Making Sense of the North
12 questions with Gavan McCormack
by Stephen R. Shalom &
Z magazine, April 2004
[Gavan McCormack is author of the just
released Target North Korea: Pushing North Korea to the Brink
of Nuclear Catastrophe (Nation Books). He has published widely
on aspects of modern and contemporary East Asia and his books
have also been translated into Japanese, Chinese, and Korean.
A research professor at the Australian National University, he
is currently also a visiting professor at International Christian
University in Tokyo.]
1. Could you summarize political and economic
conditions in North Korea today?
MCCORMACK: Till the 1980s, North Korea
was one of the more industrialized countries in Asia. There- after
it has been reduced to penury and near-collapse by a combination
of circumstances, some the consequence of its own choices, others
beyond its control.
With the end of "socialism"
in the 1990s, both Russia and China shifted from "friendly"
to commercial terms of trade, which meant skyrocketing prices
for North Korea's energy imports, especially oil. The country's
heavily chemical and machine intensive agriculture suffered a
severe blow on the eve of a succession of unprecedented climatic
disasters. The country became chronically unable to feed its people,
and many starved. People were urged to adopt a two-meals-a-day
regimen, when for many even one became too much to hope for. According
to the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for North Korea, four out of
ten North Korean children are now stunted by malnutrition. In
February 2004, the World Food Program, its reserves rapidly diminishing
as donor countries lost interest in North Korea, had to cut off
supplies for four million aged people, women, and children (more
than one-sixth of the population).
Blocked by the U.S. and Japan from participation
in such multinational institutions as the International Monetary
Fund and the World Bank, denied diplomatic relations with the
U.S. and Japan, and subject to sanctions as a "terror-exporting"
state, North Korea is also caught on the horns of the dilemma
of desiring to engage much more comprehensively with the global
economy and fearing that such engagement might undermine its political
and security system. The biggest change is in the rapidly burgeoning
web of ties that link North Korea across the DMZ to its erstwhile
bitterest enemy, booming South Korea.
The hostilities of the Korean War that
ended more than 50 years ago are still suspended only by a temporary
"cease-fire" and the economy remains distorted by the
priority to military preparation. In 1987, soon after North Korea
commenced operation of a gas graphite nuclear reactor for power
generation, it seems to have begun diverting the plutonium-containing
reactor wastes to a weapons program designed to produce its own
deterrent, thereby to neutralize the semi-permanent U.S. threat
and to bring the U. S. to the negotiating table.
A U.S. attack on its installations was
narrowly averted in 1994. North Korea then came close to normalization
of relations with the U.S. under the Clinton administration, trading
its nuclear weapon and missile programs for economic and diplomatic
normalization. The advent of the Bush administration plunged all
this back to the starting line.
For much of its history, since its foundation
in 1948, North Korea was a Marxist-Leninist, communist party dictatorship,
but since the late l990s under its "Dear Leader" Kim
Jong II (after the death of his father Kim II Sung in 1994), it
abandoned communist theory and embraced the principle of "Army-first-ism,"
with Kim Jong II as supreme military and political ruler. In place
of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the military dictatorship
today resembles an absolute monarchy and justifies itself on purely
nationalist grounds. Kim Jong Il's control is far reaching. Political
criticism, let alone opposition, is not tolerated, and huge efforts
are devoted to controlling people's thoughts from childhood. Dissenters,
and their families, most likely numbering somewhere well over
100,000, are confined in harsh camps (gulags) in remote or mountain
Centralized economic controls were largely
abandoned in 2002 in favor of the market. Foreign businesses are
encouraged to set up in enclaves in the North, and South Korea
has responded positively.
In the hope of unlocking the doors to
normalization with Japan, and a flow of Japanese aid and technology,
North Korea in September 2002 apologized over the abduction of
Japanese citizens in the late 1970s and early 1980s and over "spy-ship"
intrusions into Japanese waters, but the Japanese response has
been harsh and the overtures thus far fruitless.
North Korea is a fossilized encapsulation
of the 20th century: the legacies of colonialism, imperialist
interventions, externally imposed division of the country, and
incorporation in the Cold War, all remain unresolved. Economic
failures, especially the inability of the regime to feed the people,
have gradually sapped the regime's credibility. A steady flow
of refugees crosses the river frontier into China and even some
key figures close to the leadership have fled.
