We all know it’s a crisis. Every night this week, NBC, CBS and every other media outlet in the country have led their evening newscasts with increasingly grim news out of Korea.
It’s gone like this. A state of war has been declared between North Korea and the United States by Kim Jong-un, the North’s 27-year-old hereditary dictator. North Korea has battle plans to attack Washington and other U.S. cities, including, of all places, Austin, Texas, with atomic weapons. The Kaesong Industrial Zone, the last demonstration of North and South Korean cooperation just above the DMZ, has been temporarily shut down after the North refused entry to South Koreans who work there. Pyongyang has threatened to restart its Yongbyon nuclear power plant, mothballed since 2007 under a nuclear proliferation agreement with Washington and other regional powers, and begin producing bomb-ready plutonium again. And on Thursday, North Korea was allegedly moving missiles to its east coast facing Japan.
The sense of hysteria and impending doom has been magnified by the Obama administration and the Pentagon. In a show of force not seen in East Asia for decades, the United States, as part of a series of war games with South Korea, dispatched B-52 and stealth B-2 bombers capable of devastating nuclear and tactical strikes screaming across Korean skies. F-22 warplanes, perhaps the most advanced in the U.S. arsenal, are there too, along with two guided-missile destroyers. A new THAAD portable missile defense system is being deployed to nearby Guam as a “precautionary” measure against possible North Korean missile strikes, and plans are underway for a massive expansion in U.S. missile defense systems in Alaska and the West Coast. Meanwhile, U.S. and South Korean troops practice simulated nuclear attacks and even regime change in their massive military drills, which both governments described as “defensive.”
The rhetoric has ratcheted up too – to alarming levels. “We formally inform the White House and Pentagon that the ever-escalating U.S. hostile policy toward the DPRK and its reckless nuclear threat will be smashed” by “cutting-edge smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear strike means of the DPRK,” a spokesman for the Korean Peoples’ Army (KPA) declared this week, using the formal name for the North – the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel responded in kind, calling the DPRK a "real and clear danger and threat" to the United States and its allies. "They have nuclear capacity now,” he added. “They have missile delivery capacity now."
And then, out of the blue, President Obama and his military leaders came out on Thursday and sought to calm the waters – and the skies. “The White House is dialing back the aggressive posture amid fears that it could inadvertently trigger an even deeper crisis,” the Wall Street Journal reported in Thursday’s editions. It quoted a “senior administration official” explaining that the concern was “that we were heightening the prospect of misperceptions on the part of the North Koreans, and that that could lead to miscalculations.” U.S. officials, the Journal added, didn’t believe the DPRK had “any imminent plans to take military action.”
What the hell is going on? Are we really as close to war as this sounds? Why all the buildup if North Korea was bluffing? What’s up with the “dialing back” of U.S. forces? And what brought us to this point?
Before getting to those questions, everybody should take a deep breath. First, as anyone familiar with North Korea knows, any attack by the DPRK on the U.S. or its allies would be suicide for the country of 30 million: It would be met by a relentless counterattack by the most powerful military force the world has ever seen. Threats sound ominous, but at this point that’s all they seem to be: threats, designed to trigger a response in Washington that, in the mind of Kim and his military advisers, might lead to direct talks. (Remember his plaintive request to Dennis Rodman? “Obama should call me.”)
Second, contrary to Hagel’s assertion about DPRK’s nuclear and missile capabilities, there is no evidence that North Korea has the means to lob a nuclear-armed missile at the United States or anyone else. So far, it has produced several atomic bombs and tested them, but it lacks the fuel and the technology to miniaturize a nuke and place it on a missile (many of which have failed in tests anyway). North Korea’s problems in this area were clarified this week by Siegfried Hecker, one of America’s preeminent nuclear scientists, who has been invited to visit the DPRK’s nuclear facilities several times.
“Despite its recent threats, North Korea does not yet have much of a nuclear arsenal because it lacks fissile materials and has limited nuclear testing experience," Hecker said this week on a website run by Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation, according to the Associated Press. And whatever U.S. intelligence knows about the actual capabilities of North Korea – which is more closely watched by U.S. spy satellites and planes than any country on earth – is highly classified.
Beyond that, the answers to our questions about the current situation lie deep in the history of U.S. involvement in Korea, which dates back to 1945 and the terrible war that engulfed the peninsula from 1950 to 1953. That war, in which over 3 million Koreans and some 37,000 Americans were killed, ended in an armistice, not a peace agreement (signed, incidentally, by the United States and the DPRK). North Korea also remembers it as a hellish time when the U.S. Air Force bombed the country into cinders – literally.
