Target North Korea: a review

The last battleground of the Cold War is bizarre indeed, but quite rational in its fear of Uncle Sam.


Target North Korea

Pushing North Korea To The Brink Of Nuclear Catastrophe

By Gavan McCormack

Nation Books $13.95


Strange as it may seem, the people least worried about North Korea‘s nuclear weapons are the South Koreans. And, according to a survey carried out last year by a Seoul media group, the people most concerned about Pyongyang‘s nukes and missiles are Australians, who would seem to be well out of range.


This exemplary book by one of Australia‘s leading scholars of East Asia, who also has a gift for lucid writing, explains the conundrum. No one brings greater credentials on the region’s violent past century than Gavan McCormack, now a professor at the Australian National University, who has delved deeply into China, Japan and Korea and whose 1983 book Cold War, Hot War gave a disturbing new perspective on the 1950-53 Korean conflict.


He takes us on a quick trip back to the horrors of that “total war” such as the South Korean army’s mass execution of 1800 prisoners at Taejon, watched by US and Australian officers to explain why North Korea‘s bizarre regime is not faking or irrational in its fear of the United States. On several occasions the US came close to using nuclear weapons, effectively its monopoly at the time. Amid an air campaign that destroyed nearly all the North’s civil infrastructure and buildings, the US kept nuclear fears alive by sending lone bombers on simulated Hiroshima-type bomb runs over Pyongyang, the shattered Northern capital.


This crisis has been simmering since the early ’90s, when signs emerged that Pyongyang had decided the only way to stand up to the Americans was to possess nuclear weapons. After the 1991 Gulf War, others drew the same conclusion.


Washington pushed the issue. Fortunately, by 1994, both sides were willing to compromise on a nuclear freeze, in return for aid from the US and its allies. The South Koreans had said bluntly they would not allow a war in which, according to the US general in charge, 1 million people might have died, including 80,000 to 100,000 Americans. The North was in mourning for its founding father-figure, Kim Il-sung, and transferring the family leadership cult to his son, Kim Jong-il.


Suspicion festered. Pyongyang had shut down its known nuclear plants and put them under inspection, but the US thought it was keeping some bombs in a basement. The tamper-proof nuclear power reactors Washington had promised as centrepiece of the aid package never came. Then George Bush Jr arrived in office, talking of pre-emptive strikes, an axis of evil, and his “visceral hatred” of Kim Jong-il for his sybaritic lifestyle during a famine that killed more than a million countrymen.


When one of Bush’s top Asia hands, James Kelly, came calling in October 2002, North Korean officials allegedly confessed to be working on a nuclear deterrent in self-defence. McCormack wonders how much bluff was involved. Unluckily, he finished this book just before disclosures by the Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, which might have swayed him to believe Kelly. In return for North Korean missiles, Khan allegedly told interrogators, he gave Pyongyang blueprints and starter-kits for centrifuges to enrich uranium to bomb-grade, and also had been shown plutonium-based bombs hidden underground.


Treachery? A chance for Pyongyang to proliferate nuclear materials to any hard-currency buyers, as it has with its ballistic missiles? Or the porcupine quills of a cornered regime, abandoned by the Russian and Chinese switch from socialism, trapped in its rigid political cult, and now threatened by a cowboy US president?


McCormack sees no future for Kim’s bankrupt regime and its criminal, repressive ways. Ironically, for a system built on the pre-1945 struggle against Japanese rule, it has become a mirror of wartime Japanese imperial rule, in which a starving people were psyched into an all-consuming fixation on a deified leader, as resources were diverted to the military.


But he also sees panicked self-defence rather than aggression as the motivation. Use of nuclear weapons would be suicidal, conceivable only in desperate last defence. The root cause of the crisis, he thinks, is Korea‘s brutalised century of foreign occupation and division. The South Koreans, as they reaffirmed in their latest election, feel pity more than fear about their northern counterparts, and seem intent on pursuing their “sunshine” policy of maximum economic and social contact.


If and when the two Koreas reunify in the event of a swift, total collapse of the North and with a cost that might run to $US3.2 trillion ($4.6 trillion) the strategic map of East Asia will be remade. Will we see a genuine co-prosperity sphere? Will Japan have gone nuclear in the meantime, as its right stokes public anger over Pyongyang‘s kidnappings and spy-boat activity? Will US forces be dislodged to new bases in Australia?


Australians’ nervousness may come down, McCormack observes, to how Cold War constructs about Korea remain in our minds. The North Koreans hardly help, with their repeated images of goose-stepping soldiers, ascending rockets and white-gowned scientists crouched over antiquated dials. But we should be wary about where some of Bush’s people and their Canberra allies want to take us.


Any near-term fix will need the Chinese. Their relationship with Pyongyang is the biggest gap in McCormack’s book, either because so little has emerged about it, or perhaps because it is more tenuous than outsiders think.


What we can deduce from Kim’s latest visit to Beijing is that Beijing‘s communists believe he will be around for a while yet. Much of the trip was a time warp: Kim came by train, was driven to a state guesthouse in a vintage “Red Flag” saloon with curtained windows, and fed Peking duck at the same restaurant where his father was entertained. But Kim was also urged to visit South Korea, and pointedly shown around Tianjin, where he would have noticed the logos of Samsung, LG and other South Korean companies on the city’s endless factories. Sort yourselves out, the Chinese seem to be saying, too.



Hamish McDonald is the Sydney Morning Herald’s China correspondent and a coauthor of Masters of Terror: Indonesia‘s Military and Violence in East Timor. This review appeared in the SMH on May 29, 2004.

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