2. At one time North Korea's economy seemed
to be growing faster than South Korea's. What happened ?
When the CIA studied the two economies
in the late 1960s, it found North Korea out-performing South Korea
in almost every particular. From 1979 to 1990, the UN's FAO was
reporting North Korea as an agricultural miracle, the world's
number one in terms of rice yield per hectare. Both reports were
dubious and the accomplishments, such as they were, soon dissolved.
Now the GDP gap is between 20 and 30 to 1 in the South's favor
and North Korea's agriculture has collapsed.
The North was more industrialized prior
to the Korean War. In the decades that followed liberation from
Japan and the foundation (in 1948) of the Democratic People's
Republic of Korea (DPRK), the North achieved dramatic growth rates
fueled by the nationalization of seized Japanese colonial assets,
.the adoption of a comprehensive land-reform program and of Soviet-style
central planning, and substantial aid flows from Soviet, East
European, and Chinese sources. After the initial high growth of
the 1940s to 1960s (with the exception of the drastic setbacks
of the war between 1950 and 1953), however, North Korea began
a slow decline. Plants rotted or became obsolescent, resources
were monopolized by the military, or used to shore up the cult
of the leader, and in the l990s the country was buffeted by natural
disasters-even as the confrontation with the United States sharpened.
3. What has been the significance of the
leadership passing from Kim n Sung to Kim Jong 11?
Kim Jong II was groomed for succession
long before his father Kim II Sung (1912-1994) actually passed
the reins to him. Kim II Sung had the prestige associated with
his role as an anti-Japanese partisan or guerrilla, an anti-fascist
fighter. The cult that was built around him rested ultimately
on nationalist and internationalist credentials. For Kim Jong
II, however, legitimacy stemmed only from being his father's son.
A huge effort had to be launched to legitimize his succession.
At his hands, the cult of his father was intensified and extended
to the entire family: continuation of the revolution could only
be entrusted to the blood-line. The entire country was turned
into a family monument and grandiose projects in honor of the
Leader and his family were given priority.
Kim Jong Il's dilemma is how to reform
his country while retaining power. The more he "reforms,"
the less credible his dynastic and feudal rule becomes.
4. In 1994, the Clinton administration
reached an agreement with North Korea designed to resolve the
nuclear controversy. What happened to that agreement?
Under the 1994 agreement known as the
"Agreed Framework," North Korea was to freeze its graphite
nuclear reactor program and to hold its 8,000-odd rods of plutonium-containing
waste from the reactors in specially constructed ponds, under
sealed IAEA camera scrutiny, in return for two electricity-generating
light-water reactors to be built by 2003 and an interim annual
supply of 3.3 million barrels of oil. The United States and North
Korea agreed to "move towards full normalization of political
and economic relations" while the U.S. was to provide "formal
assurances to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea against
the threat or use of nuclear weapons. "
Wrangling over the site and getting the
agreement of others to pay for it (South Korea 70 percent, Japan
about 20 percent) took several years, by which time North Korea
was in the depths of economic crisis and famine so severe that
Washington believed the regime might not survive and therefore
the reactor construction need not go ahead. As control of Congress
passed to the Republicans, who had opposed the deal from the start
and never took seriously its commitment to political and economic
normalization, the Agreed Framework was sidelined and criticized
as misguided Democratic appeasement that should never have been
entered into and should not be honored. It took the launch (albeit
unsuccessful in achieving orbit) of the Taepodong satellite in
1998 to restore a sense of urgency to the North Korea question.
In 2000, visits were exchanged by Madeleine Albright and North
Korea's Marshall Jo Myong Rok and the two countries came to the
brink of normalization and to fulfillment of the Framework's commitments.
A Clinton presidential visit was anticipated, but time ran out
before it could be realized.
Under President Bush, North Korea was
labeled a "terror state" and evil, its leader the particular
object of presidential hatred. The present crisis was initiated
in October 2002 by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly's
claim that North Korea had admitted to having a secret program
of uranium enrichment. Allegation and denial brought the Framework
to collapse. What actually was said to Kelly, and whether he understood
it correctly or not, remains controversial. Pyongyang denies any
admission. China, Russia, and South Korea doubt that North Korea
has the kind of program it is supposed to have admitted to. It
is hard to imagine any possible motive for North Korea to have
said what Kelly alleges was said.
