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How Not to Deal with North Korea

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Kim Il Sung attempted to portray himself as a more moderate figure, opening up direct talks with South Korea and signaling a desire to reduce tensions with the United States. There were short-lived and unsuccessful contacts between Washington and Pyongyang during the administration of George H.W. Bush, and these talks were resumed when Bill Clinton became president. But relations soured amid suspicions on both sides that the other was not keeping its word. When the IAEA formally complained that North Korea was not observing some provisions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Pyongyang had signed in the mid-1980s, the Kim Il Song regime reacted, as Pyongyang generally does to anything it perceives as a threat or an insult, with intemperate rhetoric and an act of belligerent brinksmanship. It canceled its contacts with South Korea and gave notice that it would expel the IAEA inspectors who were monitoring the Pongbyon reactor.

Like the Bush administration a decade later, the Clinton team, newly in power, faced the usual stark alternatives. Some members of the team felt that North Korea would follow East Germany into oblivion and that to pursue direct negotiations leading to diplomatic relations would retard that outcome. Still, at the urging of the South Koreans, Clinton agreed to direct talks, and in June and July of 1993, his envoy Gallucci met with high-level North Korean officials. An agreement seemed close, and a third round of talks was scheduled. But then the North Koreans failed to agree on IAEA inspections, and the United States, not wishing, as Creekmore puts it, to appear “wimpish” toward a hostile Communist regime, canceled the third round. The Americans said that North Korea had to give up its weapons program before the Americans would make any promises about the future. When the North Koreans refused, the Americans began strengthening their military position in South Korea, and they pushed aggressively in the UN for sanctions. The North Koreans, in turn, threatened, as they have done more recently, to treat sanctions like a “declaration of war.”

Jimmy Carter felt that the situation was extremely dangerous, and he was not alone. Three former senior American government officials, including Gallucci, have written a meticulous history of the 1994 crisis, and they credit Carter with halting a chain of events that could have led the US to resort to military action. Under active consideration, the former diplomats report, was what was called the Osirak Option, named for Israel’s 1981 strike against Iraq’s nuclear weapons plant, in which the Americans would have bombed North Korea’s nuclear complex at Pongbyon.3 Had that been done, who can know for sure what the North Korean response would have been? Among those advocating a preemptive strike was former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft. When Gallucci asked him what he thought about a possible North Korean invasion of South Korea as a response, Scowcroft’s reply, Gallucci told me, was “they won’t do it.”

As it happened, Carter needed just a single meeting with a jovial and commanding Kim Il Sung to put an end to the crisis. “If the US would agree to hold a third round of talks, and to help us get light water reactors, then there will be no problems,” Kim told Carter, according to Creekmore. Kim died three weeks after meeting with Carter, but Kim Jong Il, his carefully groomed successor, stuck to the deal in subsequent negotiations with the United States, leading to the Agreed Framework, which was signed on October 21, 1994, in Geneva.

Since North Korea did cheat on the deal by beginning a secret uranium enrichment effort within a few years, and since by 1998 the North Koreans were testing ballistic missiles, including one that, if they get it to work efficiently, could hit the American West Coast, and in view of North Korea’s nasty and untrustworthy nature, would it have been better to decide to carry out the Osirak Option twelve years ago? That is certainly what the Clinton administration’s latter-day critics say, and what some were saying at the time. Speaking on Nightline as the crisis built in 1994, Senator John McCain argued that it would be better to strike militarily, “while the nuclear weapons program is still in an embryonic stage,” than to wait until “you are facing an enemy with nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.”

But the members of the Clinton team knew that both China and South Korea were deeply opposed to any military attack. They had also been warned that North Korea has a formidable conventional arsenal, including a standing army of some one million men, and that its warnings, made by its representatives, to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire” seemed entirely credible. The commander of American forces in Korea, Gary Luck, told Clinton at a White House briefing in May 1994 that a new Korean war would cost 52,000 American and 490,000 South Korean military casualties, dead and wounded, in the first ninety days as well as incalculable loss of civilian life and physical destruction. The other option open to the Clinton team was simply to resist direct negotiations with North Korea, not use a military strike but press for sanctions at the UN, urge China to further isolate its friend, freeze bank accounts, and withhold any benefits until North Korea had acceded to American demands—in other words, the approach currently taken by the Bush administration.

