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Facing Up to North Korea

Early last October, North Korea admitted that it had been secretly continuing to develop nuclear weapons despite a 1994 agreement with the U.S. not to. The confession was unapologetic. Not only, said North Korean officials, did they have the uranium-enrichment program that the U.S. had come to suspect them of having, but they possessed other, “more powerful” things as well.

In the period that followed, Pyongyang responded with mounting belligerence to criticism of its defiant violation of the 1994 agreement. For the first time, it openly acknowledged that it actually possessed nuclear weapons (although denying it the very next day). It also began to thaw a “frozen” plutonium program, taking steps to reactivate the nuclear reactor and reprocessing facility at Yongbyon that had been shut down under the same 1994 accord, expelling the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors who were monitoring the site, dismantling IAEA’s surveillance equipment, and apparently beginning to remove from storage the fuel rods from which bomb material is directly produced. Ratcheting tensions further, it declared its withdrawal from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), warned Japan that it was going to renew its testing of ballistic missiles, and, for good measure, threatened the U.S. with “uncontrollable catastrophe.”

In the face of all this, and caught in the midst of a confrontation with Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration tried hard to keep its cool. Together with South Korea and Japan, it suspended shipments of the oil that the three countries had been donating to Pyongyang under the 1994 deal; and it beefed up U.S. forces in the region somewhat. But President Bush and his team also took pains to stress that they sought a diplomatic resolution of the crisis. Insisting at first that we would not “negotiate,” the administration soon made it clear by a series of small capitulations that this was not the case, and even began to hint at some of the inducements it was prepared to offer. Playing down the gravity of the situation, Secretary of State Colin Powell asked, rhetorically, “What are they going to do with another two or three more nuclear weapons when they’re starving, when they have no energy, when they have no economy that’s functioning?”

Unfortunately, Powell’s question answers itself. Pyongyang’s first few nuclear weapons have presumably been reserved against the possibility that America might “go nuclear” in defense of South Korea, and in order to extort succor from frightened nations near and far. As for any additional weapons, what it is likely to do with them is to sell them—just as it has already sold nuclear-capable missiles to Iran, Libya, Syria, and, most recently, Yemen. Such weapons would bring a pretty penny on the well-established trade routes that connect Pyongyang to Tehran, Tripoli, and Damascus, or new ones that may reach to the murky haunts of Osama bin Laden and the remnants of his organization. As the arms-control expert Gary Milhollin has put it: “The cash-strapped North Koreans have sold everything [of a military nature] they have produced.” Although North Korea might be dissuaded from launching nuclear weapons by the threat of retaliation in kind, such deterrence is no answer to proliferation.

And it may not be a matter of just “two or three” more, in Powell’s phrase. We do not know how much uranium the North Koreans have enriched, or what they mean by saying they have another, “more powerful” program. The fuel rods apparently removed from Yongbyon could quickly yield a handful of bombs, and the small reactor being reactivated there could produce another one or two a year. Completion of the two much larger reactors whose construction was suspended in 1994 would supply the North Koreans or their customers with enough fissionable material annually for dozens more bombs. If we cannot stop them, as we have been trying without success to do for some twenty years, we face the prospect of North Korea’s becoming, in Richard Perle’s phrase, the “nuclear breadbasket of the world”—or at least of the underworld of failed states and terror bands.

Here, then, is an especially terrifying version of the nightmare of which President Bush has spoken since September 11, 2001: weapons of mass destruction, further along in their development than those of Saddam Hussein, no less likely to be supplied to terrorists, and in the possession of a country about which our sources of information are even weaker than in the case of Iraq.

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How did we get into this fix? The story is both tedious and instructive—and, for anyone who has followed the cat-and-mouse game played by Saddam Hussein over the last twelve years, eerily evocative.

North Korea began to construct a nuclear reactor large enough to produce material for weapons in 1979. In 1985, in conjunction with a deal for a reactor, and under pressure from us, the Soviets persuaded their then-ally to sign the non-proliferation treaty. But sighs of relief proved premature.

