The menace and mystery of North Korea

The government of Kim Jong Il is threatening to build more nuclear bombs, and its rhetoric is growing ever more impatient. The problem is that nobody knows what Kim really wants.

Published January 15, 2003 1:24AM (EST)

While bellicose rhetoric about "World War III" and a "holy war" continues to pour out of North Korea, early tantalizing signs of a peaceful way out of the Asian crisis are also emerging by the day.

The past weekend was all fire and brimstone from the communist capital of Pyongyang, with eccentric leader Kim Jong Il and his secretive team moving in fast succession to abandon the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty on Friday and then hint they might fire up North Korea's ballistic missile testing program. Kim's current arsenal of 100-plus missiles can easily reach Japan, but the Pentagon fears he's developing an intercontinental missile, the Taepo Dong-2, that could one day target Alaska, Hawaii and possibly California.

More recently Kim, who kicked international weapons inspectors out of the country in December, even hinted he might reactivate the process of extracting weapons-grade plutonium from spent fuel rods at the nuclear reactor in Yongbyon. That dramatic move would completely alter the current crisis and mean North Korea could start producing 20 nuclear bombs annually.

"That's the real hang-up for the administration," says Bill Drennan, deputy director of research for the U.S. Institute of Peace. "North Korea still has another card to play -- the spent fuel rods."

At the same time, there's some optimism, at least outside the administration, that low-level talks between the two countries might soon begin at the United Nations. That according to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the former Clinton administration official who hosted North Korean representatives last week. For the first time since the crisis began, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly on Monday let North Korea know that renewed energy assistance would be available from the U.S. if North Korea agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons programs.

Meanwhile, China and Russia seem to be inching their way toward a more central role in the drama, with Russia now working on the framework for a possible way out of the crisis. The problem with Russia's proposed solution -- that North Korea abandon its nuclear weapons program in exchange for international assistance that the impoverished country needs -- may be that it simply makes too much sense.

The Bush White House, like the Clinton one before it, has discovered the unique challenges of dealing with Kim, the master of mixed messages. That's why, as it stands right now, experts suggest the unfolding crisis could easily tip in either direction -- in favor of a diplomatic breakthrough, or a mad rush toward nuclear armament by North Korea.

The U.S. has most of the international community on its side, but the increasingly divided White House -- split along its now familiar hawk-dove divide -- really has no idea where it's all heading. The possibility of a military strike on the Korean Peninsula still seems remote, but the Bush administration, which would much rather be focusing on toppling Saddam Hussein right now, cannot simply hope Kim will come to his senses and extinguish the crisis.

Meanwhile, some Washington veterans must be struck with a sense of dij` vu, since the current North Korean showdown looks an awful lot like the one that unfolded 10 years ago during President Clinton's first term. That crisis, too, featured expelled weapons inspectors and threats of plutonium processing; the two countries came dangerously close to war until former President Jimmy Carter parachuted in and helped craft a diplomatic solution, which the North Koreans then proceeded to violate.

Then, as now, it wasn't easy to decipher what the North Koreans hoped to accomplishment from the crisis they manufactured.

"If anybody can figure out what North Korea wants, they win a prize," says Mitchell Reiss, dean of international affairs at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

"North Koreans bring to mind the old saying, 'Even paranoids have real enemies,'" says Reiss, who was chief negotiator for the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization from 1995 to 1999. "They're isolated -- geographically, economically and psychologically. They literally don't get out much and don't quite understand how the world works."

"It's very hard to understand what they're trying to tell you," adds Joel Wit, the U.S. coordinator who put together the 1994 agreement with North Korea freezing its nuclear weapons program. "They're very cryptic in their language. You might sit through a three-hour presentation and just three or four lines were meant to be of real importance."

"Ultimately they're looking for security," suggests Drennan. Indeed, high on Kim's public wish list in the last week has been a nonaggression pact signed by the Bush administration. This seems to have replaced North Korea's long-held interest in signing a formal peace treaty with the U.S. to mark the end of the Korean War. Like that nonstarter, a nonaggression pact seems like a long shot, since the U.S., a member of the United Nations, simply does not do bilateral aggression agreements. The international assumption is that absent a just cause, all members of the U.N. will refrain from attacking other countries.

Of course, the swarming troop movements in the Gulf region, along with Bush's designation of North Korea last year as a member of the "axis of evil," may have prompted North Korea's latest bout of paranoia.

"They're pissed and confused," says George Lopez, director of Policy Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. "You're dealing with a group for whom deception is the norm for foreign policy and they're particularly insecure regarding the United States. The axis of evil sent them over the top."

Kim's government also seems upset that two light-water nuclear reactors the U.S. agreed to help build in '94, in return for North Korea shutting downs its more dangerous Yongbyon nuclear facility, still have not been completed.

Angry that relations with the U.S. have not evolved as he hoped since '94, and anxious about the new Bush doctrine of preemption, Kim seems to be pursuing contradictory policies. "We need to force North Korea to make choices between being a significant nuclear actor, or having better relations with U.S. and the international community," Reiss says. "They want to have both."

