Blaming Clinton

A viral meme blames former President Bill Clinton not just for allowing North Korea to develop nuclear weapons, but also for helping the country build a program more than two decades ago.

"Bill Clinton gave North Korea $5 billion and two nuclear reactors in 1994, essentially giving them nukes," the meme says.

Clinton did negotiate a deal with North Korea that included two reactors. Beyond that, though, the meme's assertion falls apart.

In 1993, North Korea kicked international inspectors out of the country and announced its intention to pull out of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, an international agreement North Korea had joined in 1985.

By then, experts say, the North Koreans had separated enough plutonium from spent fuel from a reactor it had built to create a couple of nuclear weapons.

In October 1994, Clinton arranged a deal with incoming leader Kim Jong Il. North Korea would have to take its current reactor offline and stop construction of two other reactors they said were for electricity. In exchange, the United States would help the country build two so-called light-water nuclear reactors to produce power for the country. The light-water reactors would make it harder for North Korea to produce weapons-grade material. Those reactors were estimated to cost about $4 billion, and would be financed by South Korea, Japan, and possibly Germany, Russia and the United States.

However, North Korea accelerated its efforts to enrich uranium, and the deal was never fully carried out. The George W. Bush administration cut off fuel oil shipments in 2002, and North Korea withdrew from the agreement. By 2006, North Korea claimed it had successfully tested a nuclear device.

So, Clinton never actually gave North Korea two reactors, because the construction was never completed, and the costs didn't approach $5 billion. As such, the agreement, while a failure in curbing North Korea's nuclear ambitions, didn't give North Korea nuclear weapons — that's something North Korea accomplished on its own after it withdrew from the agreement.

PolitiFact rated this statement False.


Some members of Congress argue that the current process by which the president can order a nuclear strike is illegal.

"Our view is the current nuclear launch approval process is unconstitutional," Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., said on CNN on Tuesday.

"Right now one person can launch thousands of nuclear weapons, and that's the president. No one can stop him. Under the law, the secretary of defense has to follow his order. There's no judicial oversight, no congressional oversight," Lieu said.

Lieu is generally correct about the president's power to initiate a nuclear strike. The constitutionality, however, is a more complex question. We didn't rate Lieu's claims on the Truth-O-Meter, but we did think it was important to provide context.

When President Harry Truman signed the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, it gave the president full responsibility over the nation's nuclear arsenal. As a result, the current nuclear launch approval process doesn't include the same checks and balances as other executive branch decisions.

The president can use nuclear weapons with a single verbal order. Some experts believe the president doesn't even need to consult with the defense secretary, and the president's order cannot be overridden.

The Supreme Court has never weighed in on the question of whether the current nuclear launch approval process is legal, and we heard mixed opinions from legal scholars.

The discussion gets even more complicated if the president considers a pre-emptive, rather than a retaliatory, strike.

The Constitution does give Congress the authority to declare war, which it hasn't done since World War II.

In 1973, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution requiring that in the absence of a war declaration by Congress, the president report to Congress within 48 hours of introducing armed forces into hostilities and remove forces within 60 days if Congress does not approve.

A simple reading, then, could give Trump a 48-hour window of unilateral power. But the War Powers Resolution hasn't stopped longer military interventions. President Bill Clinton sent U.S. troops into the former Yugoslav republic of Kosovo in 1999, and they remained in place despite the failure to receive congressional authorization.

Some experts say that Trump could circumvent the need for Congress to declare war against North Korea because the United States is already at war with North Korea. The Korean War (1950-53) ended with an armistice, but the two parties never signed the peace treaty scheduled in Geneva in 1954 formally ending the war.

But there's a caveat to that, too. Congress approved funding to fight the Korean War, but never formally declared war.

Times staff writers Joshua Gillin and Manuela Tobias contributed to this report.

The statement

"Bill Clinton gave North Korea $5 billion and two nuclear reactors in 1994, essentially giving them nukes."

Viral image, Wednesday in a Twitter post

The ruling

PolitiFact ruling: False Clinton did negotiate a deal in 1994 to provide two nuclear reactors and provide heavy fuel oil to North Korea in exchange for the country giving up its nuclear weapons program. That's about where the truth of this image stops. The energy aid costs didn't approach anywhere near $5 billion, and the reactors were never built. North Korea had continued to enrich uranium on its own, leading the Bush administration to end the deal. The agreement, while a failure, didn't give North Korea nuclear weapons. Experts said the agreement actually slowed North Korea down. We rate this statement False.

The statement

"My first order as president was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal. It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before."

President Donald Trump, Wednesday in a tweet

The ruling

PolitiFact ruling: False What Trump did shortly after taking office was neither his first order nor a unique action; every new president in recent years has requested a Nuclear Posture Review. In addition, the ongoing nuclear modernization plan — which dates back to the Obama administration and will take decades to complete — would not have notched achievements in six months sufficient to be characterized as "far stronger and more powerful than ever before." We rate the statement False.

PolitiFact: Getting to the truth in North Korea talking points 08/10/17 [Last modified: Friday, August 11, 2017 12:41am]
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