Nations that join the NPT have another eighteen months in which to sign a “safeguards agreement” with the IAEA, under which they openly declare their nuclear programs and arrange for inspectors to monitor them. Eighteen months passed, and then an extension of another eighteen, and still North Korea did not sign. Finally, in 1989, it announced a condition—it would sign if South Korea agreed to turn the entire Korean peninsula into a nuclear-free zone. That same year, while this ostensible olive branch hung in the air, Pyongyang was busily advancing its nuclear program, shutting down its reactor for two to three months in order, apparently, to remove fuel rods for reprocessing into weapons material (while continuing to deny any such nefarious intention).

Over the next two years, Pyongyang stonewalled, insisting not only that the entire peninsula be “denuclearized” but that the annual U.S.-South Korean military exercise called “Team Spirit” be canceled and that the U.S. pledge not to attack the North. Although Washington initially resisted these demands—on the grounds that the tactical nuclear weapons we maintained in the South constituted an essential counterweight to North Korea’s overwhelming artillery presence along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas—gradually it yielded. In September 1991, President George H. W. Bush announced the withdrawal of all U.S. nuclear weapons from the South.

It did not help; quite the contrary. North Korea first said it would not permit inspections until the withdrawal had actually been completed, and then declared it would permit such inspections only if the U.S. allowed inspections of its own military facilities in the South. By December 1991, the Bush administration had said yes to this, too.

Meanwhile, South Korea, its habitual toughness vitiated by America’s string of concessions, had launched its own policy of conciliation. In November, the government in Seoul unilaterally renounced the manufacture, possession, or use of nuclear or chemical weapons, and in December it signed a non-aggression pact that made no mention of the North’s nuclear programs but included pledges of economic exchange that would disproportionately benefit the North. The next month, January 1992, the two Koreas agreed to ban nuclear weapons from the peninsula—and still North Korea had not signed a “safeguards” agreement.

To sweeten the pot further, President Bush now announced cancellation of the annual Team Spirit exercises. Sure enough, on January 31, Pyongyang signed an inspection plan with the IAEA—but declared immediately thereafter that the plan would have to be ratified by its “legislature,” a process slated to take several months. While these deliberations, such as they were, were under way, U.S. surveillance cameras observed convoys of trucks hauling things away from known nuclear sites; in February, following testimony by CIA director Robert Gates to Congress, the New York Times reported “a growing consensus in the Bush administration” that North Korea “remains intent on continuing its nuclear-weapons program.”

Pyongyang did eventually ratify the accord. But its formal declaration to the IAEA failed to specify how much plutonium it had produced, and its list of nuclear facilities omitted an all-important reprocessing plant at Yongbyon, a multistory facility the length of two football fields that Pyongyang labeled a “radiochemical laboratory.” When the director of the IAEA—it was Hans Blix—protested, Pyongyang allowed the plant to be added to the list, at the same time floating the suggestion that it would give up the facility entirely if the West would supply it with light-water reactors, which it said it wanted in order to generate electricity. (The claim that its nuclear program was intended solely to provide electricity was put forward many times by the North, although it never took steps to link any of its reactors to the nation’s electricity grid.)

Another dispute developed over two other sites at Yongbyon that U.S. intelligence believed were being used for nuclear waste. One was a large two-story building around which the Koreans had been observed bulldozing mounds of earth to bury the first story prior to the arrival of inspectors. If the two buildings were indeed waste sites, examination of them might have enabled inspectors to deduce how much plutonium North Korea had reprocessed and thus how many bombs it had produced. But Pyongyang repeatedly rebuffed Blix’s requests for access. The quarrel culminated in March 1993 with North Korea’s announcement that it was withdrawing from the NPT.

