Web Exclusives: PawPlus

June 6, 2007:
The North Korean nuclear crisis and its impact

By Desaix Anderson ’58

When I first visited North Korea in 1997, I flew on a rickety plane from Pyongyang to Hamhung on the east coast to visit the site at Kumho where KEDO and I, as executive director of KEDO, were building two light-water nuclear reactors so that North Korea would not build nuclear weapons. This was the core of the Agreed Framework signed by the United States and the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 1994 when we narrowly avoided a devastating war, according to former defense secretary Bill Perry.

Former North Korean U.N. Ambassador Ho Jung, my counterpart in Pyongyang, flew and then drove to Kumho with me in a pea-green 1954 Mercedes on one-lane, pot-holed roads like we have not had in Mississippi since the 1920s. Flocks of North Koreans wearing rags scattered from the road like chickens as we passed. Like faces from a Goya painting, they stared vacuously at the car, then with expressionless faces resumed plodding as we passed. We drove at dusk through North Korea’s second-largest city, Hamhung. Like a Gogol sketch, there were no lights in the city, but masses of people trudged through the severe cold, wandering like lost souls through the dark streets, cowering from the automobile’s lights as we drove slowly past.

I asked to take the train back to Pyongyang following my visit, hoping to see something of the countryside. I knew that, because of fuel shortages, trains rarely ran in North Korea, except to ferry high officials to ceremonies extolling Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il. Nonetheless, Pyongyang produced a train for my trip.

The train left at dark, intending to arrive in the early morning dark in Pyongyang. But fortunately, we ran out of power at the first stop and spent the night in the cold train with only cold food we brought along. Our trip resumed at daybreak, providing a full day’s view across the breadth of the DPRK. The countryside resembled a moonscape. There were no cars, no animals except a few goats, but people wandering around wrapped in rags. Houses were of mud bricks with straw roofs. Windows in the majority were broken out. The low-lying mountains had been stripped of trees and vegetation.

Did this bleak picture offer an opportunity, I wondered.

The threat from North Korea

The DPRK’s missile launches in July 2006 and the testing of a nuclear weapon last October are grave threats to stability in northeast Asia, a vital region to America’s and our allies’ security. Rather than show leadership to deal with this crisis, the Bush administration for six years in effect enabled Kim Jong Il to develop both missile and nuclear capabilities, despite President Bush’s categorical affirmation with South Korean President Roh May 14, 2003, that “we will not tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea.”

The track records of the Clinton and Bush administrations in dealing with North Korea reveal starkly the anatomy of the Korean crisis.

The Clinton era

The Clinton administration concluded the Agreed Framework in October 1994 that froze all known nuclear activities at Yongbyon, North Korea, shut down one reactor and stopped work on two others, canned the 8,000 spent fuel rods to prevent their being reprocessed, and allowed IAEA inspections; no rods were reprocessed and no fissile material for bombs was produced after the Agreed Framework was signed in October 1994 until 2002.

The United States agreed to eventually end economic sanctions against North Korea and move toward normalization of relations.

In 1998 former defense secretary Perry adroitly convinced the North Koreans that the United States could end “America’s hostility,” long perceived as a dire threat to the regime in Pyongyang. In late 2000 the Clinton administration was close to an agreement to halt development, production, and deployment of longer-range missiles, in conformity with the Missile Technology Control Regime.

North Korea was being brought from its profound isolation and being edged successfully into the international community.

The Bush era

In sharp contrast, for ideological reasons the Bush administration refused to talk with the North Koreans, demonized Kim Jong Il as a dictator and a tyrant, and, most provocatively, included North Korea in President Bush’s “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address. Demonization of a foe is almost always an inept diplomatic tool, more useful in a schoolyard squabble than in diplomacy. He squandered the hard work of the Clinton administration in ending the perception of implacable American “hostility” toward North Korea;

In late 2002, based on information from Pakistan, the Bush administration in its first high-level meeting with the North Koreans accused Pyongyang of developing a highly enriched uranium facility. This secret facility would require several years for fruition; the Bush administration issued demands but made no effort to negotiate the end of this project, as it might have, based on a precedent established in 1998 regarding previous suspicions at a mountain called Kungchang-ri.

There are now questions about the intelligence the Bush administration asserted regarding the highly enriched uranium project. Was the scant information – technology from Pakistan, and purchase of centrifuges and aluminum tubes – hyped, as the Chinese contended, to suggest a far-more advanced project than was justified?

Instead, the Bush administration threw the baby out with the bath water and abrogated the Agreed Framework. Pyongyang left the NPT Treaty (the first and only nation so far to do so), threw out the IAEA inspectors, reactivated the three nuclear reactor projects at Yongbyon, recovered the 8,000 spent fuel rods, and began reprocessing the rods. Since that time, Pyongyang has produced enough fissile material for six to 10 more nuclear bombs, multiplying the fissile materials from the two the North Koreans were thought to have in 1994 when the Agreed Framework stopped production.

