Understanding North Korea

The motives behind Kim Jong Il’s madness

Kevin Y. Kim

While the United States chases mobile weapons labs across the Iraqi desert, the looming crisis with North Korea moves forward by the minute. On January 31, the New York Times reported renewed activity at Yongbyon, the five-megawatt nuclear reactor that had been shut down since 1994. Left unchallenged, North Korea could produce as many as six nuclear weapons by June.

In response to the shocking speed of Pyongyang’s latest moves, the Bush administration initially tried to suppress all Yongbyon-related intelligence. Since the secret got leaked to the Times, the Pentagon has placed long-range bombers on alert and brought high-level international pressure on Pyongyang—everything but the direct talks needed to defuse mounting tensions.

Bush’s slipshod policies have turned the clock back to 1994, when Clinton administration negotiators reached the disarmament deal that shuttered Yongbyon. This time, the crisis began with the expulsion of U.N. inspectors after Bush’s hard-line stance and “axis of evil” rhetoric provoked the crumbling Korean regime’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty on January 10. While Bush officials openly sue for peace, they continue to equate any kind of concession with “blackmail.”

According to James Kelly, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, North Korea admitted to its highly enriched uranium program in October. But U.S. officials omit a crucial part of Kelly’s encounter. The North Koreans made an offer to Kelly that Bush refused: an end to the program and renewed inspections in return for a peace agreement and normalized relations. (One source later told The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh that Kelly’s “script” was written by National Security Council hard-liners, giving him no room for negotiation.) Pyongyang calls Kelly’s version of events “fabricated” and says it merely claimed the right to possess arms in self-defense.

Like the Kyoto Protocol, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the International Criminal Court, North Korea is an internationally recognized cause that the administration can’t bring itself to understand. The administration, capable only of thinking in black and white, has failed to critically examine why North Korea would invest in a uranium enrichment project when it was committed to a bilateral agreement based on non-proliferation. The reason is clear: Pyongyang cheated because it deeply distrusts a U.S. administration that cheated all along.


Under the 1994 Agreed Framework, the United States was to provide “formal assurances” not to threaten North Korea with nuclear weapons. To date, none have been given, and officials refuse to put the peaceful intentions toward the North they preach publicly on paper. Railing against the country’s withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, U.S. hawks remain blind to North Korea’s sovereign right to withdraw if sufficiently threatened by another overbearing signatory (not to mention that two U.S. allies in the war on terror, Israel and Pakistan, haven’t signed the treaty). Yet the Bush doctrine sanctions the use of nuclear weapons, and the administration plans to create nukes primed for “deeply buried targets” like those in North Korea.

But the hypocrisy of U.S. nuclear policy is only the tip of the iceberg that has blighted relations with North Korea. “There was skepticism from the very beginning in North Korea that the U.S. really would abide by the Agreed Framework,” says Charles Armstrong, a North Korea expert at Columbia University’s East Asian Institute. “Although the U.S. has not explicitly violated its terms, the framework lays out a very rapid timetable of movement toward normalization that hasn’t happened.”

That “rapid timetable” was undermined by a Republican Congress that quickly attacked the Clinton deal as a sellout. The lifting of sanctions promised by January 1995 was delayed until June 2000 because Clinton was forced to make a secret commitment to Senate Republican leaders not to proceed until high-level discussions were held on North Korea’s missiles.

Partly because of Republican foot-dragging, two 1,000-megawatt light-water nuclear reactors—which are impractical for making bombs but remain vital to the North’s energy needs—will miss their 2003 target date by seven years. The heavy fuel oil shipments meant to replace electricity lost from the frozen Yongbyon reactor have been frequently delayed, and the North Koreans say the oil is barely usable.

The framework’s promised “upgrade” to ambassador-level relations is nowhere in sight. North Korea has no diplomatic presence in the United States except for a U.N. mission in New York. More than 20 allies have established direct ties to Pyongyang, but the United States still uses Sweden’s Embassy as a liaison.

Angered at Washington’s feckless implementation of Clinton’s agreement, Pyongyang has repeatedly threatened to abandon the framework since 1998. Instead of pursuing diplomatic normalization, Bush’s hard-line policies, virulent rhetoric and refusal to negotiate have transformed Pyongyang’s previous bluster into the current crisis.

