Wrong Again:

In June 1994, Bill Clinton came close to launching a ‘pre-emptive strike’ against North Korea’s nuclear reactors at Yongbyon, about sixty miles north of Pyongyang. Then, at the last minute, Jimmy Carter got North Korea to agree to a complete freeze on activity at the Yongbyon complex, and a Framework Agreement was signed in October 1994. The Republican Right railed against this for the next six years, until George W. Bush brought a host of the Agreement’s critics into his Administration, and they set about dismantling it, thus fulfilling their own prophecy and initiating another dangerous confrontation with Pyongyang. The same folks who brought us the invasion of Iraq and a menu of hyped-up warnings about Saddam Hussein’s weapons have similarly exaggerated the North Korean threat: indeed, the second North Korean nuclear crisis began in October 2002, when ‘sexed-up’ intelligence was used to push Pyongyang against the wall and make bilateral negotiations impossible.


The complacent US public seems unperturbed by Bush’s failure so far to find a single WMD in Iraq, even if the much more disputatious British public was immediately up in arms (so to speak) about the remarkable Intelligence failures that were used to justify the invasion. To grasp the full extent of this phenomenon one needs to be an indefatigable reader of America‘s best newspapers and best investigative reporters (all two of them). Take a long and detailed article by Judith Miller, buried on page 12 of the New York Times: only in the 30th paragraph of 34 do we learn that prewar American Intelligence on Iraqi weapons sites was often ‘stunningly wrong’. In the words of a senior US officer:


The teams would be given a packet, with pictures and a tentative grid . . . They would be told: ‘Go to this place. You will find a McDonald’s there. Look in the fridge. You will find French fries, cheeseburgers and Cokes.’ And they would go there, and not only was there no fridge and no McDonald’s, there was never even a thought of ever putting a McDonald’s there. Day after day it was like that.


This officer’s ‘MET Alpha’ group was sent to Basra to investigate equipment considered ‘highly suspicious’ by the Iraq Survey Group in US Intelligence, which thought that it had found possible components for nuclear weapons. What the team in fact discovered was ‘a handful of large, industrial-scale vegetable steamers’, their crates clearly and accurately marked as such in Russian.


There has been even less public scrutiny of Intelligence claims about the capabilities of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. For more than a decade, the CIA has maintained that Korea probably has one or two atomic bombs but no more than that, because the Koreans could not have reprocessed more than 11 or 12 kilograms of plutonium — the maximum amount they could have obtained from their reactor in 1989. This conclusion was first included in a National Intelligence Estimate in November 1993, after all the government experts on North Korea had been gathered together and asked to put their hands up if they thought the North had atomic bombs. Just over half raised their hands. Those in the slim majority assumed that the North Koreans had reprocessed every last gram of the fuel removed in 1989, and had fashioned an implosion device that would detonate this plutonium — no easy task. Still, the CIA referred only to nuclear ‘devices’, not bombs.


Every year since then the CIA Director has told Congress that ‘the chances are better than 50:50’ that North Korea has one or two bombs (not devices), and newspapers have routinely reported this assumption as fact. Yet in 1996, nuclear experts at the Livermore and Hanford laboratories reduced their estimate of how much fuel North Korea possessed to less than the amount needed for a single bomb: the North, they concluded, could only have seven or eight kilograms of fuel, whereas ‘it takes ten kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium to fabricate a first bomb,’ and eight or nine kilograms for subsequent ones. According to David Albright, one of the best and most reliable independent experts, ‘the most credible worst-case estimate’ is that the North may have between 6.3 and 8.5 kg of reprocessed plutonium. In other words, the CIA’s educated guess, endlessly repeated in the media, appears to have been mistaken. A less obvious consequence of this mistake has been its role in strengthening the North’s position in negotiations with the US.


The New York Times White House reporter David Sanger has published so many ‘scoops’ from US Intelligence that some of his colleagues just call him ‘Scoop’. Unfortunately, quite a few have been wrong. Sanger has been particularly good at omitting all the CIA’s qualifications about the one or two nuclear devices the North might or might not possess. In August 1998, the front page of the Times carried his story to the effect that Intelligence had located a huge underground facility where North Korea was secretly making nuclear weapons; this caused a predictable furor in the media. When the North (unprecedentedly) allowed the US military to inspect this site only to find it empty, and with no traces of radioactive material, the news barely made the headlines.


