North Korea: The Problem That Won’t Go Away

James E. Goodby
James E. Goodby Former Brookings Expert, Annenberg Distinguished Visiting Fellow - Hoover Institution

May 1, 2003

North Korea—or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), as it officially calls itself—is a prime example of what US President George W. Bush has called “the crossroads of radicalism and technology.” It can be described as the last Stalinist state surviving from the Cold War period. And something close to Cold War confrontation still exists between North Korea and some of its neighbours. In this environment, under the founding president of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, the infrastructure was built for a nuclear weapons programme. Most of the facilities were built at Yongbyon, a town about 60 miles north of Pyongyang, the capital. That programme led to the first US-North Korean nuclear crisis in the early 1990s. In 1994, the crisis was defused when the Clinton administration concluded the Agreed Framework with North Korea, a deal that halted a programme which might have produced by now enough plutonium for scores of nuclear bombs.

Kim Il Sung died in 1994 at the age of 82, not long after concluding the Agreed Framework with the Clinton administration. His son, Kim Jong Il, who had been groomed for the job by President Kim, took over the leadership of the country. He has followed in his father’s footsteps by pursuing an alternative path to a nuclear bomb, a gas centrifuge project that would produce enriched uranium. In October 2002, a senior US State Department official representing the Bush administration presented DPRK representatives in Pyongyang with charges that their government had a clandestine uranium enrichment programme. To everyone’s amazement, the North Koreans acknowledged that indeed they had such a programme and that they had a right to have it. Thus began the second North Korean nuclear crisis.

This was an admission that North Korea had violated the US-DPRK Agreed Framework, which is now inoperative and also a North Korean agreement with South Korea, concluded over a decade ago, which declared that the Korean peninsula should be nuclear weapons-free. Since October 2002, Kim Jong Il has steadily ratcheted up the level of the crisis through one provocative action after another.

The Bush administration’s response to these provocations has been surprisingly low-key, denying that a crisis exists and refusing to enter into direct talks with North Korea until Kim Jong Il has verifiably terminated the actions that constituted a flagrant violation of past agreements. The administration’s position is conditioned by a conviction that the Kim Jong Il regime had succeeded in blackmailing previous US administrations through bad behavior. The administration is determined to break that cycle, even at the cost of allowing North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme to continue.

In the meantime, North Korea has withdrawn from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, which it has also violated, and evicted inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency who were overseeing the implementation of the Agreed Framework. North Korea has taken steps to restart its closed 5-megawatt (electric) nuclear reactor and some activity has been seen at its reprocessing plant, where plutonium could be extracted from some 8000 fuel rods stored in a nearby cooling pond. Estimates are that North Korea would have enough plutonium in hand within a few months from this source to fabricate six to eight nuclear weapons, and could do so, probably by the end of the year at the latest. Flight tests of short-range, anti-ship missiles have been conducted as Pyongyang escalates its provocative activities almost weekly and the possibility of renewing tests of long-range missiles is very real. A geniune crisis has emerged, regardless of how the U.S. administration chooses to describe it.

How did matters come to this? The Agreed Framework, when fully implemented, would have normalised relations between the two countries, or have come close to it. Events had not moved that far four years later. On November 12, 1998, President Clinton appointed former secretary of defense William Perry to conduct a comprehensive review of US policy toward North Korea. The appointment was a reaction to a North Korean long-range missile test that overflew Japan on August 31, 1998 and caused considerable consternation in that country. Perry eventually recommended a process of engagement with North Korea that became known as the “Perry Process.” This was Clinton’s policy during the last year of his last term. In effect, it offered North Korea a choice: improved overall relations with the United States in return for abandoning its missile programme; failing that, continuing confrontation with America and a probable worsening economic and security situation for North Korea.

It was in this context that North Korea’s highest ranking military officer, Marshal Cho Myong Rok, visited Washington in the fall of 2000. That visit was followed by a visit to North Korea by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who traveled to Pyongyang on October 24, 2000 to meet Kim Jong Il, amidst encouraging signs that Kim Jong Il would show restraint in his missile programme. President Clinton apparently gave careful thought to a visit of his own. The reason would have been to strike a deal, at least in principle, to stop North Korea’s long-range ballistic missile programme. What went wrong?