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By now the Clinton era had begun. Following the example of the Bush administration, the Clinton team likewise tried to lure North Korea with incentives, offering to allow inspection of U.S. military facilities in South Korea and pledging noninterference in the North’s internal affairs. In exchange, Pyongyang agreed to “suspend” its withdrawal from the NPT, while adamantly continuing to disallow inspections of the suspected waste sites. By now, indeed, it was also refusing access to the seven declared nuclear sites that inspectors had been permitted to visit the previous year. And, just to reinforce the sense of menace, on the day after suspending its withdrawal from the NPT it test-fired a mid-range ballistic missile capable of reaching Japanese cities with a chemical or nuclear payload.

In November 1993, President Clinton underscored the gravity of the threat. “North Korea,” he said, “cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear bomb. We have to be very firm about it.” Yet in the next weeks administration officials also said they were prepared to offer new inducements, in particular by placing on the back burner the urgent demand for inspection of the two suspected waste sites. As one State Department official told the Washington Post, the administration’s new strategy was to “walk softly and carry a big carrot.”

Not big enough, apparently. The next month, December 1993, the New York Times reported a CIA assessment concluding that North Korea already possessed one or two nuclear bombs. But far from stiffening Washington’s attitude, this seemed to breed a mood of submission. Soon, a White House spokesman was saying the President had “misspoken” about not allowing North Korea to have nuclear weapons, and Washington even tried to soften the approach of the IAEA, then as now a UN agency hardly known for firmness, by discouraging it from bringing Pyongyang’s nonfeasance to the Security Council.

After another round of diplomacy, and in exchange for fresh American concessions, the two sides announced a new deal allowing inspections of declared sites to go forward. (The two undeclared waste sites were now so far on the back burner as to be entirely lost from view.) The returning inspectors found the seals they had left on equipment broken; when they tried to take samples from the reprocessing plant to see what had been done, the North Koreans sent them packing. “This time,” a Clinton official told the Times, “the North went too far. There are no more carrots.” “We are going to stop them,” said Defense Secretary William Perry resolutely. “I’d rather face [the risk of war] than face the risk of even greater catastrophe two or three years from now.” But within a couple of weeks, Secretary of State Warren Christopher was explaining that the U.S. was willing to negotiate for another six months, and Perry pulled in his horns.

In May 1994, North Korea brought matters to a head by announcing that it was removing spent fuel from its Yongbyon reactor without international monitoring. Removal of the 8,000 fuel rods posed a double whammy. If inspectors could not sample them, there would be no way of tracing how much plutonium had previously been recovered from the reactor. Plus, additional plutonium could now be taken, presumably enough to make several more bombs. At this point, the IAEA declared that it could no longer assure that North Korea’s program was not being used for weapons, and North Korea, trumpeting defiance, resigned its membership in the agency. Washington began eliciting support for economic sanctions and beefed up its military forces in the region. Talk of war was in the air.

But the threat of conflagration was laid to rest by an astonishing diplomatic intervention by former President Jimmy Carter. An outspoken critic of U.S. policy for being too hard on North Korea, Carter flew to Pyongyang for some personal diplomacy with Kim Il Sung, a ruthless dictator who had been handpicked for his job by Stalin himself. Where previous Western visitors to Pyongyang had described a city darkened by power shortages, with little commerce and a populace terrified to be seen conversing with foreigners, Carter reported a bustling metropolis with shops much like the “Wal-Mart in Americus, Georgia,” neon lights that reminded him of “Times Square,” and a population that was “friendly and open.”

The wonders of the city were but a prelude to what Carter found when he came face to face with Kim. The dictator, he discovered, was “revered” and “treated as a combination of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abe Lincoln.” Carter also found Kim “very friendly toward Christianity.” Although now in his eighties, Kim was “vigorous, intelligent, surprisingly well-informed,” and “very frank.” What is more, by showing Kim proper respect, Carter had achieved a “miracle”: the basis for a new agreement.