The crisis began to unfold last October when the isolated communist outpost admitted having a secret weapons program to enrich uranium. The U.S. quickly suspended free oil shipments to North Korea, which had been flowing since the 1994 agreement. That's when Kim began playing the rest of North Korea's escalation cards.

Today, the White House not only faces the Herculean task of putting the diplomatic pieces back together and trying to refashion a nuclear arms agreement like the one North Korea signed off on in 1994, but also of making it stick. In retrospect, it's clear North Korea began cheating on the 1994 pact not long after the ink had dried. In fact, the country has failed to adhere to virtually every pact it's made with the U.S.

"There's less than zero trust," says Drennan at the Institute of Peace.

Making the challenge even more daunting is the fact that the Bush administration arrived at the current crisis after having actively ignored Kim for nearly two years. That was part of the Republicans' stated hard-line policy of not coddling rogue states in the way that they perceived Clinton had. So, despite the fact that Bush now stresses he wants to find a "diplomatic" resolution, North Korea and the U.S. have not shared serious, active diplomacy since 2000.

Critics from the previous administration insist the incoming Bush team was made aware of simmering problems in North Korea, and specifically regarding a secret uranium enrichment process, but that the White House chose to do nothing for 22 months until the crisis exploded into public view.

It's telling that when the North Koreans finally did seek out an American sounding board this month, they cast their eyes toward New Mexico and requested face time with Richardson. He served as Clinton's United Nations ambassador, has periodically dealt with the North Koreans and has what in Western diplomatic circles passes for a relationship with Kim's leadership.

That isolation suits some hawks within the administration just fine. They'd prefer to ignore North Korea's histrionics. Rather than play the old game of negotiating Kim down off the limb with promises of food and fuel -- rewarding bad behavior -- administration hard-liners would prefer to simply leave Kim out on that limb in hopes his grip over the impoverished country eventually collapses.

At the same time White House hawks are lobbying for a firm containment policy for North Korea, they're pushing a unique, preemptive war with Iraq. Broiling tensions with North Korea seems to have done little to firm up American support for a strike in the Middle East. In fact, it may be causing serious second thoughts.

"As we get closer to D-Day with Iraq, the crisis with North Korea has emerged as the dramatic unexpected, the one nobody saw on the horizon," says Lopez. "It's the one [White House political strategist] Karl Rove must be nervous about. And the guy in Iowa who says, 'North Korea has nuclear weapons and we won't go to war, but Hans Blix says Iraq has no weapons and we'll go to war. Hey, what the heck is going on?'"

An online Newsweek poll last week showed respondents by a margin of 3-1 thought North Korea posed a more dangerous threat to America than Iraq. True, online polls are not scientific since people have to volunteer to participate, but the Newsweek results came in the wake of a new study that showed Republicans are twice as likely to respond to Internet polls, which makes Newsweek's Iraq-North Korea findings even more troubling for the White House.

"For eight years hawks were in the opposition complaining about Clinton's foreign policy. Now they're responsible and they're finding out it's a bit more difficult," says Reiss. "North Korea shows it's a much messier world than you can draw up on paper."

Not that the Clinton team escapes criticism for the current meltdown. "It was typical of the Clinton foreign policy," complains Lopez at the Kroc Institute. "They clapped their hands in 1994 after they got an agreement and said, 'This is great.' But by '97, it was clear there was trouble." North Koreans, grumbling that the U.S. was not taking them seriously, began to make noises about denying access for international weapons inspectors while the Clinton administration's attention drifted elsewhere, says Lopez.

"Did Clinton makes mistakes? Yes. Did it look the other way when North Korea was cheating and the White House knew about it? Absolutely," adds Reiss.

Kim may be poised to play the ultimate cheating card, reactivating the nuclear plant that separates weapons-grade plutonium, which would give the North Koreans enough material to manufacture one bomb each month.

As part of a landmark Agreed Framework deal in 1994, North Korea, in exchange for food and fuel from the United States as well as movement toward normalized relations and help in building two new energy plants, agreed to freeze the process of separating weapons-grade plutonium at its Yongbyon nuclear facility. Experts in '94 estimate North Korea had approximately 8,100 spent fuel rods, which were locked down as part of its agreement with Washington.

Kim recently announced the facility will be reactivated, but he insists it's only to meet the energy shortage caused when the U.S. stopped the fuel shipments late last year.

That benign explanation is "nonsense," says Reiss. "It's a bomb factory. It's there to produce plutonium." He notes that the oil America ships to North Korea makes up just 5 percent of the country's annual consumption and the current stoppage would not necessitate starting up the Yongbyon facility.

To date, there's no evidence that the key separation process involving the spent fuel rods has begun. Without any weapons inspectors on the ground, it's impossible for the international community to keep tabs on the 8,100 rods. But if North Korea does begin the crucial separating process, satellites and heat sensors will be able to detect plumes of smoke coming out of Yongbyon, says Reiss.

If and when those plumes of smoke appear, North Korea could produce a handful of nuclear bombs by the spring, and a couple dozen each year.

That's a short fuse, and it may be North Korea's most effective bluff of all.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

MORE FROM Eric Boehlert

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bill Clinton Bill Richardson China George W. Bush North Korea Nuclear Weapons Russia