The only problem with Rumsfeld’s war plan is that no technology yet developed or imagined can penetrate the earth’s surface for more than about fifty feet, which is why cruise missiles could not eliminate Saddam Hussein on the night the Iraq invasion began (even if, that is, he was in the building targeted): later inspections revealed deep and heavily reinforced chambers designed by a German firm to withstand a direct hit from nuclear weapons. The only answer is larger and larger warheads, so that you target Kim Jong Il and wipe out a large urban neighbourhood, or maybe a city.
Before the occupation of Iraq dimmed their clairvoyant powers, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Co imagined that Kim Jong Il was running around in fear like an ant in a frying pan. Kim disappeared from public view for fifty days from mid-February 2003. When he surfaced again, ‘a senior Defense Department official’ (most likely Rumsfeld or Wolfowitz) told the Times: ‘Truly, if I’m Kim Jong Il, I wake up tomorrow morning and I’m thinking: “Have the Americans arrayed themselves on the peninsula now, post-Iraq, the way they arrayed themselves in Iraq?”‘ The US wanted to get its own forces in Korea out of range of the North’s artillery, the official said, and then increase reconnaissance and redeploy to ‘use precision targeting much more aggressively and much more quickly’. In pursuit of this policy, the Pentagon moved 24 long-range B-1 and B-52 bombers from bases in the US to Guam shortly before the invasion of Iraq, and installed several F-117 stealth fighter-bombers in bases in South Korea — they are ‘designed for quick strikes against targets ringed by heavy air defences’. Soon Wolfowitz was in Seoul, to announce a redeployment of US combat forces south of the Han River to get them out of harm’s way, and in passing to tell the world’s press that ‘North Korea is teetering on the brink of collapse.’
These provocative actions might well have instigated another Korean war, given what had just happened in Iraq; short of that, they shame the US in their combination of arrogance and ignorance. Loud in prattling about American sovereignty when it comes to the UN, these officials see no other country whose sovereignty they feel bound to respect. Furthermore, they don’t know what they’re talking about. Kim Jong Il’s birthday is 16 February, a national holiday, and long disappearances (particularly during the harsh winter) have been a trademark of his rule: he husbands his ‘quality time’, puttering around one of his villas in pyjamas and curlers, taking it easy and trying to tame his unruly hair. A better indication of the North’s attitude is its statement on 18 April: ‘The Iraqi war teaches a lesson that in order to prevent a war and defend the security of a country and the sovereignty of a nation it is necessary to have a powerful physical deterrent force’ (the euphemism North Korea has used since Kelly’s visit to suggest that it might possess nuclear weapons). Clearly, the North Koreans do not want war; in the same news release they signalled for the first time that they were willing to meet the US in multilateral talks: ‘If the US has a willingness to make a bold switchover in its Korea policy, we will not stick to any particular dialogue format.’ But it would be a mistake to assume that if war comes to them, they won’t go down fighting.
After Kelly’s visit, Bush’s strategy was to refuse to talk to the North about anything except how it would go about dismantling its nuclear programme — and to refuse bilateral talks even for this purpose. He offered no incentives in return. The requirement that any talks be multilateral, however, was aimed primarily at East Asian allies whom Bush perceived to be getting off the reservation. Republican Presidents consistently supported the dictators who ruled South Korea for three decades. In 1972, Nixon looked the other way when Park Chung Hee declared martial law and made himself President for life. The first visiting head of state to be invited to the Oval Office by Reagan was Chun Doo Hwan, who had killed hundreds, if not thousands, of the population of Kwangju on the way to his 1980 coup. Many specialists remain convinced that a Republican team jiggered the vote-counting computers during the 1987 Presidential election that brought Chun’s protÃ©gÃ©, Roh Tae Woo, to power.
In 2002, the Bush Administration seemed to think the candidate of the old ruling party, Lee Hoi Chang, had a lock on the next Presidential election; when he came to Washington in the autumn, the Administration treated him like a king. Instead, the Korean people elected Roh Moo Hyun, a courageous lawyer who had defended many dissidents against the Chun and Roh regimes. In his campaign, Roh had promised to establish greater independence and equality in the relationship with the US, and to continue his predecessor Kim Dae Jung’s policy of reconciliation with the North.
After Roh’s election, the American press was full of rhetoric about ‘anti-Americanism’ in the South, and scare stories about Korean ingrates wanting to kick US forces out of the country. ‘There are already signs of a deep distrust of Mr Roh in the Bush Administration,’ a reporter wrote just before Roh’s inauguration. ‘Kim Jong Il would probably attack our troops on the DMZ,’ a senior military analyst stated, ‘and then pick up the phone to Roh and say . . . “You must do something to stop the Americans.”‘ Robyn Lim, a ‘regional security expert’ at Nanzan University in Japan, declared that ‘the US alliance with South Korea is defunct.’ Around this time, advisers to Roh told US officials that if the US attacked the North without South Korean consent, that would destroy the alliance with the South. Another anti-American comment? Imagine how Americans would feel if a distant power wanted to make war on Canada without consulting Washington, while Canada had 10,000 embedded artillery guns trained on the US.
