Copyright 1988-2005
USF Center
for the Pacific Rim
The Occasional Paper Series of the USF Center for the Pacific Rim ::
Pacific Rim Report No. 35, June 2004
Preemptive Intelligence: How the Bush Administration Derailed Korea Policy
by Bruce Cumings

Bruce Cumings delivered this paper as the Keynote Address at a one-day international conference on "North Korea's Nuclear Crisis" on April 2, 2004. The conference was sponsored by the Center's Kiriyama Chair for Pacific Rim Studies and cosponsored by The Asia Foundation, the Institute of East Asian Studies, UC Berkeley, the Intercultural Institute of California, and the USF School of Law's Center for Global Law and Justice

Bruce Cumings is the Norman and Edna Freehling Professor of History at the University of Chicago, where he teaches international history, modern Korean history, and East Asian political economy. He received his B.A. from Denison University in 1965 and his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1975. He has taught at Swarthmore College (1975-77), the University of Washington (1977-86), and Northwestern University (1994-97). He is the author of the two-volume study, The Origins of the Korean War (1981, 1990), War and Television (1992), Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History (1997), Parallax Visions: Making Sense of American East Asian Relations (1999), North Korea: Another Country (2003) and is the editor of the modern volume of the Cambridge History of Korea (forthcoming). He is a frequent contributor to The Nation, Current History, Le Monde Diplomatique, and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1999 and is the recipient of fellowships from the NEH, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Center for Advanced Study at Stanford. He was also the principal historical consultant for the Thames Television/PBS 6-hour documentary, Korea: The Unknown War.  

We gratefully acknowledge The Kiriyama Chair for Pacific Rim Studies at the USF Center for the Pacific Rim that has made possible the publication of this issue of Pacific Rim Report.

The words 'North Korea' and 'nuclear crisis' have been paired together for well over a decade, but it may be forgotten that the first such crisis nearly led to a devastating second Korean War in June 1994, when President Bill Clinton came within an inch of launching a 'preemptive strike' against the North's nuclear reactors located at Yongbyon, about sixty miles north of Pyongyang. An intervention at the last minute by former president Jimmy Carter yielded a complete freeze on the Yongbyon complex, however, something codified in the 'Framework Agreement' of October 1994. The Republican right railed against that agreement for the next six years until George W. Bush ushered a host of these same critics into his administration, whereupon they set about dismantling the 1994 settlement, thus achieving their own self-fulfilling prophecy and detonating another dangerous go-round with Pyongyang. The same folks who brought us the invasion of Iraq and a menu of hyped-up threats about Saddam Hussein's 'weapons of mass destruction' have similarly exaggerated the North Korean threat: indeed, the second nuclear crisis with North Korea began in October 2003 with 'sexed up' intelligence that was used politically to push Pyongyang to the wall and make bilateral negotiations impossible.

If American adversaries are routinely caricatured in the US media, the murky business of 'intelligence' is almost completely mystified. The complacent American public seems unperturbed by Bush's failure so far to find a single 'weapon of mass destruction' in Iraq, even if the much more interested and disputatious British public was immediately up in arms, so to speak, about the remarkable intelligence failures that preceded and were used to justify the British-American invasion. To try and plumb the bottom of this phenomenon one needs be an indefatigable reader of our 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:1 only in the 30th paragraph of this 34-paragraph article do we learn that prewar American intelligence on Iraqi weapons sites was often "stunningly wrong," according to a senior US officer:

"The teams would be given a packet and a tentative grid,' he said. 'They would be told: 'Go the this place. You will find a McDonald's there. Look in the fridge. You will find French fries, cheeseburger [sic] 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 MacDonald's there. Day after day it was like that [in Iraq]."

This officer's 'MET Alpha' group was sent to Basra to investigate "highly suspicious equipment" identified by the "Iraq Survey Group" of US intelligence, which might well be components for nuclear weapons. The team found "a handful of large, industrial-scale vegetable steamers," their crates clearly and accurately marked as such in Russian.