From 2003, the uranium enrichment story
was complicated by the admissions stemming from Abdul Qadeer Khan,
the founder of Pakistan's nuclear program, to the provision of
nuclear technology, including centrifuges, to Libya, Iran, North
Korea, and other countries in the 1990s. This breach of the non-proliferation
regime is what Washington says it most fears North Korea might
Whatever the outcome of the uranium enrichment
story, it seems beyond doubt that, until the Kelly-initiated crisis
and the ensuing breakdown of the Agreed Framework, North Korea
had honored its commitment to freeze the graphite-moderated reactor
works and waste storage 1994 Agreement covered the plutonium-based
(Nagasaki-type) weapons program, not the uranium-based (Hiroshima-type)
program that became the subject of the Kelly allegations in 2002
and the Khan revelations in 2003. U.S. experts visiting Yongbyon
in December 2003 found that one small (5 MW) experimental reactor
had been turned on to provide the local town with power and heat,
but the larger (50 MW) reactor works were in such a state of dilapidation
and disrepair that they estimated it would take years to restore.
The storage ponds were empty, however, suggesting that the plutonium
had been processed and might be incorporated in a weapons program.
5. During the run-up to the Iraq war,
many commentators suggested that the only conceivable scenario
in which Saddam Hussein might use WMDs was in the event of a U.S.
attack. Does this same logic apply to North Korea?
No serious analyst has ever suggested
that North Korea was preparing to attack or invade any of its
neighbors or constituted any threat to regional peace except if
faced with threats to its own survival. North Korea is best seen
as a porcupine, stiffening its bristles and looking fierce to
try to repel attack, rather than a tiger rapaciously seeking prey.
Although North Korea has neither threatened
nor committed any act of aggression against any neighboring state,
its relationship with South Korea is of course in a different
category. Ever since the country was divided by external intervention
in 1945, both North and South have committed themselves to restoring
national unity, each claiming national legitimacy. The civil war
of 1950 to 1953 arose out of that contest and 50 years later remains
unresolved, but the momentum of reconciliation between the two
has accelerated greatly since the shift from confrontation to
"sunshine" under the previous South Korean presidency
of Kim Dae Jung. South Korean people today are more fearful of
the United States than of North Korea.
6. Are North Koreans "paranoid ?"And,
if so, why?
If paranoia means unreasonable, groundless,
or grossly exaggerated fear, then the word is inappropriate to
describe North Korea, whose fears can hardly be described as unreasonable.
While in Washington the North Korean "nuclear
threat" has been an issue for the past decade, Pyongyang
has faced the U.S. nuclear threat for the past half century. North
Korea has lived under it for longer than any other nation. During
the Korean War it escaped nuclear annihilation by the barest of
margins. General MacArthur, his successor as Commander-in-Chief,
General Ridgway, Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, and the Joint
Chiefs, all at one or other stage favored or recommended using
nuclear weapons against North Korea. Britain and other allies
opposed its use, but in the end it was only fear of Soviet retaliation
and, following the death of Stalin, the rapid progress in negotiations,
that prevented it. Then, just four years after the Armistice and
in obvious breach of it, the U.S. introduced nuclear artillery
shells, mines, and missiles into Korea, keeping them there, adjacent
to the Demilitarized Zone, designed to intimidate the non-nuclear
North for 35 years till they were finally withdrawn at the insistence
of the South Korean government. Even withdrawal did little to
diminish the threat as perceived by Pyongyang as the rehearsals
for a long-range nuclear strike on North Korea continued. Under
the Agreed Framework, however, Clinton finally lifted the threat,
pledging no - first-use of nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear
state. That reprieve was in turn revoked under Bush and North
Korea was specifically included on the Nuclear Target List.
