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From ensubscribers-owner@monde-diplomatique.fr Tue Feb 18 11:00:27 2003
From: Le Monde diplomatique <english@monde-diplomatique.fr>
To: Le Monde diplomatique <english@monde-diplomatique.fr>
Subject: North Korea’s nuclear winter
Date: Tue, 18 Feb 2003 15:16:05 +0100 (CET)

Bush team turned a soluble problem into a crisis

By Bruce Cumings, Le Monde diplomatique, February 2003

THE Bush administration is, like the early Clinton administration, mired in a major crisis with North Korea: it’s as if a Nietzschean genie indulging the eternal recurrence of the same were running the global show. As it was in the early 1990s, the policy of the United States is stuttering, confused and confounded. Yet the current international crisis over North Korea’s nuclear programme is more dangerous than events of a decade ago.

In 1991 the administration of George Bush senior became concerned about activities at North Korea’s graphite nuclear reactor complex at Yongbyon. But since the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) gives rights of self-defence to non-nuclear countries under nuclear threat, the US had to clear its own nuclear weapons out of South Korea: nuclear artillery and land mines, atomic gravity bombs, and Honest John rockets (dating from 1958) - before it could do anything about the North’s programme. Bush senior inaugurated the first high-level talks with Pyongyang, and the US weapons were removed shortly before he left the White House. The new diplomacy was halted, though, when Bill Clinton took office in 1992: he was focused on the economy and paid no attention to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Six weeks after Clinton’s inauguration, North Korea, to get his attention, declared that International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors were doing the bidding of US intelligence, announced its withdrawal from the NPT, and mobilised its formidable propaganda apparatus, warning that sanctions imposed by the UN security council would be an act of war. The late Kim Il-sung detonated a crisis that lasted 18 months, culminating in May 1994 when North Korea dumped 8,000 fuel rods from the reactor, containing enough plutonium to make five or six atomic bombs. In June Clinton nearly went to war. Fortunately, former president Jimmy Carter flew to Pyongyang to talk directly with President Kim and gained a commitment to a total freeze on the Yongbyun complex.

The October 1994 US-North Korea framework agreement codified this deal. The IAEA returned, sealed off the reactor, encased the fuel rods in concrete, and then sat watching the facility for eight years. The Clinton administration then tried to work out a comprehensive agreement by negotiating a package with Pyongyang, tying economic and other aid to commitments on the part of North Korea to end its nuclear and missile programme. Between 1998 and 2000 William Perry, Clinton’s roving ambassador, made preliminary attempts at mutual diplomatic recognition and a full buy-out of Kim Jong-il’s missiles (1), despite intelligence evidence that North Korea began in 1998 to import aluminium centrifuge tubes and other tech nol ogy relevant to a new nuclear programme to enrich uranium. At that time the Republicans denoun ced this policy as appeasement of a rogue state.

The current crisis ostensibly erupted after James Kelly of the US state department went to Pyongyang in October 2002 with evidence of renewed nuclear activity, involving enriched uranium. He claimed that the North Koreans at first denied it, then admitted it, with a certain belligerent satisfaction. According to leaks from the US administration, the North Koreans made a deal with Pakistan in 1998, transferring missiles in return for Islamabad’s uranium enrichment technology. This is a very slow process, but if they maximised their efforts, using 1,000 centrifuges that they might or might not have, they could manufacture one or two very large and unwieldy atomic bombs annually, on the model of Pakistan’s nuclear programme. Shortly after Kelly’s return to Washington, a senior US official told reporters that the 1994 framework agreement that froze the Yongbyon reactor was null and void.

This was a self-fulfilling prophecy, since President George Bush’s advisers declared the agreement a dead letter soon after coming to power (2). The new administration also reversed previous US strategy: instead of deterrence, there would be what political scientist Thomas Schelling once called compellence - marshalling the overwhelming military might of the US to shape relations with allies and constrain adversaries. Instead of Clinton’s non-proliferation policy, it adopted counter-proliferation: using the threat or reality of US force to stop weapons of mass destruction (WMD) development. After 11 September, they invented the axis of evil and dropped the historic US containment policy, replacing it in September 2002 with a new strategy of pre-emptive attack—preventive war.

In the case of North Korea Bush added insult to injury with continuous, gratuitous public outbursts against Kim Jong-il and a complete disregard for South Korea’s reconciliation policy. South Korean president and Nobel peace prize laureate, Kim Dae Jung, came halfway round the world in 2001 to meet Bush, only to be told that Kim Jong-il could not be trusted (as if the 1994 deal had been based on trust rather than verification). In Shanghai in October 2002, Bush called Kim Jong-il a pygmy, and in a recent discussion with journalist Bob Woodward Bush blurted out I loathe Kim Jong-il!, shouting and waving his finger in the air, adding that his own preference was for toppling the North Korean regime (3).

On 27 December 2002 North Korea again kicked the inspectors out, castigating the IAEA for being a tool of Washington, and began loading new fuel rods. On 10 January the country announced its withdrawal from the NPT, and warned that any security council sanctions would be interpreted as a declaration of war. But so far it has not opened the plutonium casks.

Washington will not negotiate with the North Koreans, claiming that that would reward nuclear blackmail. Nor will it recognise the regime—something the US has consistently refused to do since 1946 when Kim Il-sung came to power. Washington’s presumed bottom line was delivered by Clinton’s defence secretary, William Perry, in 1994: We do not want war and will not provoke a war over this or any other issue in Korea, but if UN sanctions provoke the North Koreans into unleashing a war, that is a risk that we’re taking (4). As it happened, Clinton did not take that risk, having been informed by his commander in Korea, General Gary Luck, that a new Korean war would last six months and could cause up to 100,000 American casualties.

