North korea’s nuclear-weapons programs confront us with hard choices. They create a sense of urgency to make another deal with the North, but experience tells us that any new agreement will not stem the flow of crises. However we handle the immediate crisis, we will do better if we do so while having in mind an end position — something we have not done since the end of the Korean War 50 years ago. The argument here is that there should be different leadership in Pyongyang as a step towards the political unification of the peninsula.
Short of that goal, the main possibility for getting rid of the North’s weapons is an agreed strategy between China and the United States. Unfortunately, there is no good evidence that this will happen.
The North’s weapons pose three immediate challenges. Combined with its long-range missiles, North Korea’s nuclear weapons could inflict devastation at long distances, including the United States. The threat to Japan is already rousing Tokyo to rearm. Worse still, the regime threatens to sell bombs to all comers, including terrorist organizations.
Kim Jong Il’s game
This crisis was set off by the North admitting that it had a secret nuclear-weapons program in violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework. Negotiated by the Clinton administration, the framework promised economic benefits in return for North Korea’s “freezing” its nuclear program. Since breaking the agreement, the Kim Jong Il regime has loudly proclaimed that the U.S. is planning to attack and has demanded a guarantee of security from us. Perhaps seeing our campaign against Iraq has persuaded Kim that he’s next. But it seems more likely that he has a different and overriding perspective.
It is to gain enough resources to stay in power. The system his father, Kim Il Sung, perfected combines extreme nationalism, severe internal repression, and a Stalinist economy. The economy’s dysfunctions have led to the deaths of upwards of a million people in the past decade. Kim Jong Il’s margin of survival comes from extortion. At its core are nuclear weapons — along with an implicit threat of collapse and resulting social chaos that would be costly to North Korea’s neighbors.
The weapons program apparently started in the late 1970s and has continued despite several international commitments to stop it, each violated. An obvious reason for starting the program was to change the military balance on the peninsula. Although the North’s conventional forces were then relatively stronger than they are now, the U.S. had both troops and nuclear weapons in the South. In 1992 we removed our weapons as part of a denuclearization agreement between North and South — one of several agreements violated by the North. The U.S. estimated that the North could soon make enough plutonium for some nuclear weapons — and might have done so already. The resulting confrontation led to the Agreed Framework in 1994, in which the North agreed to shut down its reactor and store the spent fuel (containing plutonium) under international inspection. We and others agreed to provide food and fuel, to normalize relations, and to build two large nuclear electric power reactors. (The American negotiators seemed to have assumed, not unreasonably in 1994, that the North’s regime would be gone by the time the reactors were finished.)
If nuclear weapons were so important in the North’s strategy, why did it agree to this freeze? Its principal source of aid, the Soviet Union, had disappeared in 1991. This, plus endemic mismanagement, threw the economy into a slump. Apparently the urgent need for food and fuel, the U.S. threat to attack North Korea’s nuclear plants, and perhaps arm-twisting from China did it. (The Chinese did not sweeten the deal with food; they cut their supply in 1994-95.) The North also presumably knew something we have come to believe only since: that it had enough plutonium for a few weapons. And we now know that at some point in the 1990s it started work on a separate, enriched uranium-based weapons program, evidently with Pakistani help.1
North Korea claims that we reneged on our commitments under the Agreed Framework, while the Clinton administration complained about the North’s behavior. In early 2001 President Bush suspended the dialogue underway at the end of the Clinton administration, but later that year he signaled a willingness to resume talks. We were still supplying food and fuel and participating in the nuclear reactor construction program when the North revealed its second nuclear program in October 2002. In case we (and the South Koreans and Japanese) hadn’t gotten the message, in April of this year the North’s representative told ours that North Korea had nuclear weapons and might demonstrate (i.e., test) or sell them. In July the North announced that it had completed separating plutonium from its stored fuel rods by June 30 and that weapons production had begun. In short, North Korea is a nuclear power; on its present trajectory it will become a greater one.
Kim must have been severely disappointed that the hopes engendered by Clinton’s diplomacy were interrupted by the harder line taken by Bush. His government says it wants a guarantee of security from us. Paranoia can’t be ruled out in that nearly hermetically sealed society, in which ignorance of the West is profound. Perhaps the implications of being called a member of the “axis of evil” rattled him — although anyone other than a paranoid would see the implausibility of the U.S. attacking without South Korean agreement, which is most unlikely to be given. As for the North starting a war, there is no good reason to regard Kim as suicidal.
The Pyongyang regime has long had an ambitious goal. Fanciful as it might seem to outsiders, it is to unify the peninsula under its control; this is the purpose that justifies the regime’s rigors. The U.S. is seen as the main obstacle, and no doubt Kim and company contemplate the political gap that has opened between the United States and South Korea with satisfaction.
But today Kim Jong Il is balancing fears — perhaps of a U.S. attack but surely for his fate from continued and perhaps worsening poverty. That fear is balanced against the perceived danger of opening the economy — with the latter one dominating. Since his economy can’t produce many exports and with serious economic liberalization seen as too dangerous, what’s left is outside help induced by threats. A
1 A North Korean defector’s report puts cooperation with Pakistani nuclear engineers back to 1994. Henry Sokolski, “Beyond the Agreed Framework: The DPRK’s Projected Atomic Bomb Making Capabilities, 2002-09” (Nonproliferation Education Center, December 3, 2002).
2 Nam Sung-wook, “Feeding the People: Possible Agricultural Normalization in North Korea,” East Asian Review (Autumn 2002).
3 Marcus Noland (in Avoiding the Apocalypse, Institute for International Economics, 2000) makes the point that the failure is (even) more one of industrial than agricultural production. Had the North been able to produce farm equipment, fertilizers, and goods for export, food would have been forthcoming.
4 Human Rights Watch, “The Invisible Exodus: North Koreans in the People’s Republic of China” (November 2002).
5 Selig Harrison, in Korean End Game (Princeton University Press, 2002), quotes Hwang Chang Yop, the most senior defector from the North, as attributing to Kim Jong Il a desire for economic reforms but also a belief that an opening would reveal all of the killings, much worse than in China or Vietnam.
6 Marcus Noland, “The Economics of National Reconciliation” (Institute for Corean-American Studies, 2000).
7 Marcus Noland, “Famine and Reform in North Korea” (Institute for International Economics, July 2003).
8 The German model is flawed. West Germany made mistakes that do not have to be repeated, such as decreeing that wages in the East would move immediately to the West German level despite 60 percent lower worker productivity.
9 A notional example is a standby loan for the contingency of a North Korean collapse of $100 billion supplied by a consortium including the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, the U.S. Export-Import Bank, and other lending agencies.
10 “A Human Face on North Koreans’ Plight,” New York Times (August 21, 2002). Mongolia is a possible way station for them. The number of North Korean refugees reaching the South has grown from 150 in 1999 to 1,200 in 2002 and might total 2,000 in 2003, according to the Asahi Shimbun (June 18, 2003). However, China has warned Mongolia not to become a haven for North Koreans.
11 These large power reactors, being built by the Korean Energy Development Organization (KEDO) are financed by Japan and South Korea (with the U.S. having regulatory authority). They would create large amounts of plutonium usable in weapons. Moreover, such large concentrations of electricity generation would be practically unusable without also building a more robust North Korean electricity grid.