Watching its fellow "axis of evil"
country Iraq being pulverized in 2003 although it had no weapons
of mass destruction or any immediate prospect of developing them,
Pyongyang could be forgiven for concluding that its turn was likely
to come next and that its only hope of survival was actually to
possess what Saddam Hussein had not. Without nuclear weapons,
North Korea was a poor and insignificant country; perhaps only
with them, it might not only deter a U.S. attack, but actually
induce it to enter negotiations on long-standing grievances.
North Korea's perception of its role in
the 20th century (and the 21st to date) is that of victim, suffering
from a series of colossal and uncompensated injustices at the
hands of colonial Japan and the U.S. Its demands for lifting of
the threat against it and for recognition and normalization may
be voiced in strident tones, but that is best seen as a measure
of its anxiety. What the world has never recognized is the core
of legitimacy in Pyongyang's cry for settlement: of the bitter
legacy of colonialism (from Japan) and of nuclear intimidation,
economic embargo, and diplomatic isolation (by the U. S . ) .
7. What is the role and position of the
key regional players in the current North Korea crisis: South
Korea, Japan, and China?
The Six-Sided Framework set up during
2003 was designed to present North Korea with a united front of
regional and global powers (U.S., Japan, China, Russia, South
Korea) insisting on its nuclear disarmament. As the crisis has
developed, however, the U.S. position has steadily weakened and
the Six-Sided frame has served to bring pressure, unexpectedly,
to bear on Washington as much as on North Korea. Strangest of
all, China, designated by the early Bush administration as the
real strategic threat to the United States, moved to center stage
in the negotiations.
All six of the countries are committed
to a non-nuclear peninsula and, save for the U.S., all consider
the idea of another war in Northeast Asia absolutely anathema.
While none dare openly oppose the U.S., North Korea's four neighboring
countries share the belief that its security problems are genuine
and serious and that North Korea should be entitled, without having
to plead for it, to the guarantee of its right to exist. All express
doubts about U.S. intelligence on North Korea's possession of
nuclear weapons and about the U.S. version of the events that
led to the collapse of the Agreed Framework in 2002.
South Korea: South Korea, which once fought
a fratricidal war and has been locked in hostile military confrontation
with the North ever since, now shows most understanding of its
neighbor and has chosen a path of dialogue and cooperation, a
policy styled by former President Kim Dae Jung as "Sunshine,"
stemming from a vein of Confucian wisdom in which human nature
is seen as complex, but never evil and in which even the poor,
desperate, and friendless are entitled to respect. It chooses
to believe that change is in the cards and any residual military
threat is adequately contained and shows no sympathy for the moralistic,
fundamentalist frame within which North Korea is represented as
"evil." Ultimately, as one critic put it, South and
North Korea constitute a single "family business. "
At any given moment now, hundreds of South
Korean diplomats, bureaucrats, and business people are in Pyongyang,
doing deals, talking to their opposite numbers, working out new
links by road, rail, fiber-optic, or pipeline between North and
South, or framing investment projects in energy, tourism, or manufacturing.
Japan: Under Cold War conditions, it was
more-or-less impossible to imagine reconciliation between Japan
and North Korea. After it, North Korea's demand for apology and
compensation for colonialism was the major sticking point. Only
when enfeebled to the point of desperation by economic crisis
in the 1990s did it agree to set that demand aside. North Korea
also showed its eagerness for change when it offered visiting
Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi, in September 2002, a dramatic
apology for having abducted 13 Japanese citizens during the late
1970s and early 1980s and for the "spy ships" that intruded
into Japanese waters in the 1990s. It then returned to Japan the
5 it said were the survivors of the 13 people abducted. These
indications of desire for change came to nothing, however. Instead,
a huge Japanese wave of anger over the abductions overshadowed
The abductions of two and a half decades
ago, at the height of the Cold War, were a form of state terrorism
and outrage was understandable. However, the Japanese response
was itself strange, in that it followed the North Korean apology
and promised not to commit such acts again. Furthermore, both
sides were well aware that Japan had undertaken state terror in
the not so distant I past on a much larger scale, including the
mobilization of, large numbers of Korean young women into sexual
| slavery and that it took Japan | more than half a century before
it began, grudgingly, to admit and to make reparation (indirectly
The continuing showdown with North Korea
constituted a major axis of political and institutional change
in Japan. With fear and hatred of North Korea a shared social
consensus, Japan has taken a series of recent steps towards "normalizing"
its military ("Self-Defense") forces and strengthening
its support for the U.S. military in its global operations. Prime
Minister Koizumi specifically linked the Self-Defense Force detachment
sent to Iraq to the expectation that the U.S. would defend Japan
in the event of a North Korean attack. Japan has also committed
itself to the purchase of a massively expensive and unproven (U.S.)