Far less public scrutiny has come to intelligence claims about the capabilities of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). For more than a decade the CIA has maintained that North Korea probably has one or two atomic bombs but no more than that, because they could not have reprocessed more than 11 or 12 kilograms of plutonium--the maximum amount removed from their reactor in 1989. This conclusion was first included in a National Intelligence Estimate in November 1993 and was arrived at by gathering all the government experts on North Korea together and asking for a show of hands as to how many thought the North had made atomic bombs. A bit over half raised their hands. Those in the slim majority assumed that the North Koreans had reprocessed every last gram of the fuel they removed in 1989, and that they had done the arduous work of fashioning an implosion device that would detonate this plutonium. Still, the CIA referred only to nuclear 'devices', not bombs. After this vote the CIA Director annually told Congress that "the chances are better than 50/50" that the North had one or two bombs (not devices), and newspapers routinely reported as fact this presumed Korean arsenal of one or two nuclear weapons. Yet in 1996 nuclear experts at the Livermore and Hanford labs reduced their estimate of how much fuel the North possessed to less than that needed for a single bomb; they thought the North could only have seven or eight kilograms of fuel, yet "it takes ten kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium to fabricate a first bomb," and eight or nine kilograms for subsequent ones. David Albright, one of the best and most reliable independent experts, also concluded independently that "the most credible worst-case estimate" is that the North may have 6.3 to 8.5 kilograms of reprocessed plutonium.2 In other words the CIA's 50/50 educated guess, replicated endlessly in the media, appears to be mistaken. Less obvious was its role in strengthening the North's position in negotiations with the US

Bush White House reporter David Sanger of the Times made his career with so many 'scoops' from US intelligence that some of his colleagues just call him 'Scoop'. Unfortunately not a few have been wrong; Sanger was particularly good at dropping all the CIA's qualifications about the one or two nuclear devices the North might or might not possess. In August 1998 the New York Times front-paged Sanger's story that US intelligence had located a huge underground facility where North Korea was secretly making nuclear weapons; this caused another predictable furor in the media. By the time the North (in quite unprecedented fashion) allowed the US military to inspect this site many months later only to find it empty, with no traces of radioactive material ever having been there, the news of this gross intelligence failure barely made the headlines.3

On July 19, 2003 the Times led the news 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 Bush administration official told the Times that this information was "very worrisome, but still not conclusive." The evidence for this assertion consisted of "elevated levels of krypton 85," a gas given off when nuclear fuel is converted to plutonium; the krypton was in regions quite removed from the Yongbyon complex where the North maintains its only declared reprocessing facility, so it must have indicated a second, undeclared nuclear facility. South Korean experts immediately denied this story, and David Albright said it was inherently impossible to pinpoint a hidden or secret location merely from detecting elevated levels of krypton 85. Meanwhile the North can do uranium (as opposed to plutonium) enrichment at many spots in the country, in small enough amounts that krypton 85 emissions would not rise above their normal environmental level.4 In short, there appears to be no second facility.

The real payoff in the Sanger/Shanker article was again on the inner pages in the last paragraphs, where the problem became not a second plutonium facility, but the inherent difficulties if Bush were to mount a preemptive strike on the North's nuclear installations, given their recent dispersal to "any number of other locations." The Times also, for the first time in my daily reading, said 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."5 Such facts have been known to experts for some time, but they pose a bit of a problem for preemptive strikes, as we will see, leading the Bush administration to plan instead for a series of massive attacks against the North, using nuclear weapons.

Since the September 11th terrorist attacks one American reporter, Seymour Hersh, has consistently challenged the intelligence estimates coming out of the Bush administration, providing any number of genuine 'scoops' in The New Yorker. In a recent article he documented how senior Bush administration officials demanded access to raw and unverified intelligence before its vetting for accuracy and reliability by the usual processes in the CIA and other agencies, a process called 'stovepiping' whereby Dick Cheney or Don Rumsfeld or Paul Wolfowitz judged the veracity of reports from the field by themselves (or with their own staffers), and then rushed the most damning information into speeches laying out the cassus belli for Iraq.

Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, Dick Cheney's chief of staff, runs a kind of shadow foreign policy outfit from the Vice-President's office. He was one of the loudest antagonists of Bill Clinton's foreign policy in the 1990s, but his record for accuracy was, to say the least, questionable. He was a prime mover behind the so-called 'Cox Report', issued by a Congressional committee in May 1999. It blamed "the Clinton-Gore administration" for "the most serious breach of national security since Julius and Ethel Rosenberg betrayed our atomic secrets to the Soviet Union,"6 charging that a shy and retiring Los Alamos physicist, Wen Ho Lee, had given away the entire US nuclear arsenal to China. The purloined secrets included "classified information on seven US thermonuclear warheads, including every currently deployed thermonuclear warhead in the US ballistic missile arsenal."7 Dr. Lee had not at that point been charged with any crime, and China has yet to deploy a single warhead of American design--stolen, copied or otherwise. This diabolical scheme presumably exposed in the Cox report cast suspicion not just on Dr. Lee and China (and also Taiwan, where Dr. Lee was born), but on every visitor from China, every Chinese or Chinese-American professor or student in a physics Ph.D. program, and really on every American of Chinese extraction no matter how many generations they may have lived in this country. Yet within months Mr. Libby and his fellow Republicans had walked away from the implications of "one of the most stunning documents ever to come from the US Congress."8 They lost interest in doing anything about the Cox Report, and in July 1999 the evil Bill Clinton lifted longstanding clearances on the export to China of powerful American computers--a measure applauded by Republican centrists and a would-be presidential candidate named George W. Bush. Some years later Dr. Wen Ho Lee was cleared of doing anything more than downloading some classified materials to his portable computer.

Highly-Enriched Uranium, or Highly Enriched Intelligence?

CIA estimates in the 1990s about North Korean weaponry, however questionable and flawed, seem careful and modest compared to how the Bush administration and its emissary to Pyongyang, James Kelly, have exaggerated the North's atomic prowess. Coming into office with the CIA's "one or two devices" estimate nearly a decade old, Bush contrived to hype the North Korean threat beyond any previous estimates, while downplaying the very idea that it made a difference: the North might have two or six or eight atomic bombs, but that did not constitute a crisis. Instead Saddam Hussein--whom we now know to have been disarmed by years of United Nations inspections--was so much more dangerous as to justify a preventive war. The result was chaos in policy and free rein for North Korean hardliners to move ahead with nuclear weapons.

Bush resisted high-level talks with Pyongyang for more than a year after assuming office, in spite of the outgoing Clinton administration having left on the table a tentative agreement to buy out all of the North's medium and long-range missiles. When Bush finally dispatched Mr. Kelly to Pyongyang in October 2003, Kelly accused the North of having a second nuclear program, to enrich uranium and build more atomic bombs. According to Kelly, his counterparts at first denied that they had such a program, then reversed themselves to admit that they not only were developing 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 safely got his Iraq war-enabling resolution through Congress (as one US official put it at the time, "the timing of this [North Korean] thing is terrible)."9 All we have to go on from this strange episode is what Mr. Kelly chose to tell the press about his new intelligence evidence, and what he chose to say about what the North Koreans allegedly told him.

Within days of Kelly's return, administration officials told the Times that the 1994 Agreed Framework was dead,10 and shortly thereafter they cut off the heavy heating oil that Washington had been providing as interim compensation under the 1994 agreement. In quick response, Pyongyang declared that the 1994 agreement had collapsed and proceeded to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, kick out UN inspectors, remove the seals and closed-circuit cameras from the Yongbyon complex, regain control of 8000 fuel rods that had been encased for eight years, and re-start their reactor. (Basically this was a lock-step recapitulation in a few short weeks of what they had done in 1993-94 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 Bush administration continued to downplay its own evidence that the North now had not one but two bomb programs, and refused to call the situation a "crisis." This clearly befuddled the North: as one DPRK general told a Russian visitor, "When we stated we don't have a nuclear weapon, the USA [said] we do have it, and now when we are [saying] we created nuclear weapons, the USA [says] we're just bluffing."11

