North Korea, Update
As the United States begins a series of meetings with North
Korea, with China as an observer, let’s review a few key issues
and a little history, to supplement past pieces on the topic.
President George W. Bush included North Korea in his “Axis of
Evil” as part of his January 2002 State of the Union Address.
Then last October, after being confronted by U.S. Assistant
Secretary of State James Kelly, North Korea suddenly admitted it
had begun a new secret weapons program using enriched
uranium, in direct violation of a 1994 agreement between the two
nations known as the Agreed Framework. This deal committed
Pyongyang to halting its nuclear arms program in return for the
U.S. and its allies in the region supplying the North with two
nuclear power stations and heavy fuel oil.
The power plant was never completed and as a result of the
October 2002 admission on the part of North Korea, the U.S.,
Japan and South Korea suspended shipments of oil last
November. Then on December 12, Pyongyang announced that
the Yongbyon nuclear facility had been restarted. Additionally,
the government removed all surveillance equipment and booted
the inspectors, both of which had been put in place as part of the
Since then it’s been a constant game of chicken, diplomatically,
with North Korea assuming that the United States would
eventually act as it always had and give in to blackmail. But
given the firepower that the North has on its border, trained at
Seoul some 35 miles away, the negotiating style employed by
Kim Jong Il and Co. is exceedingly reckless.
The issue of most immediate concern is the threat posed by a
North Korea that could shortly have in its possession an
additional five or six nuclear weapons, on top of the two it is
assumed by most experts that they already possess. Certainly, an
increased arsenal would allow them to sell one or two and still
have a credible threat of their own.
There are some Asia experts, though, that feel if North Korea
builds more weapons, it doesn’t necessarily mean a nuclear arms
race on the Korean peninsula. These folks argue that South
Korea, Japan, and Taiwan would rely on the U.S. for protection
rather than build their own forces, but this seems unrealistic.
It’s important to recall, for instance, that South Korea had
initiated a secret nuke program way back in 1971, which it shut
down under pressure from Washington four years later. It did
the same thing in 1991, only to pull back again. As for Japan,
some say the public there wouldn’t countenance a nuclear-armed
nation, but I would argue once the people see a more immediate
threat, approval for an offensive capability would be granted.
As for China, they have a major incentive to see that North
Korea doesn’t go nuclear in a big way. If Pyongyang did, the
U.S. would be forced to deploy more weapons and personnel in
the region, weapons that could be used against China itself,
should Beijing make a move against Taiwan.
Recently, PBS’s “Frontline” focused on this topic, including an
interview with former secretary of defense William Perry (1994-
97). Perry still favors diplomacy, backed up by a credible
military threat, as the formula for avoiding military conflict.
Perry dealt with the North Koreans during the 1994 talks, when
Pyongyang was issuing statements such as “We’ll turn Seoul into
a sea of flames.” Then in 1999 he was asked to conduct a policy
review. Following were his conclusions.
“We looked seriously at the approaches which many in the U.S.,
many in Congress had asked us to consider, one of which was
that we should simply put pressure on the North Koreans until
their government collapsed. I mean, this is a country that was in
desperate economic condition. If we were to go back to
sanctions and back to diplomatic pressure, their belief was that
we could hasten the demise of the regime, and that’s the way the
problem would be solved. Many in Congress, in particular,
strongly believed in that.
“We rejected that alternative for two reasons. First of all, there
was no evidence at all that pressure would cause that regime to
collapse. They have an iron police state in North Korea, and the
misery of the people was not likely, in our judgment, to lead to a
popular overthrow of the government.
“Secondly, we didn’t have enough time. Even if that strategy
were successful, the most optimistic (projections were that) it
would take several years. In the meantime, the North Koreans
would get their nuclear program. They would get their nuclear
bombs, and we would be facing that danger. So we rejected that.
“There were also some optimistic people .who believed that the
North Korean government was in the process of reform .and
that it would lead them, eventually, to a democratic, market-
oriented government, and that would ultimately solve the
problem without our taking any action.
“Again, we felt there was very little evidence to support the
view that that reform was going to be anything other than narrow
So the Clinton administration fell back on diplomacy. Today,
“I think what North Korea is doing now with the nuclear weapon
program is not only a crisis, it is a serious crisis. It puts us in the
position of either having to say, ‘Oh, well, let them have five, or
six, or seven, or 10, or 50 nuclear weapons,’ or of reacting, rather
late in the game, to what they’re doing in a way that is risking
“ .We’re probably heading now towards a North Korea with a
robust nuclear production program and a declared nuclear state,
including nuclear tests .
“(Yet) any economic pressure (the U.S. applies) is only going to
increase their incentive to sell some of the nuclear technology or
nuclear bombs to other countries. They are notorious for selling
their missile to anyone who is willing to buy them.”
As to the issue of how much time the United States has, Perry
says just months, adding:
“I think it’s quite possible that the North Koreans have already
decided that they’re going to become a declared nuclear state,
and that no amount of dialogue will stop them from that .I
think the most urgent thing we have to do is put that to a test.
The only way we can put it to a test is to undertake a dialogue
with them, to find out if they’re open to reasonable offers to stop
that nuclear program in a verifiable way.”
Lastly, Carl Gershman wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington
Post the other day on negotiating with North Korea and he listed
three items that simply can’t be ignored, though like him I’m not
real confident they will be part of the equation.
1) Pyongyang uses food as a weapon. The famine that has
taken 1-3 million lives since the mid-1990s is not as a
result of crop failures, despite what you hear in the popular
press. Those classified as least loyal simply don’t receive the
2) There are some 300,000 refugees hiding in China, afraid
that China will expel them and send them back to North
Korea, which would be a violation of the Geneva
3) Over 400,000 have perished in the gulags, the labor
camps for political prisoners, over the past three decades.
200,000 are currently being held in them.
We now wait to see what happens.
*Hott Spotts will return May 8.