The answers are various and typically depend on the political orientation of the analyst. To hard-line US conservatives, the DPRK really is, as President Bush has said, part of an “axis of evil.” Kim Jong Il is a man he loathes, President Bush told the Washington Post writer, Robert Woodward. To borrow a sentiment from Ronald Reagan, the North Korean communists will “lie, cheat, and steal” to achieve their evil designs. They are simply not to be trusted. As the Wall Street Journal editorial writers put it in a recent comment, once President Bush has proved his mettle in Iraq, he can turn with a strengthened hand to North Korea.

To the defenders of the Clinton administration’s efforts to rein in North Korea, Kim Jong Il’s actions are reprehensible and not to be condoned. But the Bush administration’s decision in March 2001 to overrule Colin Powell, who had advocated picking up where the Clinton administration left off with North Korea only exacerbated the problem, leaving a vacuum for several months. These people urge direct talks with North Korea to resolve the nuclear crisis before it is too late.

There may also be another school of thought in Washington and Secretary of State Colin Powell may have been speaking for it when he announced last December that North Korea already had two nuclear weapons and then fatalistically implied that it would not make much difference if it had a few more. Was he simply trying to postpone a Korean crisis while the Iraqi crisis was still at white heat? Perhaps. But perhaps, too, he subscribes to the views of many analysts that North Korea is a failed state which will collapse sooner or later. In the meantime, it is contained on all sides by more powerful states. Its nuclear bombs may be a deterrent against an attack that will never happen anyway but otherwise they are useless. When the regime ultimately collapses the nuclear weapons will be inherited by South Korea, a friend who might then destroy them but, even if retained, the weapons would not be a threat to the United States.

There is some truth to be found in each of these analyses. And there is certainly some continuity between the actions of Kim Jong Il and his father. The North Korean leadership has not found it possible to open the country to outside influences, except on a strictly controlled basis, obviously thinking of the examples of Eastern Europe. Ending the confrontation with South Korea and the United States, even in return for generous compensation, has probably been seen as a threat to the survival of the regime. Faced with the loss in 1991 of its main external supporter, the Soviet Union, Kim Il Sung temporarily opted for a policy of reconciliation with the South. Two important agreements with the Republic of Korea were concluded: one, a comprehensive basic agreement, promised across-the-board cooperation, including in the military sphere, between the two parts of the Korean peninsula; the second declared that neither country would allow nuclear weapons on its soil. Before either agreement could be brought fully into operation in 1992, North Korea’s increasingly obvious nuclear ambitions and the resulting reaction in South Korea and in the United States interrupted the process.

The nuclear crisis grew worse until 1994 when it was resolved, temporarily it now appears, by the Agreed Framework. An intercession by former US President Jimmy Carter and the threat of US military action by the Clinton administration was necessary before Kim Il Sung agreed to halt his plutonium-producing nuclear facilities. Two light-water, proliferation-resistant nuclear reactors, and annual shipments of heavy fuel oil to North Korea by the United States were part of the price.

By all accounts, the North Koreans kept their side of the bargain in the narrow sense that everything they agreed to do at Yongbyon was done. But the construction of the new reactors lagged years behind the target date for completion, partly because of unrelated provocations by North Korea, and the promised political normalisation never occurred. From the North Korean perspective, this probably looked like a US failure to live up to its commitments. The truth is, North Korea did little to encourage good will in Washington and there was little support in Congress for showing good will towards the despotic government of North Korea. It was even difficult to maintain the shipments of heavy fuel oil that the US had agreed to provide to compensate for the shut-down of the Yongbyon reactor.

Many American experts believe that North Korean behavior is only made worse by the regime’s isolation from the rest of the world. Indeed, the former South Korean president, Kim Dae Jung, inaugurated his famous “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with the North essentially to end that isolation. But today, in many ways, North Korea still bears an uncanny resemblance to the “hermit kingdom” as Korea was known in the 19th century. Kim Il Sung’s basic doctrine of self-reliance, or juche, almost necessarily remains in force.

And yet, both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il have made some efforts to become more engaged with the world, the son even more so than the father. And it has to be said that for a long time the world has not been very receptive to North Korean overtures. The legacy of the 1950-53 Korean war still burdens relations between North and South Korea and the United States. The North Korean regime is one of the most repressive in the world. It has little to offer in trade or investment. A succession of military-dominated governments in South Korea prior to the consolidation of civilian leadership, were not interested in any relations with the North and, in fact, imposed penalties on their citizens who sought to develop such relations. North Korea, for its part, described the Republic of Korea as a puppet of the United States and posed as the champion of a reunification that was being blocked by the United States.