What happened in October 2002 is that both governments, in the words of a knowledgeable specialist who spent most of his career at the RAND Corporation, "opted to exploit the intelligence for political purposes." And thus began the unraveling "of close to a decade of painfully crafted diplomatic arrangements designed to prevent full-scale nuclear weapons development on the Korean Peninsula. By year's end both countries had walked away from their respective commitments under the US-DPRK Agreed Framework of October 1994."12 RAND veteran Jonathan Pollack is not the sort of analyst who usually departs from inside-the-Beltway judgments, but he found that Bush's intelligence estimates "offered more definitive claims" about the North's nuclear capabilities than previous intelligence reports had, and seemed to fudge the date when the CIA discovered evidence of the North importing enriched-uranium technology--it happened in 1997 or 1998, and the Clinton administration had fully briefed the incoming Bush people in 2000-2001 on the evidence. Yet Kelly and others in the Bush administration sat on this evidence for 18 months, and then left the impression that the program had just been uncovered in the summer of 2002. 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 were big cheats who had failed to honor their agreements, and the highly-enriched uranium program took on a life of its own in our mimetic media--repeated endlessly to tar and degrade North Korea. In November 2002, however, the CIA had reported that a DPRK gas centrifuge facility for enriching uranium was "at least three years from becoming operational"; once up and running it might provide fissile material for "two or more weapons per year." Regardless, Kelly told Congress in March 2003 that the facility (assuming there is one; US intelligence can't find it) is probably "a matter of months" away from producing weapons-grade uranium.13 Left unmentioned in any press articles that I came across, was the extraordinary utility of an enriched uranium program for 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 was that their fuel would have to come from outside the DPRK, thus establishing a dependency relationship that could easily be monitored; but this was precisely the vice of the LWRs for the independent-minded North. As Pollack put it, "it seems entirely plausible that Pyongyang envisioned the need for an indigenous enrichment capability...[as] the fuel requirements for a pair of thousand-megawatt [light water] reactors are substantial and open-ended."14 Furthermore uranium enrichment to a level useful for LWR fuel is much easier than the further refinement necessary to create fissile fuel. But the Bush administration smothered all discussion of this issue with widely ballyhooed claims of a second nuclear bomb program.

Many knowledgeable experts, including former Clinton administration officials, believe that North Korea clearly cheated on its commitments by importing these technologies. They do not accept the argument that the North had a clear interest in enriching uranium for the LWRs; they differ over whether the North merely experimented with these imported technologies, or is hell-bent on a "nuclear enrichment program"--meaning that they are trying to build a uranium bomb. Assuming that the imports of this technology from Pakistan began in 1997 or 1998 and were intended for use in a bomb, it may have happened because hardliners in Pyongyang disliked the slow pace by which Washington was implementing its commitments from the 1994 agreement (i.e. to normalize 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 honor the Framework Agreement while developing a clandestine weapons program. Kim ascended to maximum power in September 1998 on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the regime, and a new weapons program would have shored up his support in the military.

These same former US officials, however, believe that whatever the North planned to do with its nuclear enrichment technology could have been shut down in the context of completing the missile deal and normalizing US-DPRK relations. That was essentially what they told the incoming Bush administration in 2001. By dropping the ball on this matter and dithering for 18 months, only to use the information to confront the North Koreans in October 2003, the Bush people turned a soluble problem into a major crisis, leaving little room to back away on either side. They have contrived to create a situation where the North may now have embarked on a nuclear weapons program far beyond the CIA's "one or two devices," which would be a catastrophic defeat for American diplomacy; and they have created a vacuum of policy where no one--in Washington, Pyongyang, Beijing, or Moscow--really knows what Bush wants out of his Korea policy.

Preemptive Intelligence or Preemptive Strikes?

One interpretation of Mr. Kelly's behavior in Pyongyang is that he preemptively used a bunch of intelligence reports (ones never released in any detail to the media) to make sure no diplomatic progress could occur between Washington and Pyongyang. But his visit also came in the wake of Bush's new preemptive doctrine, announced in September 2002. The acute danger in Korea today derives from a combination of typical and predictable North Korean cheating and provocation, longstanding US war plans to use nuclear weapons in the earliest stages of a new Korean War, and this new doctrine. The 'Bush Doctrine' conflates existing plans for nuclear preemption in a crisis initiated by the North, which have been standard operating procedure for the US military for decades, with the apparent determination to attack states like North Korea simply because they have or would like to have nuclear weapons like those that the US still amasses by the thousands. As if to make this crystal clear, someone in the White House leaked Presidential Decision Directive 17 in September 2002, which listed North Korea as a prime target for preemption.

Pentagon closet warrior Donald Rumsfeld made matters worse in the spring of 2003 by demanding revisions in the basic war plan for Korea ('Operations Plan 5030'). The basic strategy, according to insiders who have read the plan, is "to topple Kim's regime by destabilizing its military forces," so they would overthrow him and thus accomplish a "regime change." The plan was pushed "by many of the same administration hard-liners who advocated regime change in Iraq." Unnamed senior Bush administration officials considered elements of this new plan "so aggressive that they could provoke a war." Short of attacking or trying to force a military coup, Rumsfeld and company 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."15

This is how the 1950 invasion began: North Korea announced a long summer military exercise along the 38th parallel, mobilizing some 40,000 troops. In the middle of these war games, several divisions suddenly veered south and took Seoul in three days; only a tiny handful of the highest officials knew that the summer exercises were prelude to an invasion. Half a century later comes Mr. Rumsfeld with his provocative plans, a man who according to two eyewitnesses was surprised to learn when he joined the Pentagon that we still had nearly 40,000 troops in Korea.