In the ensuing months, Washington and Pyongyang reached an “agreed framework” under which North Korea would freeze its existing plutonium program. In exchange, it was to receive two light-water reactors and—pending their completion—500,000 metric tons of heavy oil annually, amounting to about 40 percent of the country’s fuel consumption. The reactors and the oil were to come as gifts, paid for by South Korea, Japan, the U.S., and Europe. In addition, various trade and diplomatic restrictions, the legacy of North Korea’s invasion of the South decades earlier and of terrorist attacks that had continued into the 1980’s, were to be lifted.

In the U.S., the deal came in for a fair amount of criticism. It seemed to reward Pyongyang for its defiance of the NPT, thereby setting a dangerous precedent. It left the plutonium facilities intact and spent fuel inside the country, thus allowing the program to be restarted easily. Moreover, the light-water reactors could themselves produce plutonium, and although in some respects less conducive to a weapons program, they were far from weapons-proof. Indeed, Washington was at that very moment trying to dissuade Russia from supplying such reactors to Iran.

But the deal was also defended. For the time being, it had stopped North Korea’s program in its tracks. And in the long run, it was said, there was reason to hope that the bankrupt North Korean regime would collapse before the light-water reactors were up and running and producing plutonium, a process that was estimated at about ten years. “Five years from now, North Korea is not going to be there,” the Washington Post quoted a senior Defense Department official as saying; the paper added that by then, according to intelligence assessments, “North Korea’s economic troubles could topple its leadership and force unification with South Korea.”

Today, more than eight years later, North Korea is still there, and is still ruled by the Kim dynasty, Kim Il Sung having been succeeded upon his death by his son, Kim Jong Il. The merits of the “agreed framework” are a moot point. Pyongyang was cheating on it all along, the inexorably mounting evidence to this effect having culminated in North Korea’s momentous proclamation of last October.

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Given this history, only a fraction of whose tortuous windings and humiliating frustrations I have been able to convey, it is nothing short of astonishing that today, political leaders like Jimmy Carter and even Senator Joseph Lieberman, as well as columnists like the New York Times‘s Paul Krugman, the Washington Post‘s Richard Cohen, and Newsweek‘s Fareed Zakaria, rushed to lay the entire crisis at the door of George W. Bush. But so they did. In describing North Korea as part of the “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union Address, and otherwise rebuffing it, the new President, or so the line went, had driven Pyongyang to misbehave. “Put yourself in Kim Jong Il’s shoes,” pleaded Krugman. According to this logic, the new crisis consisted not of North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program, which had commenced years before Bush came to office, but of the fact that we had somehow coerced the North Koreans into confessing to it.

Yet far from being the fault of this administration, the fix we are in is the fruit of a long pattern of appeasement and of North Korea’s canny manipulation of our illusions and fears. Once we discovered that Pyongyang was indeed building a nuclear reactor, we spent five or six years getting it to sign the NPT, then another seven years securing its signature to a “safeguards” agreement, then three more vainly trying to induce it to abide by that agreement. We finally abandoned the effort in favor of a “framework,” which eight years later it admitted it had been disregarding all along. At the core of this pathetic tale was our reluctance to consider that the goal of the North Koreans’ nuclear-weapons program was to possess nuclear weapons—and that diplomatic and economic incentives to avert this goal might be of no avail. In place of a frank recognition of this reality, we substituted our vain hopes that North Korea’s rulers could be softened by concessions, and that what they really wanted was economic aid, political legitimacy, and “respect.”

How, then, do we get out of the fix? Even after the disclosure in late January of the apparent removal of 8,000 fuel rods from Yongbyon, the Bush team has continued to insist that the matter will be solved by diplomacy, and has appealed to Russia and China for help. Jimmy Carter has urged us to offer new incentives to Pyongyang, as has former Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen and commentators like the Times‘s Nicholas Kristof and Bill Keller. “More for more,” Keller has proposed, meaning sweeping nuclear disarmament by North Korea in exchange for a much richer package of economic and political benefits than it has been offered before.