On 20 July this year, the New York Times led with a Sanger article (co-written with Thom Shanker) again claiming that US Intelligence had found ‘a second, secret plant for producing weapons-grade plutonium’. A senior Administration official told the Times that this information was ‘very worrisome, but still not conclusive’. The evidence consisted of ‘elevated levels of krypton-85’, a gas given off in the production of plutonium, in an area far removed from the Yongbyon complex where the North maintains its only declared reprocessing facility. The levels of krypton-85 were said to indicate a second, undeclared nuclear facility. South Korean experts immediately denied the story, and David Albright declared it was not in fact possible to pinpoint a hidden or secret location merely by detecting raised levels of krypton-85. Besides, the North can enrich uranium (as opposed to plutonium) at many sites, in small enough amounts for krypton-85 emissions not to rise above their normal level. In short, there appears to be no second facility.


The real pay-off in the Sanger/Shanker article came, as it had in Miller’s article, in the closing paragraphs, which described the difficulties of a pre-emptive strike on the North’s nuclear installations, given their recent dispersal to ‘any number of other locations’. The Times claimed, for the first time in my daily reading, that the North had as many as 15,000 ‘underground military- industrial sites’, and a history of ‘constructing duplicate facilities’ such that it may well have ‘multiple facilities for every critical aspect of its national security infrastructure’. These facts have been known to experts for some time, and because they make it a bit tricky to launch pre-emptive strikes, the Bush Administration has been planning instead for a series of massive attacks against the North, using nuclear weapons.


The journalist who has most consistently challenged the Intelligence estimates coming out of the Bush Administration has been Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker . In the issue of 27 October he described how senior officials demand access to raw Intelligence before it has been vetted for accuracy and reliability by the CIA and other agencies, a process known as ‘stovepiping’. This means that Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz judge the veracity of reports from the field themselves (or with their staffers) without the information having first been ‘subjected to rigorous scrutiny’, and then rush the most damning reports into speeches, such as those intended to make the case for war in Iraq. Cheney has been particularly active, visiting the CIA, browbeating analysts and demanding access to raw information. In August 2002 he claimed publicly that Saddam ‘continues to pursue a nuclear weapon’.


CIA estimates in the 1990s about North Korean weaponry, however questionable and flawed, seem both careful and modest compared to the exaggerations of the Bush Administration and its emissary to Pyongyang, James Kelly. Coming into office when the CIA’s ‘one or two devices’ estimate was nearly a decade old, Bush contrived to hype the threat, while at the same time downplaying the idea that its size made a difference: the North might have two or six or eight atomic bombs, but that didn’t constitute a crisis. Rather, Saddam Hussein — whom we now know to have been disarmed by years of UN inspections — was so much more dangerous as to justify a preventive war. The result was chaos as far as US policy was concerned, and free rein for North Korean hardliners to move ahead with producing nuclear weapons.


Bush resisted holding high-level talks with Pyongyang for more than a year after assuming office, although the Clinton Administration had left on the table a tentative agreement to buy out all of the North’s medium and long-range missiles. When Bush finally dispatched Kelly to Pyongyang in October 2002, Kelly accused the North of having a second nuclear programme, to enrich uranium and build more bombs by that method. According to Kelly, his counterparts at first denied that they had such a programme, then admitted that they were developing not only an enriched-uranium bomb, but more powerful weapons as well. This news would have hit the press like a bombshell, but Bush delayed its release until he got his resolution enabling war in Iraq through Congress. All we have to go on for this strange episode is what Kelly chose to tell the press.


Within days of Kelly’s return, Administration officials told the New York Times that the 1994 Agreement was dead. Then they cut off the supply of heavy heating oil that Washington had been providing as interim compensation under the Agreement. Pyongyang quickly announced that the Agreement had collapsed, withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, kicked out the UN inspectors, removed the seals and closed-circuit cameras from the Yongbyon complex, regained control of 8000 fuel rods that had been encased for eight years, and restarted their reactor. (Basically, this was a lock-step recapitulation of what they had done in 1993-94 in order to get Clinton’s attention.) The North hinted darkly that the hostile policies of the Bush Administration left it no choice but to develop ‘a powerful physical deterrent force’. In spite of all this, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the Administration continued to downplay its own evidence that the North now had not one but two bomb programmes and refused to call the situation a ‘crisis’. This clearly confused the North: ‘When we stated we don’t have a nuclear weapon, the USA [said] we do have it,’ one DPRK general told a Russian visitor, ‘and now when we are [saying] we created nuclear weapons, the USA [says] we’re just bluffing.’


