North Korea and Kim Jong-Il certainly have been in the news a
lot recently, for all the wrong reasons. They restarted a nuclear
reactor that yields plutonium, booted out UN inspectors, and now
threaten to remove fuel rods that could then be used to make
nuclear bombs in a very short period of time. It’s a given they
have one or two crude nukes right now and by summer they
could have at least five more, with little effort.
So who is this nut job that runs the country, the one whom
former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright labeled
Despite what Madame Secretary, she of the lovely stickpins,
said, Kim Jong-Il is a toxic figure. He has kidnapped Japanese
citizens to serve as translators and seems startled that Japan
actually cares about this. He kidnapped two actors from South
Korea so that they could entertain him. [They were able to
escape, which is how we learned of this one.] He has burned his
enemies alive, according to U.S. intelligence, and Kim was
clearly responsible for two huge terrorist acts in the 1980s – the
1983 bombing of a South Korean delegation in Burma and the
1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner, which killed 115.
Other than that, he’s quite a guy, as Albright would probably say.
Kim Jong-Il is also known to like fast cars, beautiful blondes and
cognac. He once bought 200 $100,000 Mercedes, or a full 20%
of the aid he was to get from the UN that particular year. And he
also loves the Internet, often giving his orders by e-mail.
So now he’s enjoying the spotlight, skillfully playing, I’ll give
him, the “We’re nuts and what are you going to do about it”
game. Will North Korea begin test-firing missiles over Japan?
Will they just prepare for the tests, knowing that our satellites
will pick that up? Will they put their ground forces on high alert,
thereby further ratcheting up the tension?
North Korea, unlike Iraq, does have a real army. Sure, because
the nation is destitute and low on resources of all kinds, save
Mercedes, much of their equipment is growing obsolete or in
disrepair, but they still have 600-750 missiles capable of hitting
South Korea and Japan, thousands of artillery pieces that can
reach Seoul – and heaven knows what they’d be loaded with –
and Kim’s military still has enough fighter jets more than
capable of attacking Seoul from the air.
Kim recognizes what Iran now knows, the only way to prevent a
preemptive attack is to have the nuclear weapons in hand. That
gives him leverage in dealing with the U.S. and his neighbors.
For its part, the Bush Administration says Kim reneged on a
1994 agreement under which the North agreed not to build nukes
and it can’t be trusted, so the White House won’t negotiate until
Kim has abandoned his nuclear weapons program. Thus we have
this giant game of chicken.
Back on February 26 of 2002, Nicholas Kristoff wrote an op-ed
piece in the New York Times, wherein he quoted Kim Myong
Chol, an unofficial spokesman for Kim’s regime.
“North Korea cannot kill the heavyweight champion, the U.S.
But it can maim one of his limbs, and so the heavyweight
champion will not want to fight. That is the North Korean
Meanwhile, the U.S. has the 37,000 troops in the South, serving
as a trip-wire, which have been in place since the mutual defense
treaty was signed with South Korea following the 1950-53
Korean War. And it’s important to note that the war ended in an
armed truce, not a peace treaty, the latter being something Kim
Jong-Il keeps calling for, along with a non-aggression pact. As
to the latter, the U.S. claims it has already given Kim this in a
1991 broad ranging agreement.
In South Korea, the youth, with no memory of the Korean War
and the brutality of it all, want reconciliation with the North and
U.S. troops out, while the elderly in the nation have long
memories and will never trust Pyongyang.
And so it goes, around and around, as we all hope the little devil
with the shades doesn’t cross the line.
Following is a timeline of important events.
March 1993: North Korea withdraws from the international
nuclear non-proliferation treaty as US satellite pictures suggest
weapons-grade plutonium is being processed at North Korea’s
June 1994: Former US president Jimmy Carter flies to North
Korea on a peace mission as tensions between Washington and
Pyongyang threaten to escalate into war.
August 1994: US and North Korea step back from the brink,
striking a deal, the Agreed Framework, which commits
Pyongyang to freeze weapons development in return for the US
and its allies building a nuclear power station for the energy-
August 1998: North Korea test fires its 2,000 km-range Taepo
Dong 1 missile over Japan, proving an ability to strike any point
in the region. Work continues on the Taepo Dong 2 missile,
capable of hitting the U.S.
May 1999: US inspectors visit a nuclear facility at Kumchang-ni
amid suspicions that North Korea had resumed plutonium
production – but no evidence was found they had ample time to
October 2000: Madeleine Albright makes her trip.
January 2002: President Bush names North Korea in his ‘axis of
October 2002: US assistant secretary of state James Kelly visits
Pyongyang and secures an admission that North Korea has an
active uranium enrichment program, and things really begin to
One last little item that I think sums up just how destitute, and
desperate, North Korea is. They have 31,000 kilometers of
highway, but 29,000 of this is unpaved.
Sources: Financial Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal,
New York Times, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report,
Weekly Standard, AP, Reuters.
Hott Spotts returns next week.