But the problem with all of these proposals, quite apart from the fact that they seem to ignore our experience, is that even if we struck a grand bargain there would be no way of knowing that the other side was keeping its word. “Diplomacy” might indeed get us a deal; but what would it be worth?

The North Koreans are master diggers. The DMZ is said to be honeycombed with tunnels through which vast quantities of military personnel and equipment can invade the South in any new Korean war. (Some of these tunnels have been discovered and closed; no one doubts that many undiscovered ones remain.) As best we can make out, the North Koreans have also built underground nuclear reactors, plutonium-reprocessing plants, and uranium-enrichment facilities—and who knows what else? Iraq, as we discovered after the 1991 war, had built an entire nuclear program right under the nose of the IAEA, all the while complying with every inspection request. The hilly terrain of North Korea is more conducive to concealment than the flat sands of Iraq, and North Korea’s is a much more closed society. As helpless as inspectors have been in finding Iraq’s weapons, they would be more helpless still in North Korea.

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In contrast to those who want to offer new inducements, several tougher-minded commentators have called for “isolating” North Korea through UN sanctions. But it is doubtful that even the strictest sanctions would make a dent, since North Korea is already, by its own choosing, one of the world’s most isolated nations. It is even more doubtful that the UN Security Council would apply the strictest sanctions.

Only China has the leverage to squeeze North Korea hard, since, now that we have suspended our oil shipments, North Korea depends almost entirely on that country for fuel. But China has so far insisted, as it has always done, that our issues with Pyongyang be resolved through “dialogue.”

Another proposal, this one by Charles Krauthammer, is to help Japan to become a nuclear power, on the reasoning that the threat of a nuclear Japan is the only way to pressure China to turn the screws on North Korea. Clever though it is, this leads to the same problem as the proposals for wooing Kim with new inducements. Any diplomatic solution—whether it is secured by twisting Kim’s arm or by caressing his cheek—ends up in a deal that has to be verified, and there can be no confidence in our ability to verify the North’s nuclear disarmament. We do not know what weapons or nuclear programs it has, and there is no sure way to find out so long as Kim rules the country.

The same fatal flaw sinks another proposal, by John O’Sullivan, for an “inglorious deal” whereby North Korea would receive various benefits and be allowed to keep its nuclear capabilities in exchange for ceasing to sell to others. The logic of focusing on the proliferation threat is admittedly compelling. In itself, a nuclear-armed North Korea might be less dangerous than a nuclear-armed Iraq. It would be easier for us to protect North Korea’s few neighbors, and unlike in the case of Iraq, whose military might ramifies throughout the Middle Eastern and Arab worlds, North Korea influences almost nobody. But would a commitment not to transfer nuclear components be any more verifiable than a commitment not to develop them? Smuggling is an easier art than tunneling, and if North Koreans can hide entire reactors, they can surely hide the passage of a few bombs.

The Heritage Foundation’s John Tkacik has suggested tackling the proliferation problem by means of an air and sea embargo of North Korea. Perhaps this would work, but one fiendish thing about nuclear material is that it is not large. As a rule of thumb, the IAEA says, eight kilograms of plutonium are required to make a bomb. Add to that the shielding needed to transport the stuff, and you still can move it in a small airplane or boat. It is doubtful we have the technical means to spot and interdict all such craft. Moreover, any such effort would require Chinese cooperation.

Ultimately, the world is likely to be safe with North Korea, as with Iraq, only through the demise of its current government. In 1994, we believed that the Kim dynasty was likely to fall of its own dead weight, just as we thought that Saddam Hussein would fall in 1991 after his humiliating defeat in the “mother of all battles.” Predicting the fall of dictators is clearly a chancy business. In the hope of opening fissures in the closed polity of North Korea, a group of neoconservative intellectuals, including Max Kampelman, R. James Woolsey, and Penn Kemble, have suggested adding human-rights issues to the diplomatic agenda. A fine idea; but the only way to assure regime change in North Korea is through military action.