What happened in October 2002 is that both Governments, according to Jonathan Pollack, a knowledgable specialist writing in the Naval War College Review , ‘opted to exploit the intelligence for political purposes’, and so to unravel ‘close to a decade of painfully crafted diplomatic arrangements designed to prevent full-scale nuclear weapons development on the Korean Peninsula.’ Pollack found that Bush’s Intelligence estimates ‘offered more definitive claims’ about the North’s nuclear capabilities than previous reports had done, and seemed to fudge the date when the CIA discovered evidence that the North had imported enriched-uranium technology — this had happened in 1997 or 1998, and the Clinton Administration had fully briefed Bush and Co on the matter. Yet Kelly and others sat on the evidence for 18 months, then encouraged the press to assume that the programme had just been uncovered. Kelly never presented ‘specific or detailed evidence to substantiate’ his claims, either in Pyongyang or to the press when he returned home, nor did he ask his DPRK interlocutors for explanation or clarification of whatever evidence he may have brought with him.


The American press immediately accepted Kelly’s judgment that the North Koreans had failed to honour their commitments, and the enriched-uranium programme took on a life of its own in the US media. In November 2002, the CIA reported that a gas centrifuge facility for enriching uranium was ‘at least three years from becoming operational’ in the DPRK; once up and running, however, it might provide fissile material for ‘two or more weapons per year’. Yet Kelly told Congress in March 2003 that the facility (assuming there is one: US Intelligence can’t find it) was probably ‘a matter of months’ away from producing weapons-grade uranium. Left unmentioned in any press articles I have come across is the usefulness of an enriched-uranium programme to the Light-Water Reactors (LWRs) that were being built to compensate the North for freezing their graphite reactors in 1994. The virtue of the LWRs from the American standpoint had been that their fuel would have to come from outside the DPRK, thus establishing a dependency that could easily be monitored; but this was precisely what the independent-minded North thought was wrong with the LWRs. As Pollack put it, ‘it seems entirely plausible that Pyongyang envisioned the need for an indigenous enrichment capability’ since ‘the fuel requirements for a pair of thousand-megawatt [light water] reactors are substantial and open-ended.’ Furthermore, to enrich uranium to a level where it is useful as LWR fuel is much easier than to refine it further, to create fissile fuel. But the Bush Administration smothered all discussion of this issue with its widely ballyhooed claims of a second nuclear bomb programme.


Many experts, including former Clinton Administration officials, believe that North Korea clearly cheated by importing this technology. They do not accept the argument that the North had a clear interest in enriching uranium for the LWRs; they differ over whether it merely experimented with the imported technology, or was (and is) hell-bent on a ‘nuclear enrichment programme’ — in other words, if the North is trying to build a uranium bomb. If the imports from Pakistan did begin in 1997 or 1998 and were intended to be used in a bomb, the reason may have been that hardliners in Pyongyang disliked the slow pace at which Washington was implementing the commitments it had made in the 1994 Agreement (i.e. to normalise relations with the North and refrain from threatening it with nuclear weapons). Or Kim Jong Il may have chosen to play a double game, continuing to honour the Agreement while developing a clandestine weapons programme. Kim ascended to supreme power in September 1998, on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the regime, and a new weapons programme would have shored up his support among the military.


The Clinton Administration officials, however, believe that whatever the North planned to do, its enrichment technology could have been shut down if the missile deal had been completed and relations between the US and the DPRK normalised. That was essentially what they told the incoming Bush Administration. By dithering for 18 months, only to use the information in order to confront the North Koreans in October 2002, the Bush people turned a soluble problem into a major crisis, in which neither side had any room to back away. Now the North may have embarked on a nuclear weapons programme far beyond the CIA’s ‘one or two devices’, which would be a catastrophic defeat for American diplomacy; and no one — in Washington, Pyongyang, Beijing or Moscow — really knows what Bush wants from his Korea policy.


