Pyongyang nuclear puzzle

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[Note: the “Tomgram” indicates that whatever follows was written for rather than picked up from another publication.]

An expert on East Asia, Gavan McCormack is research professor at Australian National University and the author of The Emptiness of Japanese Affluence among other works. A recent lengthy essay of his in New Left Review (“North Korea in the Vise”) is the single most absorbing and sophisticated explanation of the Korean situation I’ve seen. To read McCormack’s NLR essay click here

The following op-ed by McCormack puts the present North Korean crisis, however briefly, in a context we seldom consider here. North Korea was formed in the crucible of the Cold War, leveled — quite literally — during the Korean War, and has lived under the nuclear shadow since at least 1950. Most Americans remember, of course, that we dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 (though a recent comment by General Tommy Franks, who will command American forces in any Iraqi war, indicates that he, at least, might have forgotten — according to the January 6 Nation magazine, in a speech in West Palm Beach, Florida, explaining that we must invade Iraq to stop Saddam Hussein from developing nuclear weapons, he said, “The sight of the first mushroom cloud on one of the major population centers of this planet is something that most nations on this planet are willing to go a long ways out of the way to prevent.”). But few remember that, during the Korean War, we threatened to A-bomb the North more than once, going so far as to send single B-29s on mock A-bombing runs over Northern Korean cities.

Right now, we’re dealing with one “mad,” isolated state threatening to build nuclear weapons. Given North Korea’s history, it might seem almost like an aberration in the world. But don’t be fooled, the “logic,” such as it is, of Bush administration policy on nuclear proliferation ensures that what North Korea is doing today quite “sane” and far more powerful nations like Japan will do tomorrow.

McCormack offers the following comments as well that “the recent news of [South Korean President] Roh Moo-Hyun ‘offering’ to broker a deal between Washington and Pyongyang will cause consternation in Washington, but as things stand he is virtually the one brake on the rampaging Bush team’s East Asian plans.

“The CIA already reckons, correctly or not, that North Korea actually has the bomb, two or three of them, and we know it has ICBMs, while plainly Saddam Hussein does not. So, while a war with Iraq would/will actually be a war on Iraq, a war in Korea would be a war with a serious adversary. The grim lesson, perhaps, is that anybody wanting to stand up to the US had better get nuclear weapons; it is the only defense.”

Or put another way, the deepest lesson we Americans took to heart in 1945 (that having a nuclear arsenal was the ultimate path to safety in the world), the lesson we’ve taught the world for almost six decades, has been taken to heart globally. The North Koreans, as any nuclear strategist of the Cold War would recognize, are — there’s no other word for it — deterring us. Tom

Pyongyang Nuclear Puzzle
By Gavan McCormack

Crisis looms again in Korea. In December, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared US readiness to fight wars on two fronts (meaning Iraq and North Korea), confident of “winning decisively in one and swiftly defeating in the case of the other.” Steps to refer the disputed nuclear issues to the UN Security Council were foreshadowed and the possibility of sanctions, intrusive inspections, and an ‘Iraq scenario’ loomed. On New Year’s Day, President Bush made efforts to talk the situation down, but the standoff continues. North Korea’s nuclear designs remain shrouded in mystery while its political isolation and economic crisis deepen.

The previous nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula, in 1994, went to the very brink of war. It was settled by the Jimmy Carter mission and a subsequent agreement between the US and North Korea known as the Geneva Agreed Framework. North Korea shelved its graphite nuclear reactor plans in return for an American proposal to construct light water reactors to generate 2,000 MW of electricity by a target date of 2003 and to supply 500,000 tons per year of heavy oil for energy generation in the interim. Other clauses committed the two parties to “move towards full normalization of political and economic relations” (Article 2) and the US to provide “formal assurances to the DPRK against the threat or use of nuclear weapons by the United States'” (Article 3).

Nine years have passed. There are no light-water reactors. There is nothing much but a large hole in the ground and there is no prospect of any power generation till around the end of this decade. And, far from there being any progress towards normalization of political and economic relations, George W. Bush at the outset of his presidency called North Korea part of the “axis of evil,” and in place of “formal assurances” talked about preemptive attack and indicated a willingness to include nuclear weapons as part of it.

If Pyongyang has plainly departed from the Agreed Framework, therefore, it did so after the Agreement had already been substantially voided by the US, in respect to the reactor commitment, the failure to proceed with the promised normalization, and the nuclear guarantee. Its earliest breach seems to have been the purchase of centrifuge technology for uranium enrichment, probably from Pakistan in the late 1990s. Possession of this technology, but not its use, was admitted in October 2002. The steps in December towards restarting the graphite reactors were even more plainly reactive. There is nothing to indicate that either technology is operating, yet.

In 2000, following the William Perry report, there was a brief honeymoon in the relationship with the US. The Kumchangri site, suspected of secret nuclear weapons development, was investigated and found to be “clean.” Washington developed a grudging respect for Pyongyang, top-level visits were exchanged, and normalization seemed to be possible. A Pyongyang visit by Bill Clinton did not eventuate, however, because time ran out, and under George W. Bush the clock was turned back. The Agreed Framework became a Clinton mistake, something to be voided and then scrapped. Pyongyang’s current threats to enrich uranium and its moves to restart the plutonium-producing reactors are best seen as a desperate ploy to try to bring Washington back to the conference table rather than as an incomprehensible threat to innocent neighbors.