Roh was the first victor in a democratic election involving two major candidates to get close to a majority since 1971, when Park Chung Hee barely defeated Kim Dae Jung, in spite of all sorts of manipulation (Park then decided there would be no more elections). But his success occasioned remarkable petulance, even (or especially) from Americans who have had long experience in Korea. Richard Allen, a Republican point man on Korean affairs, wrote in the Times that Roh Moo Hyun’s election made for ‘a troubling shift’ in US relations with the ROK. Korean leaders, he said, had now ‘stepped into the neutral zone'; indeed, he added, they had even gone so far as to suggest that, in the current nuclear stand-off, Washington and Pyongyang should both make concessions: ‘The cynicism of this act constitutes a serious breach of faith.’ Maybe American troops should be withdrawn, Allen suggested, ‘now that the harm can come from two directions — North Korea and violent South Korean protesters’. In his opinion, the US ‘is responsible for much of Seoul‘s present security and prosperity’, the implication being that Koreans shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds them.
Other Americans wondered how Koreans dared to criticise the US when North Korea was ‘rattling a nuclear sword’. A Pentagon official explained: ‘It’s like teaching a child to ride a bike. We’ve been running alongside South Korea, holding onto its handlebars for 50 years. At some point you have to let go.’ Another military official in Seoul said when Roh was elected: ‘There is a real sense of mourning here’ (on his military base). Meanwhile, American business interests warned that troop withdrawals would cause investors to ‘seriously reconsider . . . their plans here’. It’s amazing that this combination of irritability and condescension should seem so unremarkable both to the people who make such comments, and (often) to the reporters who quote them. A recent Gallup Poll in South Korea showed an increase in the number of those who ‘disliked’ the United States from 15 per cent in 1994 to 53 per cent in 2003. When they were asked if they ‘liked’ the US 37 per cent said yes, as against 64 per cent in 1994.
Meanwhile, the Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, was planning his own breakthrough with North Korea. Negotiations for a summit with Kim Jong Il ‘had been conducted with the utmost secrecy’ over several months. After a secret visit to Pyongyang in August 2002, an adviser to Koizumi told him the North Koreans were receptive to anything Koizumi might want to discuss, including allegations that the North had in the past kidnapped Japanese citizens. Koizumi finally decided to tell the Bush Administration about his plans on 27 August 2002, when the Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage, was visiting Tokyo. Jonathan Pollack later wrote that ‘the absence of prior communication between Japan and the United States on the Prime Minister’s impending visit was remarkable enough in its own right. In the context of recent Intelligence findings about North Korea‘s [nuclear] enrichment activities, the Prime Minister’s last-minute disclosure . . . was even more stunning to American officials.’
Soon James Kelly was in Tokyo, where he spent three days tabling his evidence about the North’s nuclear-enrichment programme and trying to persuade Koizumi not to meet Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang. He failed. Koi-zumi flew off in mid-September, and Kim Jong Il took the unprecedented step of admitting that his regime had indeed kidnapped a number of Japanese, for espionage purposes. This caused outrage in Japan, and instead of a diplomatic breakthrough, Koizumi had a huge public relations problem on his hands. A few weeks later Kelly showed up in Pyongyang, to confront the North with this same ‘evidence’, which had the effect of derailing a further rapprochement between Pyongyang and Tokyo, and providing a weapon with which to pressure Roh Moo Hyun back into the fold.
I was in Seoul when Koizumi’s summit was announced, a day or two after John Bolton (the so-called ‘Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control’ in an Administration that has wrecked arms control) arrived to denounce Kim Jong Il personally and his regime more generally as evil, a menace to peace, the greatest security threat in the region etc. He did this again in the summer of 2003, as six-party talks on the North Korean problem were about to be held in Beijing. A brutal tyrant had North Korea in the grip of ‘a hellish nightmare’, he said, causing Armitage publicly to distance himself from Bolton‘s rhetoric. When a reporter from the Times asked Bolton what the Bush policy was towards the North, ‘he strode over to a bookshelf, pulled off a volume and slapped it on the table. It was called The End of North Korea , and was by an American Enterprise Institute colleague. “That,” he said, “is our policy.”‘
It is the President’s policy, too. From the beginning of his term, Bush has denounced Kim Jong Il as an untrustworthy madman, a ‘pygmy’, an ‘evildoer’. In a recent discussion with Bob Woodward, he blurted out, ‘I loathe Kim Jong Il,’ shouting and ‘waving his finger in the air’. He also declared his preference for ‘toppling’ the North Korean regime. (Maybe Bush’s resentments have something to do with the widespread perception that both leaders owe their position to Daddy.)