One interpretation of Kelly’s behaviour in Pyongyang is that he pre-emptively used a bunch of Intelligence reports (ones never fully released to the media) to make sure there could be no diplomatic progress — his visit came in the wake of Bush’s new doctrine of pre-emption, announced in September 2002. The danger now derives from a combination of typical and predictable North Korean cheating and provocation, long-standing US plans to use nuclear weapons in the earliest stages of a new Korean war, and the Bush Doctrine. This last conflates existing plans for nuclear pre-emption in a crisis initiated by the North — a standard operating procedure for the US military for decades — with an apparent determination to attack states like North Korea simply because they have or want to have nuclear weapons like those the US still amasses by the thousand. As if to make this completely clear, someone in the White House leaked Presidential Decision Directive 17 in September 2002, which listed North Korea as a prime target for pre-emption.


Donald Rumsfeld made matters worse in the spring of 2003 by demanding revisions in the basic war plan for Korea (‘Operations Plan 5030’). The strategy, according to insiders who have read the plan, is ‘to topple Kim’s regime by destabilising its military forces’, who would then overthrow him and bring about a ‘regime change’. The plan was pushed, according to an article in US News and World Report , ‘by many of the same Administration hard-liners who advocated regime change in Iraq‘. Unnamed senior officials considered elements of this new plan to be ‘so aggressive that they could provoke a war’. Short of attacking or trying to bring about a military coup, Rumsfeld and Co wanted the US military to ‘stage a weeks-long surprise military exercise, designed to force North Koreans to head for bunkers and deplete valuable stores of food, water and other resources’. This is oddly reminiscent of 1950, when North Korea announced a long military exercise along the 38th parallel, mobilising some 40,000 troops. In the middle of the exercise, several divisions suddenly veered south and in three days took Seoul; only a handful of the highest officials knew that the summer exercises were the prelude to an invasion. Half a century later comes Rumsfeld, with his provocative plans, a man who according to two eyewitnesses was surprised to learn when he joined the Pentagon that the US still had nearly 40,000 troops in Korea.


In 1958, the US began to deploy hundreds of nuclear warheads, atomic mines, artillery shells and air-dropped nukes in South Korea. They remained there until 1991, when Bush the Elder withdrew battlefield nuclear weapons from around the world — which did not end the nuclear threat to the North, since Trident submarines can glide silently up to its coast any day of the week. Kim Il Sung’s response to the initial nuclear deployments of the late 1950s was to build as widely and as deeply underground as possible, on the assumption, he admitted quite openly, that anything visible above ground would be wiped out in a war. I have seen one nuclear blast shelter, at the bottom of a very steep escalator in a Pyongyang subway station, where three gigantic blast doors, each about two feet thick, are recessed into the wall. Hans Blix was astonished, when he conducted the first UN inspections of the Yongbyon nuclear site in 1992, to find ‘two cavernous underground shelters’, access to which required ‘several minutes to descend by escalator’. They were built, Blix was told, in case the complex was attacked with nuclear weapons. US commanders in the South believe nearly the entire military apparatus of this garrison state is now ensconced underground. Since this, as I said earlier, makes pre-emptive strikes on installations rather tricky, Rumsfeld has been planning instead for a pre-emptive strike on Yongbyon followed by a series of massive nuclear strikes against multiple targets.


The vehicles for these strikes are new missiles that are said to penetrate deep underground before detonating a ‘small’ nuclear explosive. Earlier this year Rumsfeld sought a Congressional repeal of the decade-old ban on the manufacture of small nuclear weapons. According to the New York Times, Congressional proponents, mainly Republicans, argued that ‘low-yield’ nuclear warheads ‘could be used to incinerate chemical or biological weapons installations without scattering deadly agents into the atmosphere’. But the Bush Administration believed ‘low-yield’ nukes would be more effective in deterring ’emerging nuclear powers like North Korea and Iran‘. These new earth-penetrating weapons would have hardened casings (probably made of depleted uranium) enabling them ‘to crash through thick rock and concrete’. Opponents in the Senate argued that repealing the Bill would signal the end of efforts at non-proliferation: ‘We’re driving recklessly down the road that we’re telling other people not to walk down,’ the Michigan Senator Carl Levin said.




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