Larry Niksch, a long-time specialist on Asian Affairs at the Congressional Research Service and a person never given to leaps toward unfounded conclusions, cited Rumsfeld's war plans and wrote that "regime change in North Korea is indeed the Bush administration's policy objective." If recent, sporadically-applied sanctions against the DPRK and interdiction of its shipping do not produce a regime change or "diplomatic capitulation," then Rumsfeld planned to escalate from a preemptive strike against Yongbyon (which Clinton came close to mounting in 1994) to "a broader plan of massive strikes against multiple targets."

The US terrorized the DPRK with nuclear weapons during and after the Korean War and was the only power to introduce nuclear weapons to Korean soil. Beginning in 1958 it deployed 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 of course did not end the nuclear threat to the North, since Trident submarines (sometimes called a holocaust in one delivery package) can glide silently up to its coast any day of the week.16 In the aftermath of the initial nuclear deployments in the late 1950s Kim Il Sung openly said that the North's only recourse was to build as widely and as deeply underground as possible, on the assumption that anything visible above ground would be wiped clean in a war. I have seen one such 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 someone attacked the complex with nuclear weapons.17 US commanders in the South have said in recent years that they believe nearly the entire military apparatus of this garrison state is now ensconced underground--and as we have seen, US intelligence now counts some 15,000 "underground military-industrial sites," and a long DPRK history of "constructing duplicate facilities."

The vehicles for Rumsfeld's 'massive strikes' are newly-developed missiles that are said to penetrate deeply underground before detonating a 'small' nuclear explosive. In 2003 he sought a Congressional repeal of the decade-old ban on manufacturing small nuclear weapons. "[Congressional] proponents, mainly Republicans, argue[d] 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 thought '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."18

The Spratt-Furse Amendment of 1993 prohibited research and development of low-yield weapons, defined as having "the explosive force of less than five kilotons of TNT," approximately one-third the size of the Hiroshima bomb that incinerated 100,000 people and radiated to death another 80,000. Senate opponents argued that repealing this bill would signal the death-knell of efforts at non-proliferation: "We're driving recklessly down the road that we're telling other people not to walk down," said Senator from Michigan Carl Levin.19 Because of opposition from Levin, Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and others, the bill had not passed the Senate as of this writing.

The only problem with Rumsfeld's war plan is that it repeals the laws of physics: there is no technology yet developed or imagined that can penetrate the earth's surface more than about fifty feet. This is why cruise missiles could not decapitate Saddam Hussein on the night the Iraq invasion began, assuming he was in the targeted building; later inspections revealed deep and heavily reinforced chambers designed by a German firm to withstand a direct hit with nuclear weapons. So the only answer is larger and larger nuclear warheads, such that you target Kim Jong Il and wipe out a large urban neighborhood, or maybe a city.20

Before the occupation of Iraq dimmed their clairvoyant powers on matters of war and peace, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz & Company imagined that Kim Jong Il was running around like an ant on a frying pan in dread of imminent decapitation. Kim disappeared from public view for 50 days from mid-February 2003. Once 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 [pre-] Iraq?'" ('Post-Iraq' was May 12--the Pentagon civilians crowing and contemptuous of any opinion different from their own.) The US wanted to get its own forces in Korea out of the range of the North's artillery guns, the official said, and then increase reconnaissance and newly-configured deployments thus to "use precision targeting much more aggressively and much more quickly." In pursuit of this, during the buildup immediately preceding the invasion of Iraq the Pentagon moved 24 long-range B-1 and B-52 bombers from bases in the US to Guam, and installed several F-117 Stealth fighter-bombers in our bases in South Korea--"designed for quick strikes against targets ringed by heavy air defenses."21 (The F-117s, of course, were the strike force that sought to decapitate Saddam on the day the invasion began.) 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 opine to the world press that "North Korea is teetering on the brink of collapse."