missile defense system to ward off any North Korean missiles,
tightened the rules governing the entry of North Korean ships
into Japanese waters, and passed legislation to authorize unilateral
economic sanctions on North Korea if it judged the situation to
China: China has the closest of historic
ties with North Korea and is today both the source of most of
the supplies of food and energy on which North Korea depends and
the most likely possible model of how it might develop in the
future; in the North Korean present, Chinese see their own past.
The Chinese role in brokering a resolution of the problem of North
Korea has steadily grown, at the U.S. request. The Chinese "bottom
line" is that there must not be any resort to force. China
was bold enough to say, from its position as convener and chair
of the Beijing August 2003 talks, that it was the U.S. that was
the major obstacle to the negotiations. Steady Chinese pressure
since then has been instrumental in bringing the U.S. to soften
its position. From absolute refusal to negotiate until North Korea
agreed unilaterally to a complete, verifiable, irreversible end
to its nuclear programs (at the three meetings that took place
in 2002 and 2003), the U.S. in late 2003 indicated it was ready
to offer some kind of security guarantee and to consider graduated
steps to resolution. China has also been instrumental in persuading
North Korea to come to the table again without the draft document
it sought in advance and to agree to a freeze (and ultimately
destruction) of all its nuclear programs, not only weapons-related
China has long disputed U.S. intelligence
estimates about North Korea and has stated in advance of the February
meeting that it is not persuaded of the central U.S. claim about
North Korea's possession of a uranium enrichment program. On this,
| given the record of U.S. intelligence and its manipulation on
Iraq, Washington | will have a hard time persuading its negotiating
partners in Beijing. Any successful resolution of the current
problem is likely to enhance China's role as the Iynchpin of a
future East or Northeast Asian order, with the "Six"
constituting the core of a future community.
8. Does anyone know what the status is
of North Korea's weapons programs? Can you summarize what we do
American intelligence first estimated
back in 1993 (possibly earlier) that North Korea had "one,
or possibly two" nuclear weapons. Like the intelligence on
which the U.S. in 2003 went to war against Iraq, it seems to have
been false and/or subject to political manipulation. By 2003,
the U.S. had shifted to adopt the South Korean, Russian, and Chinese
view that North Korea actually did not have any nuclear weapons.
It then argued that it had the ingredients (plutonium and uranium),
the will, and the intent to develop them.
It is almost certainly true that North
Korea would like to have nuclear weapons, its own "deterrent,"
but also that it suspended its efforts to produce them when it
felt its security needs were satisfactorily met by the Agreed
Framework in 1994, only changing course when the U.S. changed
course from Clinton to Bush. North Korea today almost certainly
has plutonium and may be in the process of extracting more of
it from the waste rods removed from the Yongbyon ponds, but it
seems highly unlikely that it has achieved "weaponization."
As for delivery system, the Nodong missile has been test fired
only once, in 1993; the longer-range Taepodong likewise once,
when it failed to achieve orbit and crashed into the ocean in
1998; and the supposedly improved model, Taepodong 2, also once,
when it blew up on the launching pad in 2002 (according to South
Korean intelligence). It is hardly a scintillating record.
Objective assessment is complicated by
the fact that both U.S. intelligence and Pyongyang share an interest,
for different reasons, in having the world think North Korea possesses
both nuclear weapons and a delivery system-the U.S. in order to
justify its hegemonic role in East Asia and North Korea in order
to deter U. S. attack.
9. What is the Bush administration currently
trying to achieve with respect to North Korea?
Jack Pritchard, a senior North Korean
specialist at the State Department until his resignation in August
2003, says of U.S. policy (New York Times, January 21, 2004):
"At best it could be described only as amateurish. At worst,
it is a failed attempt to lure American allies down a path that
is not designed to solve the crisis diplomatically but to lead
to the failure and ultimate isolation of North Korea in hopes
that its government will collapse."
