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How Not to Deal with North Korea

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 Ceaus��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.

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. 1

    Columbia University Press, 2007.

  2. 2

    David Albright and Paul Brannan, “The North Korean Plutonium Stock Mid-2006,” Institute for Science and International Security, June 26, 2006.

  3. 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.

  4. 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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