It was not until the administration of President Roh Tae Woo in the early 1990s that South Korea developed what President Roh called “Nordpolitik”, a policy of limited engagement with North Korea. During that period, high-level meetings, at cabinet level, were conducted with North Korea. Ideas were exchanged on confidence-building measures and arms control. President George H.W. Bush contributed importantly to the North-South dialogue by removing nuclear weapons from South Korea and scaling back US-ROK military exercises. The 1991-1992 ROK-DPRK agreements cited above were concluded during this period. Both China and the Soviet Union saw fit to establish strong ties with South Korea, by then a dynamic economic partner for both of them, in contrast to North Korea, which was a drain on their resources. This probably forced Kim Il Sung to reach out to the South.

As Kim Jong Il consolidated power in the years following the death of his father, he spent time visiting people and places in China and Russia. Probably these experiences reinforced opinions he already held, and did not create totally new attitudes, but he saw in Russia and in China economic models other than the failed model his father created. Kim knows that North Korea’s economy is not functioning, as he has demonstrated by introducing changes in wages and prices designed to monetarise the economy. Those changes, experts believe, may not improve the performance of the economy, and may even damage it. But the fact that Kim has done something fairly radical by North Korean standards shows that he is a man who recognises that he has a problem. He seems to see the need for some opening up of the economy. President Kim Dae Jung did his best to encourage North-South economic relations. He met with Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in the famous Korean summit of June 2000 in hopes of breaking down the barriers to freer exchange between North and South. And some improvements were made. But the presidential elections of 2002 showed that many South Koreans thought that they had not gotten much from Kim Jong Il for all the efforts made by them. Kim Jong Il tried to open up an economic relationship with Japan which backfired, of course, when he admitted that in his father’s time North Korean agents had kidnapped Japanese citizens and taken them to North Korea and that several of them had perished there. This confirmation of their worst fears brought the interest of the Japanese in better relations with North Korea to a dead stop. His next “bombshell” was to admit to a clandestine uranium enrichment project.

The question now is what to do about the crisis that looms over Northeast Asia. Or perhaps a better starting point is: can anything be done about it, short of war? The answer depends on a correct assessment of Kim Jong Il’s real intentions, which no outsider can be sure of. Perhaps Kim himself has not decided. It may be that Kim is determined to proceed with his nuclear weapons programme unless he is halted by military force. Is a North Korean nuclear weapons arsenal something the world can live with? The problem with that thinking is that North Korea’s example might have to be followed by other nations in Asia. South Korea and Japan would certainly have to consider building a nuclear deterrent. Taiwan might also think about it. These nations are all run by peacefully inclined, responsible governments, but the idea of nuclear nonproliferation would be dealt a fatal blow if they all decided to “go nuclear.” Worse still, North Korea has a desperate need for cash and might be tempted to sell its nuclear materials, its nuclear expertise, or even its nuclear weapons to the highest bidder. And that could be Osama bin Laden.

A “surgical strike” against key North Korean nuclear facilities at Yongbyon could certainly be successfully carried out by the United States, and with very few civilian casualties. But could North Korea then be deterred from attacking South Korea? An artillery barrage against Seoul would wreck the city in a matter of hours. The North could infiltrate squads of special forces to destroy critical infrastructure in the South. Because of these possibilities, military action is likely to be a last resort. At any rate, it is likely to be postponed until the Iraqi crisis has diminished in intensity.

Is there any hope that a negotiated settlement of some sort with North Korea is at all feasible? Is it worth trying for at this stage? No one knows the answer to the first question but trying for a settlement at this stage is absolutely necessary. Kim Jong Il probably will proceed with his weapons programme unless he is forced to stop or finds a price for stopping it that satisfies his needs.

The general assessment is that Kim is fundamentally interested in regime survival, which was probably his father’s basic goal too, in the last years of his life. He is not an expansionist dictator in the mould of Hitler. Nuclear weapons, he probably thinks, will deter an attack, thus solving one of his security problems. Nuclear weapons might even enable him to save some of the enormous sums of money he is spending on his military. If he became convinced that he could safely give up a key military programme in return for other things essential to regime survival, he might do so. Those other things are essentially economic.