For the neo-conservative group within
the Bush regime, whether in the 1990s or today, history and politics
are less important than the moral frame. North Korea is evil and
should be liberated. Where political, economic, and historical
differences can be negotiated, evil can only be stamped out. Bush
has made no secret of his loathing for North Korean leader Kim
Jong II, in terms similar to those he used for Saddam Hussein.
He has, however, also intimated, in quite contrary mode, that
a peaceful, negotiated solution in Korea is possible and even
expressed optimism about the prospects. While the neoconservatives
around Cheney and Rumsfeld prefer ultimatum, backed by the readiness
to use force, the State Department favors negotiation and cooperation
with regional powers.
The current U.S. position-readiness to
meet North Korea's security concerns by some form of document
and to offer economic aid in return for complete, verifiable and
irreversible abandonment of its nuclear programs-is a big step
forward from that enunciated by James Kelly in 2002 and 2003.
On the face of it, this is close to what North Korea wants (though
it fudges the key issue of full diplomatic normalization).
10. How would you assess the Bush administration's
Two major contradictions affect U. S.
North Korea policy, nuclear on the one hand, strategic on the
The U.S. wants to maintain nuclear-based
hegemony over the earth, and indeed over the universe, while blocking
any new countries from joining the existing nuclear club. The
non-proliferation regime to which it signed up in 1968 was a deal
by which those countries that did not possess nuclear weapons
pledged not to take steps to get them, while those with weapons
pledged not to threaten non-possessors and to take steps to eliminate
their existing arsenals and move to comprehensive nuclear disarmament.
Until the nuclear club powers take seriously those obligations,
their insistence on others fulfilling their obligations is hypocrisy.
If security can indeed only be guaranteed by possession of nuclear
weapons, then there can be no complaints about North Korea. If
that is not the case, then the possessing powers must take steps
towards elimination of all nuclear weapons.
The second contradiction is between short-
and long-term U.S. objectives. Regime change in North Korea would
remove a thorn in the U.S. side, but at the same time it might
serve to undermine U.S. regional hegemony. George W. Bush and
Kim Jong II stand in a paradoxically symbiotic relationship. Bush's
loathing for Kim, and his nuclear threat, maintains the isolation
and siege conditions that allow Kim to legitimize his rule, mobilize
nationalist support, and crush opposition. Bush, for his part,
rules and reigns over Northeast Asia because Japan and South Korea
feel compelled by the North Korean threat to seek U.S. protection
and to shelter under Washington's "nuclear umbrella. "
The framework of U.S. military presence
in East Asia is justified in Seoul and Tokyo by the threat from
Pyongyang. Without the "North Korean threat"-whether
resolved peacefully or otherwise-Washington strategists would
have to think of some new justification for the bases in Japan
and South Korea and for the massively expensive anti-missile system
soon to be constructed in the region. Some might want to declare
China the real enemy, but a military alliance with the United
States whose orientation was containment and hostility towards
China would find little support in contemporary South Korea and
Japan. Paradoxically, if the U.S. does accomplish what it wants
in North Korea-regime change-it could find that its own domination
of the region is undermined.
It is time for the U.S. to grow beyond
the Cold War assumptions of Asia as a threatening and yet economically
crucial area that must be maintained under tight control. In time,
Asia, especially East and Northeast Asia, most likely in close
cooperation with Southeast Asia, will emerge as an autonomous
global center of power and wealth. The process is, indeed, already
advanced. The security reliance on the chain of U.S. bases and
on Washington's priorities becomes increasingly anomalous.
