Instead of threatening northeast Asia and the California coast with nuclear weapons, North Korea by most reasonable expectations should have ceased to exist years ago, in part because it seemed so reasonable and logical that it would follow other recent examples of Communist regimes gone defunct. East Germany went out of business after it lost the unqualified support of the Soviet Union, and East Germany was much less dependent on Soviet aid for its very sustenance than North Korea was. When the Soviet Union collapsed and withdrew its lifeline to its Asian neighbor and longstanding ally, North Korea became conspicuously and shockingly unable to serve the basic needs of its people. The great pride of the regime, its claim to have created a tax-free, full-employment, everything-taken-care-of society under the benevolent care of the “Genius of Mankind” Kim Il Sung, was the basis of its legitimacy. By the time Kim Il Sung died in 1994, it had long become clear that the claim was bankrupt.
Anybody who traveled to the Chinese side of the North Korean border in the mid-1990s saw the desperate and hungry Korean refugees who had sneaked into China in search, literally, of survival. The famine, taking place with a new, untested, and manifestly weird “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il, at the head of the state, was proportionately even worse than the great Chinese famine of the early 1960s. Upward of a million of North Korea’s 22 million people died in the famine, Stephen Haggard and Marcus Noland conclude in Famine in North Korea.1 Among those who survived, they write, is “an entire cohort of children consigned to a myriad of physical and mental impairments associated with chronic childhood malnutrition.”
While the Koreans starved and while the UN’s World Food Program was appealing for funds for emergency food aid, the “Sun of the 21st Century,” as Kim Jong Il is known, indulged a sudden fancy for Italian cuisine and invited a famous chef, Ermanno Furlanis, to come to North Korea to cook for him. As recounted by the British journalist Jasper Becker in his excellent book Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea, Furlanis later wrote about the special shipment of French and Italian wines and cheeses that would arrive at Kim’s seaside retreat not far from Pyongyang, which itself was “equipped with a water amusement park and a pleasure yacht the size of an ocean liner.”
How long could such a ruler, seemingly so obsolete in a world that no longer had the likes of Ceausďż˝ďż˝escu of Romania or Hoxha of Albania or even Mao of China, continue to preside over a state in such disastrous condition? Wendy Sherman, an adviser to President Bill Clinton, told Becker:
Everyone was so overwhelmed that a million or two million people were dying of starvation…. We just thought all that would bring about the collapse of the North Korean government within two or three years.
Before Sherman’s statement, in 1994, Clinton had signed what seemed at the time a breakthrough agreement with North Korea in which Pyongyang promised to suspend indefinitely its nuclear weapons program in exchange for direct negotiations and aid from the United States. Sherman’s point was that Clinton, having gotten past the Korean nuclear crisis of that period, really wasn’t very enthusiastic about implementing the 1994 deal, known as the Agreed Framework, which required the United States both to help North Korea acquire modern, light-water nuclear reactors that would produce energy but not weapons and to move toward normal relations. Still, after ignoring North Korea for a few years, Clinton became active once again in the late 1990s, sending, in October 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang on a visit intended to prepare the way for an eventual long-term agreement. But the North Koreans showed little interest in Albright’s proposals and the meeting failed to lead to a follow-up trip to North Korea by Clinton himself as the White House had hoped. When the Bush administration took power a few months later, that pathway to normal relations was closed.
It is certainly conceivable that had the Clinton opening been pursued more vigorously, the United States would by now have an embassy in Pyongyang, and North Korea would not have exploded a nuclear weapon. Perhaps not, but it is certain that what has now occurred is the opposite of what was desirable. On October 9, 2006, North Korea tested a nuclear bomb in a tunnel at a place called Punggye in the far north of the country. One of the reactions of the Bush administration was to single out the Agreed Framework as the root cause of the problem, a ridiculous charge on the face of it, since the Clinton agreement stopped all effective North Korean work in producing bomb-grade plutonium for the duration of Clinton’s presidency; and such work was resumed in 2002 when a dispute between the Bush administration and North Korea over its uranium enrichment program led to the agreement’s collapse. And now that North Korea has exploded a plutonium bomb and boasted of that great achievement to its people, it will be more difficult to find ways to stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons and perhaps exporting them. The United Nations, with China’s support, voted to impose economic sanctions, but, while they will sting, nobody really expects the sanctions to force the North Koreans in a nonnuclear direction, largely because South Korea and China, fearing an economic collapse and an overwhelming refugee problem, are reluctant to enforce them.