Conservatives are quick to point out that North Korea began importing uranium-related technology in 1997. But according to Hersh, Pyongyang didn’t begin enriching uranium until “sometime in 2001.” The enriched-uranium project, which Armstrong calls an “insurance policy against a breakdown of the framework,” was procured by suspicious North Korean hard-liners and activated by a Pyongyang forced to match Bush’s hard line with an even harder one. The announcement of the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive attacks last fall only confirmed Pyongyang’s worst fears. “That was what caused the final realization in North Korea that it could very well be an American target,” Armstrong concludes.

One can only guess at the specific 2001 event that kick-started this “insurance policy.” Perhaps it was three lawmakers’ proposal in March to replace the light-water reactors with coal plants. Perhaps it was Bush’s rejection of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung’s “sunshine” policy several days later at a summit during which Bush voiced “skepticism” about Kim Jong Il. (The North abruptly canceled inter-ministerial talks with the South one week later.) Perhaps Pyongyang was patient enough to hold back until the administration’s policy review unveiled tougher language, harsher criteria, and a more one-sided approach than Clinton’s. Or maybe the last straw was Bush’s June 30 comment to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi calling Kim Jong Il untrustworthy because “he makes his own people go hungry.”

“The Bush administration has botched our relations with North Korea terribly,” says Bruce Cumings, a Korea expert at the University of Chicago. “It caused Pyongyang to repudiate the 1994 agreement. It left Clinton’s missile deal sitting on the table. It’s been led by the most partisan foreign policy of any administration in my memory—viewing the framework not as a solemn agreement between two nations, but something Clinton did that they could repudiate.”


While spy satellites continue to monitor Yongbyon day and night, few back home remember that in late 2000 the Clinton administration came close to bagging a deal that would have averted the current stand-off. After a flurry of unprecedented diplomacy that included William Perry’s agenda-setting talks with North Korean leaders, Pyongyang’s second-in-command visiting Washington, and Madeleine Albright’s meeting with Kim Jong Il, relations thawed to their warmest phase in history.

In late 1999, North Korea declared a moratorium on missile testing. In return, Clinton lifted trade bans. In the “sunshine” of the first-ever North-South Korea summit that June, Canada, Britain, Belgium, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands established relations with a regime that finally began putting its war toys away in order to join the world community. During Albright’s visit, Kim Jong Il told his guest that the 1998 missile launch over Japan that so unnerved U.S. leaders would be the last of its kind.

In the 11th hour of his term, the stage was set for Clinton to meet the Great Leader and sign a sweeping accord that would have ended North Korea’s long-range ballistic-missile program, swapped all missile exports for food, clothing and energy, and established the full diplomatic relations promised in 1994. But the “constitutional crisis” of Election 2000, in one Clinton adviser’s words, rudely intervened. After Bush won in mid-December, Clinton officials briefed Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice on the imminent diplomatic breakthrough. But the Bushies, who used North Korea as justification for a multibillion-dollar National Missile Defense system, would support no such deal. Instead of pursuing the breakthrough for which Koreans on both sides of the DMZ have waited more than 50 years, the Bush White House initiated a two-year freeze in talks that ended with the Kelly confrontation last fall.

Pyongyang has been trying in its own unpredictable way to improve relations with the United States for years. Its current brinkmanship is the work of a regime in which moderates have little room left to maneuver. According to a U.N. envoy, 6 to 8 million people—nearly half the North’s population—are threatened by a food shortage exacerbated by delays in U.S. food aid. The U.N. World Food Program still needs 400,000 tons of rice to stave off widespread starvation. South Korean and Chinese sources close to Pyongyang believe that the free-market reforms Kim Jong Il initiated last July have backfired. An economic adviser to Pyongyang even whispered to the Washington Post that his client courts “social chaos and economic collapse.”

The administration has been sensible enough not to spark a military conflagration that could cost millions of lives. It says it wants a peaceful solution to what Powell terms a “diplomatic problem.” But so far, the Bush team’s only major diplomatic initiative has been to send Powell and Richard Armitage to the Senate to calm down the antsy Foreign Relations Committee.