Under pressure from Asian allies and friends, but refusing to engage North Korea directly, President Bush proposed six-party talks to discuss the nuclear issue. In four meetings engineered by China, starting in 2003, the United States used the talks to camouflage its unwillingness to engage genuinely with North Korea or to exercise leadership to devise a diplomatic solution to this threat. Washington outsourced our Korea policy to Beijing, rather than lead the quest for resolution.

Emboldened by the president’s quagmire in Iraq and preoccupation with the Middle East and Iran, Pyongyang called President Bush’s bluff, cavalierly quadrupled its nuclear inventory, advanced its intercontinental missile capability, and presumably continues to develop the suspected highly enriched uranium project;

While the long-range North Korean Taepo-dong missile fired in July 2006 fizzled within seconds, Pyongyang’s existing medium-range No-Dong missile could devastate Tokyo or the U.S. bases in Japan. North Korea’s 11,000 long-range artillery pieces on the DMZ and short- and medium-range missiles could destroy Seoul. The Pentagon has estimated that a million deaths could result from such a North Korean attack.

Pyongyang’s arrogance in defying China, South Korea, Japan, and the United States in firing the seven missiles July 4, 2006, was stunning. Despite categoric calls from Beijing, Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul to desist in its provocative behavior, Pyongyang on Oct. 9, 2006, conducted a weak underground nuclear test – defiant mockery of President Bush’s statements and policies. President Bush let Kim Jong Il get away with it and again erased another Clintonian red line.

By any measure, President Bush’s earlier policies toward North Korea were an abysmal failure. Instead of overcoming the crisis, the threat from North Korea rose sharply. This has been Katrina-like incompetence in protecting our national security.

Radicalization of American foreign policy

The Bush administration’s performance raises fundamental questions about the effectiveness of his radical approach to deal with international crises.

President Bush jettisoned the traditional approach of 60 years by American Republican and Democratic presidents. That approach encompassed efforts to construct a more stable, peaceful world through alliances with friendly nations, to construct an international order based on legal treaties and international laws, to strengthen the United Nations, to talk to and negotiate with enemies to reduce tension and bring those nations into the international order, and to defend America if attacked.

He junked international treaties such as the ABM treaty, rejected the Kyoto Protocol on the environment, the International Court of Justice, and the Geneva Conventions that protect our own military personnel. He disparaged the United Nations, taunted it, and used it cynically only when it served U.S. tactical purposes

As he has domestically, he also has sought to operate outside the constraints of international law.

For ideological reasons, he refused to talk with or negotiate with enemies, and only attempted to isolate them: Hussein’s Iraq, North Korea, Iran, and Syria, a sterile stance he continues regarding Iran and Syria.

Despite rhetoric to the contrary, the Bush administration has not appeared to know what diplomacy was – except as an arrogant device to pressure nations to bend their wills to ours. He has not seen diplomacy as a means to engage and defuse crisis, to negotiate satisfactory compromises, or to build a more stable and ordered world; to his administration, diplomacy is essentially weakness.

Now, as the disastrous war in Iraq interminably continues, he has softened his voice somewhat and talks about resolving issues through diplomacy, working with the United Nations and with allies. But the bottom line remains military might, even though he has now discovered that our military is not omnipotent. In fact, it is inadequate for the growing challenges President Bush has engendered abroad, and is inappropriate and not trained for the political challenges we face.

Our foes in Pyongyang – and Tehran and Damascus – know all this and today are repeatedly taking advantage of America’s weakened position in the world and its inept, ineffective leadership.

The geostrategic environment in east Asia

Washington’s preoccupation with Iraq and its indifference to Asia, especially its lack of leadership in resolving the nuclear threat, has in effect allowed China to become the dominant power on mainland Asia.

Washington’s ideological handling of the North Korean issue has alienated South Korea. Seoul has moved steadily into China’s orbit. Recent more adroit efforts with North Korea and the U.S. Free Trade Agreement with Seoul perhaps can help mitigate this strategic distancing, but our alliance with Seoul remains at risk.

In contrast, Tokyo under conservative leaders has moved closer and closer to Washington. Stymied politically on the abduction issue, Tokyo also has opted out of leadership in seeking a settlement with North Korea. We also have lost one of the most important components of a settlement – enormous Japanese funds for rebuilding North Korea’s economy.