Officially, the Bush administration rejects the one approach that has proven useful in the past: formal, high-level, one-on-one negotiations with Pyongyang of the sort that Clinton pursued. The White House’s explanation for this shift in policy is that the direct talks of the Clinton era, as Bush himself said a few days after the Korean nuclear test in October, “didn’t work.” They didn’t work because North Korea cheated on the agreement, apparently embarking on a small uranium enrichment program. At least it acquired equipment for such a program from the clandestine network of the Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan. Largely on the basis of that activity, the Bush administration in 2002 suspended fuel oil shipments it had been making to North Korea as part of the Agreed Framework. This led North Korea to declare the 1994 deal null and void and to resume plutonium production.
North Korea’s cheating is a serious matter, though certainly in the view of many experts not serious enough to have allowed it to cause the collapse of an agreement that was producing many benefits. “They were trying to do a bit of enrichment,” Robert Templer, director of the Asia Group at the International Crisis Group, said in an interview. “But it was pretty basic. They didn’t have anything like a cascade and there’s no sign that they had any fissionable uranium.” Templer was referring to the sophisticated array of multiple centrifuges required to turn uranium hexafluoride gas into the highly enriched uranium needed to build nuclear weapons based on uranium. As it passes through each centrifuge, the gas becomes more enriched, until it reaches the concentration of fissionable uranium necessary for weapons. David Albright, founder and director of the Institute for Science and International Security, which has studied North Korea’s nuclear program for years, told me:
The North Korean centrifuge was completely hyped up. There was stuff in the newspapers coming from the administration that they’d have a full-blown centrifuge program within a year that could produce enough enriched uranium for several bombs.
But this was untrue in 2002, and it remains untrue now. Albright said there is nothing to indicate that Pyongyang has acquired what he called “the hard stuff,” the magnets and superstrong steel needed for a cascade. (Because the centrifuges have to spin at extremely high speeds to produce enriched uranium, their assembly into a cascade requires exceptional precision and stability.)
On the other hand, following the Bush administration’s suspension of fuel oil shipments in 2002, the North Koreans certainly did resume the extraction of bomb-grade plutonium from their nuclear reactor in Pongbyon, about sixty miles north of Pyongyang. As the country’s only reactor, this five-megawatt plant has operated since the mid-1980s (except for the years when the Agreed Framework was in force, during which the plant was shut down and under the control of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency). Every expert who has commented on this matter seems to agree that the test explosion performed on October 9 was produced by using plutonium acquired from the Pongbyon reactor. Overall, in 1994, the North Koreans were believed to have had enough plutonium for one or two bombs; as of the middle of this year, their stock of forty-one to sixty-three kilograms of plutonium was deemed to be enough for as many as four to thirteen.2 Moreover, in 2003, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, freeing it from the scrutiny of international inspectors.
The situation can only be seen as a major failure of the Bush administration, which, despite all its bluster about the axis of evil and the use of preemptive military force to combat it, has yet to find a way either to punish North Korea for pursuing nuclear weapons or to offer rewards for it to stop its program. The Bush administration’s policy has been to push for “six-party talks” on North Korea, in which the two Koreas, China, Russia, Japan, and the United States were jointly supposed to reach a solution. But the policy did not prevent North Korea from conducting a test. And if poverty-stricken, isolated North Korea can’t be prevented from exploding a bomb, what does that say about the prospects for nonproliferation elsewhere in the world? Robert Gallucci, the former diplomat who was the chief negotiator of the Agreed Framework in 1994, aptly summarizes the Bush record. “They trashed the framework,” he told me, “and then they watched the North Koreans cross the red lines that we had drawn. The rhetoric has been so strong, and then they didn’t do anything, and they won’t negotiate.”
A forceful argument that things could have been different is implicit throughout A Moment of Crisis, which is an account of former president Jimmy Carter’s intervention in what might be called the first North Korean nuclear crisis in the early 1990s. Written by Marion Creekmore Jr., a former American ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives who is now program director at the Carter Center in Atlanta, this book seems at first glance to be a paean to Carter’s foresighted efforts. But after a few pages it settles into a straightforward history of one of the more interesting and unconventional acts of diplomacy of recent history. It includes a fascinating blow-by-blow description of Carter’s initiative as well as a useful account of the political background.