But if that policy had been pursued, most likely what has happened in the past couple of months would have happened twelve years earlier. Sanctions would have been of limited effect, in large part because China and, most likely, South Korea wouldn’t have strictly observed them. The North Koreans would have followed through with their threat to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty as they in fact did in 2003. They would have begun extracting weapons-grade plutonium from their five-megawatt reactor. They would then have resumed building the fifty- and two-hundred-megawatt reactors they had begun work on in the early 1990s, from which they would have been able to extract enough plutonium to make more bombs or sell to other countries. Then they would have exploded a nuclear device. In all likelihood, they would also have started a uranium enrichment program using centrifuges that they later acquired from Pakistan.

Under the Clinton agreement, none of these developments occurred, save for the secret uranium enrichment program, which, as noted, did not make much progress. Yet in 1998 and again in July of last year, North Korea tested ballistic missiles, most recently firing seven missiles into the East Sea toward Japan, including one Taepodong 2, the long-range missile that could, once the bugs have been removed, reach the coast of California. The missile firings were not a violation of the 1994 agreement, but the gesture was certainly a provocation, and it fostered the image of North Korea as an inherently aggressive rogue state that could never be trusted. Certainly North Korea’s past mendacity leaves trust pretty much out of the picture. But what really are the goals of the Kim regime, mere survival or an eventual reconquest of the South? And is their nuclear program just a card to be bartered away in exchange for American recognition, or is it an indispensable element of North Korean ambitions they will not willingly abandon?

Over the years a remarkable amount of information about North Korea has leaked out of the country, remarkable because it is so well sealed off from the rest of the world. When I was living in Beijing I made a trip there in 1980, accompanying Stephen J. Solarz, then a congressman from Brooklyn, who, having been invited to Pyongyang by the exiled Cambodian leader Norodom Sihanouk, was granted a meeting with Kim Il Sung. One afternoon, our minders and translators took us to visit the Pyongyang subway, and noticing a schoolgirl there, Solarz affably asked her what she thought of America. The girl, who carried a yellow school satchel, drew herself into a military posture and demanded that the United States stop supporting the “fascist clique” in power in Seoul, withdraw its troops, and desist immediately from thwarting the collective will of all Koreans for reunification of the motherland under the wise leadership of our Great Leader Kim Il Sung. The girl looked to be about eight years old, a product of Korean education in which the bottomless evil of the United States is given constant emphasis.4

It would be easy to cull the various accounts that have been written about North Korea for evidence of similar thought control and regimentation, or for simple, creepy weirdness. Becker reports in his book that Kim Il Sung benefited from the ministrations of an Institute of Longevity “devoted to growing special food and researching diets and treatments, including, some say, transfusions of blood taken from selected virgins to maintain his vigor.” That “some say,” cited as Becker’s source, is hardly adequate evidence, a rare instance where the usually reliable Becker fails to document a claim. Maybe the cult of Kim didn’t actually extend to transfusions of the blood of virgins. Still, North Korea is, or at least was, the kind of state where the authorities suddenly turn off electricity to peoples’ apartments, then send inspectors to see if illicit videotapes—South Korean television programs for example—have gotten stuck in household VCRs. It is the country that simply kidnapped dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Japanese citizens from European vacations and Japanese beaches, in order to steal their identities or to use them as Japanese instructors for the intelligence service. It maintains an elaborate and cruel gulag. It is a regime that funds itself in part by international trafficking in narcotics and counterfeiting currency and whose essential purpose in recent years appears to have become the maintenance of its ruling elite in luxurious and absolutist circumstances. Gordon G. Chang, in Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World, provides a useful epigrammatic summary of the North Korean dictatorship: “The regime founded by Kim Il Sung is a cult possessing instruments of a nation-state, a militant clan with embassies and weapons of mass destruction.”

Still, why does North Korea want the bomb? Strangely it is a question that none of the writers of the books under review fully explores. On the face of it a bomb seems almost more dangerous to North Korea than to its neighbors since Pyongyang must surely know that any use of it in combat would provoke a crushing counterattack by South Korea and the United States. Its highly militarized society already gives North Korea a deterrent that has proven effective. Not even George W. Bush has dared to attack it. The weapons program can be seen as reflecting the Kim regime’s megalomania and grandiosity. The “Sun of the 21st Century,” being the offspring of the “Genius of Mankind,” might simply think that he ought to have the bomb. Chang argues that “Kim Jong Il’s nuclear arms program is the source of his power.”