But war, we have been told by numerous analysts as well as implicitly by the Bush administration, is “unthinkable.” The North Koreans have hundreds of thousands of soldiers and thousands of artillery pieces arrayed in and around the DMZ. Their shells can reach Seoul. Any war would mean the deaths of many thousands of South Korean soldiers and civilians, and many of the 37,000 American troops stationed on the front lines. This is not even to mention whatever harm the North might manage to inflict with its nuclear devices.

Horrible, war would be. But to say that it is unthinkable is once again to hide our head in the sand. Pyongyang itself suffers under no such illusions and no such inhibitions. For its part, it insists that economic sanctions will be taken as an act of war, implying that it would respond with military strikes. Indeed, far from having viewed war with us as unthinkable, the North has calculated its demands on us over the years—that we remove our tactical nuclear weapons, that we persuade the South Koreans to forswear nuclear weapons of their own, that we cancel joint military exercises with Seoul—precisely in order to weaken our ability to resist its own military power. These demands we have systematically granted.

Not only does the North’s belligerence leave us no choice but to “think” about war, we cannot exclude the possibility of initiating military action ourselves. Part of the cause of our present predicament is that we ruled out the use of force at earlier points in this saga—when, however painful, it would have been less costly than today. And today it may be less costly than a few years from now, when North Korea will have dozens of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles (it has tested one that could reach Alaska) or when it will have shared them with al Qaeda and others.

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Is there anything to be learned from the appalling choices we find ourselves facing? The New York Times editorialized in January that Pyongyang’s confession had “blown apart the Bush administration’s months-long effort to portray Saddam Hussein as uniquely dangerous.” The implication was that the North Korean menace spoke against the policy of disarming Iraq by force. What it really did was the opposite. It illustrated how such threats grow ever worse if they are not dealt with resolutely. Contrary to those who airily put their trust in “containment,” it gave us a glimpse into how much more dangerous the world would be if we allowed Iraq to join North Korea in the nuclear club. Since appeasement has only emboldened the North Koreans, perhaps making an example of Saddam Hussein may take some of the wind out of their nuclear sails.

In short, our experience with North Korea confirms anew the folly of appeasement and the frailty of “parchment barriers”—not to mention the wisdom of missile defense. Above all, it points up the error of lowering our guard. Since the cold war ended, we were living in something of a fool’s paradise. All of the conflicts in which we were embroiled after the fall of Communism—Kuwait, Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti, Kosovo—were minor in comparison to our decades-long tussle with the Soviet empire. Although the issues were real, the dangers were always contingent, and we enjoyed a wide margin for error. Accordingly, we progressively reduced the size of our military and our spending on weapons until we abandoned, first in practice and then in doctrine, the capacity to wage wars simultaneously on two fronts. The result was, and is, that our ability to confront North Korea is constrained by our mobilization around Iraq—a fact that by itself helps to explain the brazenness of the North Koreans.

With the fall of the Soviet empire, as Francis Fukuyama eloquently explained more than a dozen years ago, no ideology remained to rival our own. Neither was there any foe on the horizon that could hope to vanquish us. Modern weapons, however, endow even a minor power with the capability of wreaking terrible damage, and of killing Americans in larger numbers than Hitler or Tojo. That such weapons can be fielded by North Korea, a country so miserable that infinitely more of its people are eating grass than are shopping at “Wal-Marts,” underscores how far removed we are from the old calculus in which military potency derived from industrial might.

The ideological competitors with democracy and capitalism have indeed faded. But these were mostly phenomena of the 20th century. What has remained is something older and deeper: the atavistic impulses of self-aggrandizement and nihilism. How else to classify the motor force behind the dynasty-Communism of the Kims, the Baathism-cum-Islamism of Saddam, the twisted preachings of bin Laden? When there are no longer powerful men like these, then we may truly begin to speak of the end of history. Until then, the preservation of all we hold dear will require unillusioned clarity, vigilance, courage—and, it is to be feared, sacrifice.

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About the Author

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is working on a book about Arab and Muslim democrats.




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