Shortly before the 50th anniversary of the end of the Korean War in 1953, the former Defense Secretary William Perry gave a harrowing interview to the Washington Post. He had just finished extensive consultations with senior officials in the Bush Administration, the South Korean President and senior officials in China. ‘I think we are losing control’ of the situation, he said: we are on a ‘path to war’. North Korea might soon have enough nuclear warheads to begin exploding them in tests or exporting them to terrorists. ‘The nuclear programme now underway in North Korea poses an imminent danger of nuclear weapons being detonated in American cities,’ he charged — an absurdity, since in retaliation the US would turn the North into ‘a charcoal briquette’ (Colin Powell’s expression). But then Perry got to the main point: Bush just won’t enter into serious talks with Pyongyang. ‘The reason we don’t have a policy on this, and we aren’t negotiating,’ he suggested, ‘is the President himself. I think he has come to the conclusion that Kim Jong Il is evil and loathsome and it is immoral to negotiate with him.’ Thus do an insecure, reclusive dictator and an insecure, impulsive foreign affairs naif hold the peace of the world in their hands. A less alarmist and, with luck, more accurate view came from Jae-Jung Suh, a scholar who knows as much about Korean security as anyone: ‘The fundamental difference between Clinton’s near success and Bush’s stalemate lies . . . in his refusal to end the enmity between the two nations.’
During the Iraq War Colin Powell gained control — perhaps temporarily — of Korea policy (the Vulcan Group of Pentagon civilian appointees complained that they were too distracted to block what he was doing) and persuaded Bush to allow Kelly to meet the North Koreans again, in Beijing in April, and then to participate in the six-party talks that China arranged at the end of August. David Sanger heralded these talks as a sign that the Administration had fundamentally altered its approach to the North. The mess in Iraq had enhanced Powell’s stature, another reporter wrote, and Bush had decided he needed help from UN allies and friends after all. Time will tell if Bush’s sudden desire for talks with the North and assistance from other countries really signifies a change; optimistic analysts said similar things when Powell took the Iraq problem to the UN in September 2002. If it does, and if Bush gets an agreement, he will only be back where the Clinton Administration was when he took over.
For more than a decade, the North Koreans have been trying to get American officials to understand that genuine give- and-take negotiations on their nuclear programme could be successful, based on the terms of a ‘package deal’ that they first tabled in November 1993. The North has steadfastly said it would give up its nukes and missiles in return for a formal end to the Korean War, a termination of mutual hostility, the lifting of numerous economic and technological embargoes, diplomatic recognition, and direct or indirect compensation for giving up very expensive programmes. Their willingness to do this was tested in 1994, when they froze their nuclear complex and kept it frozen under the eyes of UN inspectors for eight years.
Michael O’Hanlon and Mike Mochizuki recently revived what they describe in Crisis on the Korean Peninsula: How to Deal with a Nuclear North Korea (McGraw-Hill, 172 pp., $19.95, July, 0071431551) as a ‘grand diplomatic bargain': in return for a verifiable end to the North’s nuclear programmes, a ban on selling and testing its missiles, a steep cut in its conventional forces, outward-looking economic reforms and the beginnings of a dialogue about human rights in the North (or the lack of them), Washington should be ready to respond with a non-aggression pledge, a peace treaty that would finally end the Korean War, full diplomatic relations, and an aid programme of ‘perhaps $2 billion a year for a decade’ (that burden to be shared with America’s allies). They muster a host of nuanced, clever and convincing arguments in support of their strategy, with the ultimate goal ‘a gradual, soft, “velvet” form of regime change — even if Kim Jong Il holds onto power throughout the process’. We could have that, or we could have more dangerous drift in US policy, or a terrible war. Unfortunately, the choice is in the hands of a capricious Administration that listens to nobody, and a jumpy group in Pyongyang.
Many believe that the North Korean regime is among the most despicable on earth (I watched a former US Ambassador to Japan lecture President Roh on this point at a Blue House meeting on the day after Roh’s inauguration), and that for a tyrant like Kim Jong Il to get his hands on nuclear weapons would be a calamity, to be stopped at all costs. I would urge those who think this way to remember that 23 million people live in the North, that the country has had huge piles of chemical weapons for decades, and perhaps biological weapons, too; we have deterred them from using these weapons for half a century with our nuclear weapons, and if the North deters the warmongers among the Vulcan Group with those same weapons, that may be the best we can hope for.
The ‘North Korean problem’ is an outgrowth of a terrible history going all the way back to the collapse of the international system in the Great Depression and the world war that followed it, a history throughout which the Korean people have suffered beyond measure and beyond any American’s imagination. We could have solved the North Korean problem years ago but our leaders have chosen not to try (Clinton is an exception), and in this new century we are all the worse for it.
31 October 2003
Bruce Cumings teaches in the history department at the University of Chicago. His most recent book is North Korea: Another Country. This article appeared in The London Review of Books, December 4, 2003.