Downplaying the urgency of the crisis and relying on regional allies to do the talking won’t work. South Korean envoys have been stiff-armed, Australia’s turned up empty-handed in mid-January, and China won’t even act because, in the mysterious words of its Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, “a lock can only be opened by one key.” Three days after Russia held the most promising talks to date with North Korea on January 20, it threw the ball into Bush’s court by calling for “direct dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang.”

Before the ball turns radioactive, the Bush team will have to learn how to humble itself enough to engage, face-to-face, the government of a dictator Bush dismissed as a “pygmy.” There isn’t a single good reason to delay talks settling North Korea’s security concerns, economic needs, and desire for normalized relations. Those talks should have happened two years ago. Every day that passes without a non-aggression pledge reinforces the belief of Pyongyang hard-liners that North Korea’s fate is intertwined with Iraq’s. “The North Koreans are smart enough not to wait for Bush to vanquish Iraq and then turn his attention to them,” Cumings warns.


Conservative opinion to the contrary, North Korea is not a crazed rogue state, but an embattled regime trying to reverse 50 years of isolation and failed domestic policies. Even its current brinkmanship, according to a former Clinton Pentagon official, is “purely rational for a nation with no assets being threatened by the world’s major power.”

North Korea renounced international terrorism in 2000, has not been conclusively linked to a terrorist act in nearly 15 years, and sells missiles only as an indispensable source of income. Seeking financial ties with the West, Pyongyang has repeatedly expressed interest in the international lending institutions to which U.S. officials hold the keys. Even the timing of its unilateralist moves reflects the regime’s underlying sensitivity to international law. Its adherence to the framework, which a senior North Korean official said was “hanging by a thread” in November, was not cut off until heavy fuel oil shipments ended last December—a checkmate move seen by Pyongyang as the end to the only one of the four articles of the framework that has been observed by the United States.

Pyongyang has stressed its desire for a diplomatic solution to the crisis since last October. Instead of sending senior officials to the United Nations to make cases for war, the administration should send an advance peace delegation to North Korea to establish dialogue as a foundation for the arduous negotiations ahead. As Perry did in 1999, Powell and company should begin the preliminary talks with a solemn acknowledgment of Korea’s difficult history, ending with a recognition of recent bilateral difficulties and the Bush administration’s missteps.

Short of a formal apology, such a gesture would go a long way toward regaining Pyongyang’s trust and goodwill. “America is afraid to say ‘sorry’ because it’s tantamount to an admission of guilt,” says Katharine Moon, former Clinton State department staff member and Asian Policy Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “But Koreans just say ‘sorry’ before negotiations start between two parties. Officials will have to account for these kinds of legal and cultural differences.”

Before laying out a tough agenda for the negotiations Bush promises after new South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun takes office on February 25, peace delegates should offer the written non-aggression pledge that North Korean officials recently said would satisfy Pyongyang’s demands for a formal peace treaty. “Nice words will be answered by nice words,” North Korea’s U.N. ambassador promised one week after Bush’s “axis of evil” speech in 2002.

If Bush really cares about Kim Jong Il’s starving people and the dangers of proliferating nukes, immediate peace talks must be held before the situation worsens. Clinton’s framework failed to comprehensively ban North Korea’s nuclear program because it was negotiated between two nations on the brink of war. Having created the current crisis, Bush must now pre-empt Pyongyang’s nukes by doing what he “loathes”: directly approaching Pyongyang and pledging peace in exchange for arms control agreements, nuclear disarmament, economic aid and diplomatic normalization. Preliminary talks must take place before any resolution of the Iraq question; the closer the United States edges toward war with Iraq, the sooner North Korea develops nuclear weapons as a deterrent and as a precious export for U.S.-hating rogues abroad.

Pyongyang’s hard-liners softened in 2000, opening up the possibilities of a bilateral relationship based on peace and tentative disarmament after 50 years of episodic conflict and relentless confrontation. Will Washington’s hard-liners do the same before it’s too late?

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Kevin Y. Kim is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The Nation, L.A. Weekly, Far Eastern Economic Review, and elsewhere.
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