It makes him geopolitically relevant, ensures aid from foreign nations, destabilizes South Korea. It also provides an “aura of invulnerability.” Without unconventional weapons, he would be just another ignored leader of one more failing state.

Generally, Chang disagrees with Creekmore; he believes that the Agreed Framework was a mistake. The deal, he writes, “strengthened North Korea at a critical moment. It provided an economic lifeline and signaled to Pyongyang’s elite American acceptance of the regime’s existence.”

But aside from vaguely urging everybody to be tougher, Chang doesn’t articulate an alternative policy that would disarm North Korea. Indeed, in a persuasive summary of the diverse and conflicting interests among the main parties to the Korean crisis, Chang shows how the balance of forces actually favors North Korea, partly because of the problems that would face the region if its regime suddenly collapsed. There is no greater paradox in the situation than South Korea’s about-face in its attitude toward the North, going from unremitting hostility in the early 1990s to firm advocacy of moderation and engagement now. The Seoul government, having studied Germany’s difficulties in incorporating 18 million former East Germans into a newly united Germany, wants nothing to do with incorporating 22 million vastly poorer North Koreans into a newly reunited Korea, which is what it would have to do if Pyongyang collapsed and Seoul took over the entire country. Similarly, China’s greatest fear is not a nuclear North Korea, though China doesn’t want that either, but that the regime will collapse, impelling millions of refugees to cross the Korean-Chinese border.

Following its nuclear test on October 9, North Korea, at the behest of China, agreed to resume the six-party talks in Beijing that had become the Bush administration’s preferred way of addressing the Kim regime. In fact, despite its disavowal of direct negotiations, the Bush administration has permitted its chief negotiator, Christopher Hill, to engage in one-on-one talks with North Korean representatives in Beijing, and such talks took place shortly before the six-party conference reconvened there in December. In fact, a template for an agreement does exist, in the form of an elaborate understanding earlier reached among the six parties in September 2005, an understanding that contains the essentials of the abandoned 1994 accord—a shutdown of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for an American pledge of nonaggression, assistance in building light-water reactors, and a promise to move toward normal diplomatic relations. But the 2005 talks stalled almost immediately when the United States decided to freeze North Korean bank accounts in Macau that were essential to its international transactions, charging that North Korea was using the accounts to launder and counterfeit money. To offer recognition on the one side and to impose what were in effect economic sanctions on the other seems an inconsistent way to persuade a secretive and paranoid leadership to give up the one program that gives it a claim to international importance. The Bush administration has mixed threats of preemptive military strikes against this member of the “axis of evil,” with offers to negotiate very much in the fashion of Bill Clinton. Bush has never been very consistent on North Korea.

The resumed six-party talks that were held in Beijing in December failed to produce any concrete results, with the North Koreans refusing even to talk about disarmament as long as its assets remain frozen. But in a sign of possible softening Pyongyang sent negotiators to meet with Hill in Berlin in January, and the six-party talks are expected to resume in February. Is there any hope? A US government official who spoke to me said that the aim is to create a situation in which those in the North Korean regime who want a deal with the United States can gain the upper hand against those who don’t. “Even dictatorships have politics,” this official told me. “There are some constituents in North Korea that want these programs,” meaning weapons of mass destruction. “Others want North Korea to join the human race, and the way to do that is for them to get out of their WMD programs.”

Oddly though, what Kim Jong Il would decide if asked to choose between the bomb and a full, normal, nonbelligerent relationship with Washington has never been tested. Very likely, a working relationship with the United States would prove more subversive of the North Korean dictatorship than the efforts to isolate it and punish it have been. It is something that a new administration might try, assuming it is not already too late.

—February 1, 2007

  1. 3

    Joel S. Wit, Daniel B. Poneman, and Robert L. Gallucci, Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis(Brookings Institution Press, 2004), p. xviii.

  2. 4

    Becker reports on the official Korean version of history in which the Great Leader first single-handedly drove the Japanese imperialists out of Korea, then defeated the United States after the Americans’ treacherous and unprovoked invasion. For years the Korean people were indoctrinated in “meetings of revenge” to denounce the “bloody atrocities of the eternal enemies of the Korean people—American imperialism, Japanese colonialism, and their South Korean puppets.”

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