On a sparkling Indian Summer day fifteen years ago, I was waiting in front of the Pyongyang Hotel with a British documentary producer. Our North Korean “counterparts” were picking us up for another round of “discussions” over when, where and what our film crew would be allowed to shoot. “They’re all a bunch of liars,” we both agreed, after days of bluff, prevarication, dissembling and bait-and-switch games using even their own people: I was convinced that one of the men we dealt with the week before had appeared with a different name card that morning. We had run afoul of the most popular sport in North Korea, rubbing foreign noses in the bloody-minded subjectivity of a regime that answers to no one. Then our eyes were caught by a tall monument across the street, an inlaid tile mural of a willowy, soft-featured woman leaping forward in flowing, brilliantly colored traditional dress. Koreans hold that women of the north country are more beautiful; she matched the myth. In her right hand was a military-issue revolver. That same female image is the “George Washington” of their one-dollar (or won) bill. North Koreans live every day amid violence at home from a repulsive family dictatorship, and abroad from our half-century failure to engage in serious diplomacy to end the Korean War. They suffered through years of American carpet-bombing during that war, and the incessant threat of annihilation by US nuclear weapons ever since.
When James Kelly of the State Department confronted them with evidence of this activity in early October, according to him they at first denied it and then admitted it, not without a certain belligerent satisfaction. On October 19 a high-level US official said the 1994 Framework Agreement that froze the North’s graphite nuclear reactor at Yongbyon was null and void, a self-fulfilling prophecy since Bush’s people declared it a dead letter soon after taking office. Thus comes to an end, it seems, the only diplomatic effort to solve a serious problem in Korea since the 1953 armistice. (There is nothing in the agreement prohibiting uranium enrichment, Bush spokespersons to the contrary, but the North certainly violated the spirit of the agreement.) This was a fully verifiable agreement under which thousands of plutonium fuel rods, the makings of five to ten bombs, were encased in concrete under UN inspection protocols. North Korea is still in compliance with it. But if the Framework Agreement is indeed dead, nothing prevents the North from extracting that fuel and making even more weapons.
The United States, of course, never lies or violates anyone’s sovereignty. In 1957 the Eisenhower Administration deliberated secretly about how to become the first power to introduce nuclear weapons into the Korean peninsula even though the 1953 armistice agreement prohibited such a qualitative leap into weapons of mass destruction. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles worried that he would need “publishable evidence confirming Communist violations of the armistice sufficient to justify such action to our Allies and before the UN.” But it wasn’t there; the Communist side had introduced new weaponry but so had the United States, and neither constituted a radical upgrade of capabilities. Washington went ahead anyway, and from 1958 to 1991 maintained in the Korean theater hundreds of nuclear-tipped rockets, atomic gravity bombs, battlefield tactical nukes and atomic demolition mines. George Bush Senior removed them at the end of 1991 because he couldn’t pressure the North about its reactor until he did. But that didn’t end the nuclear threat.
Why did Pyongyang choose to begin importing the Pakistani technology that created enriched-uranium bombs in 1998? After all, in February of that year Kim Dae Jung announced his “sunshine policy,” and in the fall the State Department began an eight-month review that culminated in Bill Clinton’s decision to engage with the North. One plausible reason: Documents obtained by Hans Kristensen of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists show that in June 1998 the Pentagon staged simulated long-range nuclear attacks on North Korea at the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina. F-15E fighter-bombers of the 4th Fighter Wing dropped dummy BDU-38 nuclear bombs on concrete emplacements arrayed like the hundreds that protect Korean underground facilities. Such “stand-off” nuclear attacks replaced plans to utilize nukes stationed in South Korea. Kristensen emphasized that this new strategy, targeting hardened underground facilities, was to be used pre-emptively “as early in a crisis as possible.”
In August 1998 the North launched its new three-stage rocket into the stratosphere over Japan, a present to Kim Jong Il on the fiftieth anniversary of his regime, but a provocation and an all-too-welcome goad to Americans seeking national missile defense. Subsequently Pentagon and CIA hard-liners, bent on thwarting Clinton’s new diplomacy, leaked Pentagon war plans to respond to any attack with “regime change”: The United States would “abolish North Korea as a state” [see Cumings, “North Korean Buyout?” May 3, 1999]. Soon thereafter a civilian smart aleck from the Pentagon told an audience at my university that if Pyongyang dared to start anything, there would be a “magnificent symphony of death” in the valleys of North Korea. Americans live with violence, too-and an exterminist hatred of North Korea.
In the current crisis, a nation that believes its interests are the only ones worthy of respect confronts Pentagon hard-liners and Beltway pundits who can’t conceive of a single North Korean interest worthy of their attention. After all, they say, Pyongyang should have folded its hand and given up in 1989. (This is the dirty secret of the 1994 deal: The light-water reactors would take a decade to build, and by that time South Korea would have unified the peninsula.) But unlike our hard-liners, the North is not a poor student of its own national interest. Rather than play the hand that fate deals them, they will overturn the table. And in the case of nuclear weapons, the law is on their side: The Non-Proliferation Treaty, which the North adhered to in 1985, gives to nations threatened by nuclear weapons the sovereign right to possess their own. The 1994 Framework Agreement called upon the United States to declare publicly that it will not threaten or use nuclear weapons against the North: We have yet to do so, because our war plans call for their use.
It was inevitable that one of the “axis of evil” countries threatened with pre-emptive attack would pre-empt the center stage and call Bush’s bluff. Now a country with a patent on grandiose braggadocio meets a foolish President just getting his toes wet in world affairs. A harsh and bitter realism formed in the caldron of a fifty-years’ war meets a messianic idealism wanting to “rid the world of evil.” The White House gang that can’t shoot straight accumulates enemies by the day while dispersing our allies.
We have arrived all too quickly at the endgame of this Administration’s unwillingness to coalesce with our East Asian allies and friends, finish the 1994 agreement, get Clinton’s missile deal done, normalize relations and thus garner, finally, a significant measure of influence over North Korean behavior. In which country will we find the “cooler heads” that must prevail, to avoid a war that will destroy Northeast Asia?