So, what negotiating strategy should be adopted in dealing with North Korea? First, should it be a multilateral or a bilateral US approach? Second, should it be narrowly focused on the nuclear and missile issues or on a broader agenda? The Bush administration says that this is a regional problem which must be settled in some multilateral fashion. The administration also says that the first step must be for North Korea to correct the problem that caused the crisis. Pyongyang must destroy its uranium enrichment equipment, restore the arrangements established by the Agreed Framework, and according to some spokespersons, eliminate any vestige of a nuclear weapons manufacturing capacity. The latter goes beyond where the Agreed Framework requires North Korea to be at this stage, but some penalty should be paid by the North for its flagrant violation of the agreement, many influential Americans argue. The minimum that would be necessary, many suggest, would be to take out of North Korea the 8000 spent fuel rods that North Korea could use to derive plutonium. Another step would be to destroy the reprocessing plant at Yongbyon. North Korea has said that its nuclear programmes are negotiable, but only if the United States formally undertakes not to attack North Korea. A letter from the president is insufficient, they say, when that possibility has been raised.

A multilateral solution is necessary because each of North Korea’s neighbours has a major stake in the outcome. Most of them have significant economic interests that are involved. If North Korea’s problems require substantial economic assistance from the outside, which is almost certainly correct, that can only be done by a consortium of North Korea’s neighbours, plus the United States and the European Union. Already, the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation (KEDO), which has been managing the construction of new reactors in North Korea, is a multilateral organisation. Adding Russia and perhaps some other countries to its membership would make sense. A multilateral security mechanism also may be required to oversee the transition to a more peaceful order in and around the Korean peninsula. So the Bush administration has it right when it says that a regional solution is needed. But American leadership is necessary to achieve that and the United States has been surprisingly passive.

The European Union has an important role to play in a peace settlement. North Korea enjoys a better relationship with the European nations than it does with the United States. Sweden, which has had an embassy in Pyongyang for decades, has some particularly well-informed experts on North Korea and has shown an active interest in Korean issues. Not only financial and commercial relations are necessary. North Korea has almost no expertise in how to run a modern economy that could be integrated, at least partially, into the regional and global economy. North Koreans have been supported by the European Union with training programmes that help to correct this deficiency. This should be done on a larger scale. Japan also could help enormously in the economic area but reunification of the families of its abducted citizens will be necessary before any major programmes could be launched. Both Russia and China are helping to open the sealed frontier between North Korea and South Korea with rail lines into the ROK. Aside from food, trade, and investment assistance, the United States is well-positioned to extend Nunn-Lugar cooperative threat reduction assistance to help convert military programmes to civilian programmes. The Bush administration is correct when it assigns priority to terminating North Korea’s nuclear weapons programmes. A freeze, at least, would be necessary if a growing North Korean nuclear weapons arsenal is to be stopped in its tracks. And that cannot wait. But the problem in the past has been that the United States has been too unidimensional in its approach. Naturally enough, it has been focused like a laser on its own problems with North Korean missiles, nuclear bombs, and dangerous military exports and has neglected the less interesting business of dealing with issues in which North Korea has an interest. The ROK has not made the same mistake, having focused on economic programmes and family reunification, but both countries face the problem of political support for assistance to the DPRK in the absence of some clear reciprocity from Pyongyang.

A strategy of engaging North Korea in programmes which really are important to it in return for substantial, not just token, reciprocity is what is needed. Otherwise, the episodic North Korea crises will continue, until someday, one of them erupts into all-out war. “More for more,” as the Korea-watchers sum up such a strategy, is clearly the right general strategy. In addition to economics and advanced weaponry, the legal framework that has, technically, governed the North-South-U.S. relationship since 1953 also will have to be examined. The Armistice Agreement of that year needs to be replaced at some point by a formal treaty ending the war and establishing a new relationship among the three primary actors. The role of U.S. troops in Korea will also have to be adapted to new circumstances and this is already under discussion.

Finally, dramatically changed circumstances in the Republic of Korea will have a clear impact on the course of North Korea’s relations with the rest of the world. A younger generation of South Koreans determined the outcome of the December 2002 presidential elections. Roh Moo Hyun, a strong supporter of engagement with the North was elected over a more conservative candidate. President Roh also has said that he wants a more equal US-ROK alliance. No longer does a conservative elite run the country and make the key decisions about relations with North Korea. Those who remember the 1950-53 Korean war are fading, and younger Koreans who are not necessarily pro-American and are coming to the fore; some of them bitterly resent what they see as US domination. As a democratic nation, South Korea’s government must pay attention to what the people are saying. The brakes on the ROK’s relations with the North will not be so strongly applied as in the days of military-dominated governments, for better or worse. And American desires and policies will not be regarded with the same general approval as in the past. If there is to be a turning point in the tragic history of the Korean people, it will happen because a new generation of South Koreans is ready for change. It can only be hoped, against much evidence to the contrary, that North Korea is also ready for a change.