But for now, let’s go back just a few years. We’ll start in the waning days of the Clinton administration.
It’s hard to believe today, but in 2000, Kim Jong-il, dispatched his second-in-command, Vice Marshal Jo Myong-rok, to Washington. There, Jo met in the White House with President Clinton as well as the secretaries of State and Defense. At that time, Clinton officials later said, the United States and the DPRK were on the verge of an agreement in which North Korea was going to end its missile production and testing program in return for guarantees from Washington that the United States would recognize the DPRK and respect its sovereignity. Those talks grew out of Clinton’s 1994 accord with Kim Il-sung – the current leader’s grandfather. North Korea shut down its Soviet-era nuclear power program and the United States, South Korea and Japan agreed to help build a light-water reactor for civilian use and supply fuel oil to fill the gap.
The 1994 agreement, in turn, set the stage for South Korean President Kim Dae-jung – at one point that country’s most famous dissident – to initiate a broad “Sunshine Policy” with the North designed to build political and military trust and lead eventually to normalization and a form of unification. During the sunshine era, Kim’s successor as president, Roh Moo-hyun, reached an agreement with Kim Jong-il to build the Kaesong industrial zone – now the only thread remaining of this brief period of glasnost on the Korean Peninsula. The warming was symbolized in late 2000, when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright flew to Pyongyang and met with Kim Jong-il in the highest-level meeting in U.S.-North Korean history.
But Clinton’s missile agreement was never completed, and in 2000 incoming President Bush declared that North Korea could not be trusted as a negotiating partner and stopped all talks with the DPRK. Then, after the 9/11 attacks, Bush decided to place North Korea in the company of Iran and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as partners in the “Axis of Evil.” That ended any chance of rapprochment. The hostility only deepened when Bush invaded Iraq and installed a pro-U.S. government – a move that Pyongyang understood as a clear statement of Bush’s intentions in Korea. This was followed in 2002 by U.S. accusations, denied at the time by the DPRK, that it was running a secret uranium facility to build bombs. After that, the earlier Clinton agreement completely unraveled. In 2006, North Korea shocked the world by testing its first atomic bomb (for a detailed timeline of North Korea’s program, click here).
By 2007, however, Bush began to rethink his policies as the costs of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan escalated. Prodded by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was edging out Dick Cheney as Bush’s chief foreign policy guru, the administration participated in a series of negotiations involving China, Japan, Russia and North and South Korea. The so-called six-party talks ended in an accord that extended Clinton’s 1994 agreement, shut Yongbyon for good, and set a timeline for deepening U.S.-North Korean ties. That agreement ended what historian Bruce Cumings called at the time “the most asinine Korea policy in history.” The DPRK even broadcast video of the Yongbyon cooling tower being blown up (those images were replayed on U.S. television this week when the North threatened to restart that plant).
A year later, Barack Obama, running in part on a platform that promised U.S. talks with countries like North Korea and Iran, was elected president. Shortly into his administration, a new Korea policy began to evolve under the stewardship of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It was called “strategic patience,” and was designed on the premise that Kim Jong-il was about to die and that the Kim dynasty, torn by internal power struggles, was bound to collapse. Clinton and Obama also made it clear that they would not reopen any talks with the North until it turned away from nuclear weapons and opened itself to change. That policy turned out to be a strategic miscalculation: Kim did die last year, but the transition to his third son, Kim Jong-un, has gone smoothly. The regime is still there, as strong as ever.
One incident from 2010 underscores how little Obama was interested in negotiations. That fall, a delegation of former high-ranking U.S. officials visited Pyongyang and met with senior officials in Kim Jong-il’s government. As I reported shortly after their return, the delegation was told “that Pyongyang is prepared to ship out all of its nuclear fuel rods, the key ingredient for producing weapons-grade plutonium, to a third country in exchange for a U.S. commitment to pledge that it has ‘no hostile intent” toward the DPRK.” Joel Wit, a former State Department official who was part of the delegation, recalled last week that the offer “would have been a first step toward permanently disabling the [Yongban] facility, making sure the reactor would never again be a threat.” The offer, he added, “was dutifully reported to the Obama administration in briefings for the White House, the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the intelligence community.” But the Obama White House “didn’t even listen,” Wit said.