North Korea is a tiny country that has
successively been colonized, invaded, and abandoned. Its neighbors
are the booming core of the world economy. Incorporated into "normal'
relations with them, North Korea could be expected to become increasingly
like them. North Korea's neighbors have their reasons for wanting
to incorporate North Korea into the emerging Asian community and
should be encouraged to take a key role in doing so on their own
terms. To accomplish this, the price North Korea seeks for abandoning
its nuclear weapons program is not unreasonable: an end to nuclear
intimidation, diplomatic normalization, and removal of economic
It would be sensible for the U. S., while
maintaining the existing security guarantees to both South Korea
and Japan, to give North Korea the chance to show if it really
does wish to change. Kim Jong Il's avowed desire for opening and
normalization should be tested. He should be invited to talks
in Washington or Tokyo or anywhere else and his willingness to
denuclearize put to the test. Attempts to enforce change by issuing
demands and refusing negotiation simply will not work. North Korean
"face" is an important part of the security equation
and a sympathy for the pain and the sense of justice that drive
it, however perverted, will be needed for security goals to be
met. Kim Jong Il's rule feeds off the current tension and he would
not long survive the process of whittling it away, the normalization
of economic and political relations with Japan and the U.S., and
the steady flow of Japanese and other capital into the country.
Above all, a resolution of the problem
will depend on seeing it not in the narrow frame of North Korean
threat but in the broad context of history. North Korea is essentially
a Korean problem and South Korea must assume a central role in
negotiations and plans for the future because its people must
after all live with their northern compatriots.
11. How does the U.S.-North Korea impasse
impact on issues of peace and security in Northeast Asia? Are
there regional approaches toward a reduction of tensions?
North Korea is a structural pivot of contemporary
U.S. hegemony in East Asia. Washington's post-Cold War vision
asks Japan and Korea, in effect, to accept a future world predicated
on continued fear and hostility to North Korea, so as to require
their continuing military, political, and economic dependence
on the United States. For Japan, the role of the "Britain"
of East Asia, is on offer, and its actions in Iraq suggest that
Koiziumi's Japan is keen to take up the offer. For South Korea,
or a united Korea, no clear role has yet been articulated, but
one thing is clear: it is expected to remain secondary to Japan,
perhaps as a kind of East Asian Northern Ireland. However, while
U.S. regional and global policy offers negative priorities-anti-terror,
anti-"evil," security against North Korea-from East
Asia there are tentative signs of the emergence of an alternative,
non-imperial vision. Beyond the gloom, anger, and rising tension
of the "North Korean crisis" may be detected a process
of evolution in a "European" type direction. Like Europe,
however, East Asia has its own rhythms and its own dynamics, and
its tectonic plates are moving towards greater mutual cooperation
People begin to ask why it is that East
Asia in the 20th century failed to evolve a concert of states
other than the Japanese-dominated "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity
Sphere" in the first half and then the U.S.-dominated "free
world" in the latter half, the former disastrous, the latter
originally a Cold War product, and increasingly anomalous as the
conditions that gave it birth disappear. Offered ongoing dependency
on the U.S., structured around bilateral treaty arrangements and
trade flows rather than any regional consensus, and marked by
a base structure meant to last till well into the century ahead,
the peoples and states of East Asia are likely at some point to
reply: no thank you. Permanent East Asian dependence on American
markets and security guarantees looks more and more anachronistic.
Looking at the evolution of postwar Europe, people ask why Asia
should not follow a similar path.
The Kim Jong II regime in North Korea
is indefensible, but violent intervention to change it is more
likely to lead to the sort of chaos that engulfs Iraq and Afghanistan
than to a resolution of problems that, in the last resort, only
the Korean people, north and south, can solve. The necessary condition
for them to do this is the "normalization" of the Korean
peninsula, with problems ignored for far too long finally addressed:
the lack of any peace treaty to settle the Korean War, the absence
of diplomatic relations between North Korea and the world's two
most important countries, the U. S. and Japan. Only then will
it be possible to liquidate the militarized tension that has blighted
the lives of North Korea's people for half a century and created
the conditions within which the dictatorship sustains itself.
12. What, if anything, was achieved by
the February 2004 Six-Sided Conference in Beijing?