Today Bush says that the US has no intention of invading North Korea, while hardliners in the Pentagon plan for a surgical strike against Yongbyon. The US is caught in a dilemma of its own making: the decision in September 2002 to put the problem of Iraq’s WMD in the hands of the UN security council and the IAEA gave North Korea the opportunity to cause the current crisis. Bush had sequential plans for the axis of evil: first Saddam Hussein, then North Korea and then Iran. However, Kim Jong-il is, understandably, a man in a hurry, and he broke the sequence.

After nearly two years of this American foreign policy that mixes bitter realism with messianic idealism, it was inevitable that an axis country threatened with pre-emptive attack would simply call Bush’s bluff. Kim Jong-il has done just that. Through its recent provocations, Pyongyang has pushed its advantage while Bush is fixated on Iraq. North Korea knows that the US lacks the means to fight a major war on more than one front. How could a devastating war possibly be justified when Bush himself halted Clinton’s nearly successful attempt to buy out North Korea’s medium- and long-range missiles and keep its nuclear facilities frozen?

Insiders say, even more damningly, that the outgoing Clinton team fully briefed the Bush team on the intelligence about Pyongyang’s imports of technology from Pakistan, but that the Bush people did nothing about it until July 2002, when they picked up evidence that North Korea might be beginning to build an enrichment facility (5). Many experts believe North Korea cheated on its commitments by importing these technologies. But whatever North Korea planned to do with them could have been stopped in the context of completing the missile deal and normalising relations with the US. By reversing policy, and then using new information garnered last July to confront the North Koreans last October, the Bush team turned a soluble problem into a major crisis, leaving little room to back away on either side.

The acute danger today derives from a combination of factors: predictable North Korean cheating and provocation, longstanding US plans to use nuclear weapons in the earliest stages of a Korean war, and Bush’s preventive war doctrine—Washington’s right to attack first any country that it believes might strike the US (6). Adding to the danger is a new threat to the deterrence structure on the Korean peninsula. According to General James Grant, responsible for military information in Korea 1989-1992, US advances in precision-guided munitions make it feasible to destroy 10,000 artillery tubes that North Korea has embedded in mountains north of Seoul. These were previously impregnable, and were North Korea’s guarantee against an attack from the South. If this is true, in the absence of credible security guarantees, the generals in Pyongyang would move to a more reliable deterrent.

All this is tragic, given the enormous progress toward reconciliation between North and South Korea, which Kim Dae Jung has worked on since 1998. For the first time since the division of the country in 1945, the two Korean heads of state shook hands in June 2000 in Pyongyang. Last December the South Koreans decisively broke with the cold war political system by electing Roh Moo-hyun, a lawyer with a record of courageous defence of union leaders and human rights activists during the darkest days of the military dictatorship in the 1980s. A movement among young South Koreans against the seemingly endless US military presence, conducted in massive and dignified candlelight processions along the grand boulevard in front of the US embassy in Seoul, unites former students educated on the college campuses of the 1980s when US diplomacy backed the dictatorship and its bloody suppression of the 1980 Kwangju uprising. The incoming administration of Roh is well aware of the shared responsibility of the US for the current crisis. Bush finds himself having to manage very difficult relationships with both North and South Korea.

It is a basic principle of the non-proliferation regime that countries without nuclear weapons cannot be threatened by those that possess them. To obtain the requisite votes from non-nuclear states to get the NPT through the United Nations in 1968, the US, Britain and the Soviet Union committed themselves to aid any victim of an act or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used (UN security council Resolution 255, 7 March 1968). In 1996 the International Court of Justice at The Hague said the use or threat of nuclear weapons should be outlawed as the ultimate evil. It could not, however, come to a decision on whether the use of nuclear weapons for self-defence was justified: The Court cannot conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a state would be at stake (7). By this standard, North Korea is more justified in developing nuclear weapons than the US is in threatening a non- nuclear North Korea with annihilation. Pyongyang believes that its very survival is at stake. It is probably wrong, but in the current volatile state of world affairs it cannot be expected to take chances on a matter of such gravity. The only way to avoid war is a rapid return to the status quo before 2001, to the compelling, and still feasible, denoument to the original crisis created by Clinton and Kim Jong-il.


(1) See Bruce Cumings, Dangerous dynamics, Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, May 2001.

(2) Contrary to what Bush spokesmen say, there is nothing in the agreement prohibiting uranium enrichment, but North Korea certainly violated the spirit of the agreement.

(3) Bob Woodward, Bush at War, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2002.

(4) Chicago Tribune, 4 April 1994. In a memorandum to the UN, 10 April 1996, North Korea stated that a second Korean war would have broken out had the United Nations chosen to repeat its past by unilaterally imposing sanctions.

(5) I was told this on a not-for-attribution basis by Joel Wit and Robert Gallucci (Galluci negotiated the 1994 agreements with Pyongyang; Wit was one of his deputies), at a conference in Washington on 9 January 2002.

(6) Condoleezza Rice, who produced the September 2002 document on preventive war, explained that preemption is anticipatory self-defence; in the document itself it says other nations should [not] use pre-emption as a pretext for aggression.

(7) The New York Times, 9 July 1996.