North Korea’s real uniqueness in the nuclear age is its having lived under the shadow of nuclear threat for longer than any other nation, from the Korean War when General MacArthur had to be restrained from his plan to drop “between 30 and 50 atomic bombs” and lay a belt of radioactive cobalt across the neck of the Korean peninsula, through the long Cold War, when the US introduced nuclear artillery, mines, and missiles into South Korea to intimidate the non-nuclear North, and after it, when rehearsals continued for a long-range nuclear bombing strike against North Korean targets. After facing for half a century the threat of extermination, it would be surprising if North Korea did not now show signs of neurosis and instability.

The people who best know North Korea are the people of South Korea. There, the cause that in late 2002 was bringing large crowds into the streets was not anti-North Korean but anti-American. Gallup polls show nearly 60 per cent of Koreans in the south no longer believe North Korea poses a security threat, and a majority also believes Pyongyang is “sincere in its efforts for reunification.” On December 19, the election of 56-year old Roh Moo-Hyun as president signified the rise of a post-Cold War generation and a new resolve to resist US pressures. Roh insisted that he would not kowtow to Washington, he would not support the imposition of a deadline for Pyongyang’s compliance with international demands to end its nuclear program and, if necessary, he would “guarantee North Korea’s security.”

War on North Korea is virtually impossible if South Korea says No. Even in 1994, Clinton was shocked to find that South Korea under its then conservative administration would not commit a single soldier to the US cause. As president from 1997 Kim Dae Jung concentrated on his ‘sunshine’ policy of engaging Pyongyang on a broad range of economic and social issues. Meeting George W. Bush in February 2002, he reminded him of the 1994 Pentagon assessment that any war on the peninsula would be likely to cause casualties of astronomical proportions, including probably more American dead than for the entire, decade-long Vietnam War. In Seoul in early December, Richard Armitage was disconcerted to find a government more interested in securing a revision of the Status of Forces Agreement, so that it could discipline US soldiers in Korea in future, than in any talk of war. Under President Roh, this “recalcitrance” is likely to intensify. His readiness to “guarantee North Korea’s security” suggested that in a showdown South Korea would be as likely to fight with Pyongyang, as against it.

Pyongyang may well have learned from experience that what the US respects is military force. It was June 1993, 40 years after the Armistice that ended the Korean War, before the Americans could be persuaded to sit at the negotiating table with it, and those talks followed by weeks Pyongyang’s successful launch of the Nodong 1 missile (range 1,300 kms). Again on August 31, 1998, the fifth year of the Agreed Framework, when construction work on the promised reactors had yet to begin and North Korea was being fiercely attacked over its supposed secret underground nuclear works at Kumchangri, the Taepodong (an intercontinental-type missile, presumed capable of reaching Alaska) was launched into waters adjacent to Japan. Again, US attitudes changed dramatically. William Perry was appointed as special envoy with authority to negotiate and advise on North Korea policy, and what can only be described as a grudging respect grew between him and his North Korean counterparts, culminating in his report which cleared Pyongyang of suspicions over Kumchangri and opening the way to an exchange of Pyongyang-Washington visits by Madeleine Albright and Marshall Jo Myong Rok.

The North Korean state may have committed almost every crime in the book, but it is not alone in that. What is virtually unprecedented is the fact of its recently admitting and apologizing for some of its crimes. Because it is also poor, desperate and friendless, it seems to be prepared to give up almost everything, but pride and face are precious above all else. In the autumn of 2002 the readiness by Japan and the US to make any concession to North Korean ‘face’, to see in historical context the pain and the sense of justice, however perverted, that drive it, was conspicuously absent, yet the more the pressure is ratcheted up to force submission from Pyongyang, the less likely is any successful outcome.

The apology from Kim Jong Il, the attempted economic reforms, the moves to open road and rail links with South Korea (and to join the trans-continental rail system), and the growing web of economic cooperation that is being negotiated with South Korea all point to a will for change in Pyongyang. The Korean problem remains a problem not only because of the recalcitrance, violence or madness of North Korea, but also because of the arrogance and hegemonic unilateralism of the United States, and the self-righteousness, studied historical amnesia and irresponsibility of Japan.

North Korea is easiest to represent as bizarre, incomprehensible, or ‘evil’, yet like all states it is the product of its history, constructed first around the guerrilla bands that fought against Japan in the 1930s, and their foundation myths, and then surviving a half century under threat of extinction at the hands of the global superpower. Only when peace is reached with Japan and the US can there be any prospect of the dissolution of such a ‘guerrilla state’. Today, many gestures point to a will for change in Pyongyang. The indications are that it is no longer monolithic, that powerful elements want to set aside the guerrilla model of secrecy, mobilization, absolute loyalty to the commander and the priority to the military, and pursue perestroika (for which in 2001 the Korean word kaegon was coined). They want to come in from the cold.

Copyright Gavan McCormack