The US remains a belligerent in the war that never ended in Korea, just as does North Korea. These provocative actions in the spring of 2003 might well have instigated another Korean War, given what had just happened in Iraq; short of that, they shame the US in their ineffable combination of arrogance and ignorance.22 Loud in prattling about American sovereignty when it comes to the United Nations, these officials see no other country whose sovereignty they are bound to respect. Furthermore they don't know what they are talking about. Kim Jong Il's birthday is February 16, a national holiday, and long disappearances (particularly during the harsh winter) have been a trademark of his rule. Here is where he husbands his 'quality time', puttering around one of his villas in pajamas and curlers, taking it easy and trying to tame his unruly hair.23 A better indication of the North's attitude is their statement on April 18, 2003 that "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 they have used since Kelly's October 2003 visit to suggest that they might possess nuclear weapons).24

The best guess about Kim's response to such provocation might be this: in recent months North Korea has said many times that it would not wait around while the US marshals the necessary resources to mount an attack against it, as Saddam did in the six months leading up to the Iraq war; in Pyongyang's view, disarming Saddam was a mere prelude to aggression against Iraq. Instead they will do what 'Little Bill' did in the classic Clint Eastwood film Unforgiven: after beating 'English Bob' to a pulp and railroading him out of town, Little Bill shouted after him that if he ever laid eyes on the man again he wouldn't ask questions, he would just come out shooting. Clearly the North Koreans do not want war; even amid these dire American threats, they used the same clipped April 18 news release to signal for the first time that they were willing to meet the US in multi-lateral 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 foolish mistake to assume that if war comes to them, they won't go down fighting.

Multilateral Machinations

After Kelly's October 2003 visit Bush adopted a strategy of refusing to talk to the North about anything except how it would go about dismantling its nuclear program--and refused bilateral talks even for this purpose. It offered no incentives in return, thus achieving the petrified immobility that arises when one party is asked to give up everything and the other party, nothing--including its preemptive war doctrine. The requirement that any talks be multilateral, however, was aimed primarily at East Asian allies whom Bush perceived to be getting off the reservation. Since the Nixon era Republicans have had an affinity for the dictators who ruled South Korea for three decades. Nixon looked the other way in 1972 when Park Chung Hee declared martial law and made himself president for life; Reagan invited Chun Doo Hwan to the Oval Office shortly after the inauguration as his first visiting head of state, after Chun had trampled over the population of Kwangju, killing hundreds if not thousands, on the way to making his 1980 coup; many Korean election specialists remain convinced that a Republican team jiggered the vote-counting computers during the 1987 presidential election that brought Chun's protégé, 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 Washing-ton in the fall of 2002, the Bush administration treated him like a king. Instead the Korean people elected Roh Moo Hyon, a courageous lawyer who defended many dissidents against the Chun and Roh regimes. Roh had campaigned on a platform of establishing more independence and equality in the Korean-American relationship, and of continuing 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 military 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; a senior US military analyst opined, "Kim Jong Il would probably attack our troops on the DMZ and then pick up the phone to Roh and say... 'You must do something to stop the Americans.'" A 'regional security expert' at Nanzan University in Japan, Robyn Lim, declared that "the US alliance with South Korea is defunct."25 Around this time advisors to Roh told Bush administration officials that if the US attacked the North over South Korean objections, it 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 targeted the US population with an impregnable phalanx of 10,000 embedded artillery guns.

Roh's victory was the first democratic election involving two major candidates in which the winner got close to a majority since 1971, when Park Chung Hee barely eked out a victory over Kim Dae Jung's 46% of the vote, in spite of all sorts of regime manipulation (Park then decided there would be no more elections). But it occasioned a remarkable petulance, coming even (or perhaps especially?) from Americans who have long experience in Korea. Richard Allen, a Republican point man on Korean affairs who was often registered as an agent of the ROK by the US Justice Department,26 wrote in the Times that Roh Moo Hyun's election made for "a troubling shift" in US relations with the ROK. Allen thought Korean leaders had now "stepped into the neutral zone" and had even gone so far as to suggest, in the current nuclear standoff, that 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 Allen's opinion the US "is responsible for much of Seoul's present security and prosperity," with the implication being that Koreans shouldn't bite the hand that feeds them.27

Other Americans wondered how Koreans would dare criticize the US, when North Korea is "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 on to its handlebars for 50 years. At some point you have to let go."28 Another US military official in Seoul said of Roh's election, "There is a real sense of mourning here" (on his military base).29 Meanwhile American business interests stated that troop withdrawals would cause investors to "seriously reconsider [...] their plans here."30 This remarkable combination of petulant irritability and grating condescension somehow seems unremarkable both to the people who say such things, and sometimes to the reporters who quote them.