The February Conference faced some major
* How to arrive at a mutually satisfactory
text to guarantee North Korea's security
* How to establish the truth about the
claims and counter-claims concerning an enriched uranium program
* How to address the North Korean demand
for deletion from the list of terror-supporting countries
* How to persuade the US to accept the
North Korean "freeze" as sufficient warrant of good
faith to justify the resumption of shipments of heavy oil in the
short term, and an end to the virtual
economic embargo of North Korea in the long term
* How in the longer term, to persuade
all sides that the issue to be settled is not merely a putative
North Korean weapons program but normalization of relations on
* How to incorporate in that normalization
a permanent peace agreement to settle the Korean war of 1950-53
* How to resolve the issue of North Korean
abductions of Japanese, and simultaneously the issues of Japanese
abductions and abuse of Koreans during the long colonial period
This agenda was not just about nuclear
weapons on the peninsula, but of the accumulated problems of a
century, and therefore almost certainly too much to be settled
in a few days. While the conference proceeded in business-like
fashion, without obvious acrimony, it ended with little more than
the agreement to re-convene before the end of June. The Communique
declared a shared commitment to a nuclear weapons-free Korean
peninsula, but even such a bald statement concealed a major difference:
for the U.S., North Korea would have to submit to "complete,
verifiable and irreversible dismantling" (CVID) of all its
nuclear programs, military and peaceful; for its part, North Korea
offered to freeze, not _ dismantle, only its plutonium-based weapons
programs, and denied that it had any enriched uranium programs
at all. The two sides were miles apart. One other major _ participant
in the talks, Japan, abstained on this occasion from making an
issue of its major bone of contention with North Korea, the kidnapping
of its citizens in the ~ 1980s. However, the problem continued
to fester as preliminary steps had been taken in the Japanese
Diet to authorize the unilateral imposition of sanctions if Pyongyang
did not give satisfaction. The U.S. in the Beijing forum again
forfeited the possibility of offering a "Roadmap" towards
comprehensive settlement. Instead, it came with an empty hand,
continuing to insist that CVID was the only agenda. It appears,
according to Pyongyang's account, to have declared that relations
could not be normalized until North Korea not only ended all its
nuclear programs but also dealt to U.S. satisfaction with missiles,
conventional weapons, biological and chemical weapons, human rights,
and other issues.
However, in the face of pressure from
China, South Korea, and Russia, the U.S. position weakened steadily.
Around the six-sided table Washington could look only to Japan
for unconditional support. Its insistence that North
Korea had an enriched uranium weapons
program was contradicted or seriously doubted in Beijing, Seoul
and Moscow, despite the A. Q. Khan confession. The security guarantee
for North Korea that it had long refused to consider was on the
table. Its position of "no reward for bad behavior"
was in tatters as it was forced to concede to Beijing, Seoul,
and Moscow that they could offer Pyongyang economic cooperation
on the condition of a mere freeze plus a commitment to proceed
towards complete dismantling. Ultimatum had given way to engagement.
For North Korea, the dilemma is that it
has only one card to play. Once its nuclear weapons "threat"
is eliminated, it becomes an insignificant, poor country at the
mercy of its enemies. It therefore cannot afford to trade away
that card lightly and remains unlikely to give up its weapons
(if it has any), dismantle its nuclear plant (peaceful and energy-related
as well as weapons-related), and agree to intensive inspections-presumably
anywhere in the country-unless its historic grievances are met
and its relations with the U. S. and Japan normalized. It continues
to insist it is no threat to anyone but that its security depends
on possession of its own deterrent until such time as its security
needs are otherwise guaranteed.
As the U.S. proceeded with its plans towards
adoption of a new generation of tactical, battlefield nuclear
weapons and promised to extend its existing global military and
nuclear hegemony into space, it found itself unable to enforce
its will against tiny and feeble North Korea. On the issue of
North Korea, the power of the mightiest nation in history was
slipping steadily away to regional capitals, especially Beijing
and Seoul. By the time the Beijing Six meet again, if they do,
at the end of June, the U.S. presidential election will be four
months closer, and nobody could be more fervently hoping for a
regime change in Washington than the diehards in Pyongyang. U.S.
hostility and inability to see beyond the North Korean nuclear
wood to the trees of the historical and geopolitical context helps
Kim Jong II legitimize his brutal rule and offers him the ironic
satisfaction of a process that carries high risks to the region
and to his enemy, the United States, as it does to himself.
Stephen R. Shalom teaches political science
at William Paterson University; his most recent book is Which
Side Are You On? An Introduction to Politics. Mark Selden is a
coordinator of ZNet's Japan Focus pages; most recently he has
co-edited War and State Terrorism: The United States, Japan and
the Asia-Pacific in the Long Twentieth Century.