All day and all night yesterday, the mainstream media was telling us that no President has found a way to effectively deal with North Korea. And it is true that there are no good options available today. But it is an absolute misreading of history to imply that it was always so.
In fact, Bill Clinton, with a big help from Bill Richardson, did in fact negotiate an agreement with the North Koreans to halt their nuclear ambitions in return for economic help. The deal required an international group to replace the North Korean plutonium reactors with two light-water nuclear reactors and, in exchange, the US would provide half a million tons of fuel oil to the North every year. Closing the plutonium reactor would cut off access to the plutonium needed for the North Koreans to create a nuclear bomb. In addition, the agreement made some unspecific references to future economic cooperation.
When Bush won the presidency in 2000, there was initial confusion about how the new administration would proceed with North Korea. Despite Colin Powell's recommendation that the administration continue to engage with the North, the US broke off continuing talks about missile development. Then, in 2002, the administration accused to North Koreans of trying to pursue their nuclear ambitions via the path of highly-enriched uranium (where have we heard that before?). That charge was never proven but it provided the excuse for Bush to abrogate the agreement and refuse to deliver the agreed upon fuel oil, over the objections of South Korea and Japan. North Korea then kicked out the UN inspectors who had been monitoring their nuclear plants as part of the deal and began to restart its nuclear program. The North Korean's determination to develop nuclear weapons was probably solidified by being included in Bush's "axis of evil" and seeing what happened to Iraq when it had no real nuclear deterrent.
By 2006, Bush tried to do a 180 degree turn with North Korea as it became apparent they were getting ever close to having a bomb, if they didn't already. Bush removed the country from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and desperately tried to restart negotiations, all to no avail. The North Koreans felt Bush had betrayed them once before and the lessons of Iraq were still fresh in their minds.
Of course, we will never know what would have happened if Bush had stuck to the agreement and taken Powell's suggestion to remain engaged. Perhaps North Korea would have ended up going down the same path that led us to where we are now. Or, possibly, increased trust and engagement might have moderated North Korea's need for the bomb. It's all too late now. The only logical way forward is acceptance that they have a nuclear capability and an renewed attempt at engagement. Kim Jong-Un may be reckless but he is focused like a laser on his survival and the survival of his regime. It is highly doubtful that he will risk all that with a foolish attack on his neighbors or us.
The failure of Bush to take advantage of the opportunity that Clinton had opened also lies with the Republican party and the especially partisan politics practiced by Newt Gingrich and his cohorts. In order to win the nomination and the presidency, Bush had to placate the radical right which looked askance at anything that Clinton accomplished and painted the North Korea deal as "appeasement". When Bush got into office, he was actively looking for an excuse to abrogate the Clinton deal and, just like he sought a reason to invade Iraq, he "found" it.
As Josh Marshall rightly notes, we seem to be replaying this very same story when it comes to Trump and Iran. The radical right has called it appeasement and Trump has called it the "worst deal ever". Just as in 2001, Trump and the Republicans are determined to roll back as much of what Obama accomplished as possible. And Trump himself has already stated that he wants to pull out of the agreement with Iran. If that does indeed happen, I imagine we will soon find ourselves with the very same set of limited options we currently have with North Korea when it comes to Iran.