Moreover, the relentless push by Washington to develop an expensive anti-missile system, coupled with failure earlier to engage on North Korea, is bolstering an emerging schism between China/both Koreas/mainland Asia on the one hand and the United States /Japan and possibly Taiwan on the other. This is not a healthy geostrategic arrangement for the future and risks American strategic pre-eminence in East Asia.

After squandering nearly six years and allowing North Korea repeatedly to cross what were formerly red lines, with the perception by Pyongyang of the weakness of America, the odds are increasingly against a satisfactory comprehensive agreement with North Korea to end the nuclear and missile threats.

At a minimum, the costs have spiraled as Kim Jong Il has merrily built up his nuclear and missile arsenal. For Kim Jong Il to have outsmarted President Bush, using his weakness to gain the advantage wherein he can scoff at Washington and our other friends in east Asia, is a stunning result of Washington’s preoccupation with Iraq and not tending to America’s interests in Asia.

A glimmer of hope

For years I have contended that only an epiphany in the White House might offer hope, in contrast to its heretofore dismal leadership.

Let me offer, finally, a glimmer of hope.

Only briefly in 2005, U.S. negotiator Ambassador Chris Hill engaged North Korea in the Six-Party Talks and concluded Sept. 19, 2005, an agreement in principal on a comprehensive solution. But, no sooner was it concluded than neo-cons in Washington and Pyongyang managed to undercut and destroy the atmosphere for implementation. Untimely sanctions for North Korean of $24 million for counterfeiting quashed hopes for progress on the much more dangerous nuclear issue.

After a year and a half hiatus caused by the $24 million, Ambassador Hill managed to at least convince the president and Secretary Condoleezza Rice that negotiations on a settlement might be worth the effort – perhaps to embellish an otherwise bleak Bush legacy.

On Feb. 13, after direct talks with his North Korean counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan and Ambassador Hill reached agreement to start to implement the goals of the Sept. 19, 2005, agreement.

The Six-Party meeting agreed to address three matters:

1)     Shut down and abandon the five-megawatt reactor that has been producing fissile plutonium. With this done, Pyongyang will no longer be able to produce plutonium for weapons.

2)     Account for the 50 kilos or so of plutonium that has been produced from the 8,000 rods. Has it been weaponized?

3)     Achieve transparency on the highly enriched uranium program. North Korea made many purchases at great expense. For what? This program must be abandoned.

Incomprehensibly, but in the same fashion as Treasury did at the time of the September 19, 2005, agreement, Treasury undermined Hill’s accomplishment. Hardline comments by Treasury regarding the $24 million plus snafus in delivering the funds stalled progress since.

Assuming delivery of the funds, resumption of the Six-Party Talks at the Hill level was scheduled for 30 days after the Feb. 13 meeting, by which time Pyongyang was expected to have shut-down the five megawatt reactor at Yongbyon. Pyongyang told Gov. Richardson April 11 that it was prepared to move quickly to shut down the reactor and invite the IAEA inspectors back as soon as the $24 million was received.

Also scheduled, within 60 days South Korea is expected to deliver 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil, and, there will be a foreign minister-level meeting on the overall process which Secretary Rice is expected to attend.

I enthusiastically applaud Ambassador Hill’s work (especially his successful negotiations in Washington), but, since Pyongyang has now processed significant quantities of plutonium and tested a nuclear weapon, we cannot return to the more felicitous situation President Bush inherited in 2001.


The central question is whether Pyongyang and Washington genuinely want a permanent resolution of the nuclear issue.

Will Kim Jong Il actually give up his nuclear arsenal, or is he now buying time to achieve a substantial nuclear capability whereby he expects the world will eventually accept the DPRK as a nuclear armed state?

Will the Cheney cabal abandon its insistence on regime change in Pyongyang and permit President Bush actually to conclude an agreement with North Korea achieving a major non-proliferation goal?

Because of the developments over the past six years, these questions are no longer answerable by me.

But, with a continuing, genuine American effort to negotiate to end these threats, China, South Korea, and Russia should be willing to join the United States and Japan in continuing to pressure Pyongyang to end its dangerous challenge. At a minimum, sustaining the current effort in good faith might rescue our alliances in East Asia and refurbish somewhat American leadership.

Without urgent and wise efforts, North Korea certainly will soon become a nuclear weapons power with an intercontinental ballistic delivery system.

Whatever the outcome, the Bush administration, for ideological reasons, has jeopardized the chance for resolution of North Korean threats and profoundly gambled the national interests and security of America and its allies in Northeast Asia. END

Desaix Anderson ’58, a 35-year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service, spent most of his career working on Asian issues. He was executive director of the Korea Energy Development Organization (KEDO) from 1997 to 2001. He teaches periodically at the Woodrow Wilson School. This essay is taken from his talk at the Class of ’58’s annual dinner April 12, 2007, at the Princeton Club of New York.