There was another complicating factor in Obama’s policies. After 2008, South Korea's president was Lee Myung-bak, a conservative. Lee strongly opposed the “sunshine” policies of his predecessors and began to take a much harder line on military issues with the North. Relations across the DMZ took a nose-dive in March 2010, when Lee’s government blamed the North for blowing up a South Korean warship off Korea’s west coast, killing 46 sailors. The DPRK denied it, but a South Korean commission and an international team of investigators held the North responsible (many in the South still question those conclusions).
That incident kicked off the last big confrontation that had the Koreas and the United States talking of war. In November 2010, the United States and South Korea staged another major naval exercise on the west coast near where the Korean warship had gone down. The DPRK issued a series of warnings, saying that if any shells landed on their side of a disputed North-South maritime border, they would retaliate. Some did, and the North struck back ferociously by shelling the island of Yeonpyeong, killing several civilians.
South Korea, stung by this cruel attack on a non-military target, vowed to continue the exercises; the North issued more strong warnings. With several dozen U.S. soldiers on Yeongpyeong as observers and thousands more participating in the exercises, any clash was bound to draw in the United States. For a few days the world held its breath to see if war would break out. Lights were on 24/7 at the crisis center at the Pentagon (I explained what led up to that crisis in a long interview on "Democracy Now").
Then something unusual happened. At the height of the crisis, on Dec. 16, 2010, Gen. James Cartwright, the outspoken vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that he was deeply concerned about the situation escalating out of control. In words designed to be heard in Seoul, he made it clear that the Pentagon wanted to ratchet down the situation. If North Korea “misunderstood” or reacted “in a negative way” by firing back, he said, “that would start potentially a chain reaction of firing and counter-firing. What you don't want to have happen out of that is for the escalation to be -- for us to lose control of the escalation.” Cartwright, and the Pentagon, had no desire to be drawn into a war that was not of their own making.
Few noticed the significance of these words – but I did. Four days later, I tweeted: “When Gen. Cartwright warned of a ‘chain reaction’ that would cause the United States to ‘lose control of the escalation,’ he was talking to SK -not NK.” The morning the military drills were scheduled to restart, many reporters and Korea-watchers on Twitter were predicting that a second Korean War was about to begin. Then, as the time came close for the first live-firing to commence, the South Korean military put out the word that the exercises would be “delayed” because of weather. They were – and then were scrapped altogether. Cartwright’s warning apparently worked. The crisis ended. But a year later little had changed – except that Kim Jong-un was now in charge of the DPRK.
The current crisis began last December, when Kim’s military defied global warnings against his weapons program and successfully launched a rocket that actually placed a satellite in orbit. The move was quickly condemned by the United States and South Korea, but this time the criticism also came from China and Russia. Then, in February, North Korea carried out its third test of a nuclear weapon that was nearly twice as large as its last one. A few days later, the U.N. Security Council imposed deeper sanctions on North Korea. Its government lashed out again, but this time the rhetoric had changed. In the past, the North had always blasted South Korea as its primary antagonist, but early in January it began to frame its problems in the context of its decades-long confrontation with the United States.
As I explained to "Democracy Now" on Feb. 12, in recent weeks North Korea has “increasingly been focused on the role of the United States, the role of the United States military in South Korea and the whole Asian region. And they’ve been talking a lot about these massive war games that the United States and South Korea take that take place almost every year, and which one took place last week. And they see the United States and these war games as very hostile and as a threat to their sovereignty, as they put it.”
In other words, their “primary enemy” had shifted from the South to the United States. Since then, the DPRK has said again and again that Washington is to blame for the ongoing tensions in Korea, and that until those tensions are resolved, the region will remain in crisis. That position was summed up by the KPA official quoted earlier. “The U.S. high-handed hostile policy toward the DPRK aimed to encroach upon its sovereignty and the dignity of its supreme leadership and bring down its social system is being implemented through actual military actions without hesitation,” he said. “The responsibility for this grave situation entirely rests with the U.S.”
And that’s basically where we are today. The Obama administration has a choice: It can continue a policy of sanctions, military pressure and no talks until North Korea agrees to abandon its nuclear weapons; or it can try something that’s been tried, with varying success in the past: negotiate, possibly with the assistance of China and other regional powers, toward a peaceful solution that benefits everyone in the region, including the DPRK. But two things are clear. One: America’s current policy toward North Korea is an utter failure. Two: Another Korean War is unthinkable. With the latest statements from the Pentagon today about “dialing back” tensions, those lessons may be sinking in.