A recent Korea Gallup Poll showed an increase in those who "disliked the United States" from 15 percent in 1994 to 53 percent in 2003. News reports on this poll did not give the actual questions posed to respondents, but when asked the opposite question--do you like the U.S?--the response was 64 percent in 1994, 37 percent in 2003.31 There is little to indicate one way or the other whether such poll results stem primarily from the Bush administration's policies and the US military's acquittal of two US soldiers who ran over and killed two teenage girls, or from a growing 'anti-Americanism'. But one 2002 poll for the Sisa Journal found that 62 per cent of the Korean respondents thought that Bush's policies toward North Korea had not been helpful.32

Meanwhile Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi was planning his own breakthrough to the North. Over many months, negotiations for a summit between Koizumi and Kim Jong Il "had been conducted with the utmost secrecy" within the Japanese government. After a secret visit to Pyongyang in August 2002, an advisor to Koizumi said the North Koreans were receptive to anything he might want to discuss, including allegations that the North had kidnapped Japanese citizens in the past. On August 27, 2002 Koizumi finally decided to tell the Bush administration about his plans, when Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was visiting Tokyo. This Pyongyang summit made huge news when it was announced on August 30. As one expert wrote, "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."33

Soon James Kelly was in Tokyo, where he spent three days tabling his evidence about the North's nuclear enrichment program and trying to dissuade Koizumi from his determination to meet Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang. He failed, Koizumi took off in mid-September, and Kim Jong Il took the unprecedented step of admitting that his regime had kidnapped Japanese, for espionage purposes (most likely for identity theft, but also perhaps to create agents in Japan). The summit and the major agreements concluded at it disappeared quickly in the maelstrom of Japanese outrage, beamed to the nation 24/7 by television. Instead of a diplomatic breakthrough, Koizumi had a huge public relations problem on his hands. A few weeks later Mr. Kelly showed up in Pyongyang to confront the North with the same 'evidence' he had shown Koizumi (never disclosed to the American public), which had the effect of derailing a further rapprochement between Pyongyang and Tokyo, and later provided a club with which to pressure the Roh Moo Hyun administration back into the fold of a multilateral, unified front against North Korea.

I happened to be in Seoul when Koizumi's summit was announced, a day or two after John R. Bolton (carrying the euphemistic title of "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, and the like. He did so 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 among other things, causing Richard Armitage publicly to distance himself from Bolton's hot rhetoric.34 Bolton was a Barry Goldwater right-winger in his youth and later a protégé of Senator Jesse Helms (who over many decades showed his warm regard for the various anti-communist tyrants that the US supported around the world, especially those in Central America). When a reporter from the Times asked Bolton what the Bush policy was toward 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,' by an American Enterprise Institute colleague. "That,' he said, 'is our policy.'"35

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,"36 an "evildoer," and in a recent discussion with Bob Woodward, he blurted out "I loathe Kim Jong Il!", shouting and "waving his finger in the air." In a less-noticed part of this outburst, Bush declared his preference for "toppling" the North Korean regime.37 (One gets the sense from these impromptu ad hominem eruptions that Bush's resentments might have something to do with the widespread perception that both leaders owe their prominence to Daddy). John Bolton is a favorite of the President's, and ventriloquist38 Dick Cheney is said to be the hardest of hardliners on the North. But this man who slid into office after the closest election in American history may be the most belligerent of all.

Shortly before the 50th anniversary of the Korean War armistice, former Defense Secretary William J. Perry gave a harrowing interview to the Washington Post. He had just finished extensive consultations with senior Bush administration officials, South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun, and senior officials in China. "I think we are losing control" of the situation; we are on a "path to war", he said. North Korea might soon have enough nuclear warheads to begin exploding them in tests or exporting them to terrorists. "The nuclear program now underway in North Korea poses an imminent danger of nuclear weapons being detonated in American cities," he charged--an absurdity, in my view, since in retaliation we would turn the North into "a charcoal briquette" (Colin Powell's expression). Perhaps Perry was trying to get Bush's attention, or to highlight his hard-line bona fides for the Beltway crowd. But then Perry got to the main point. He had concluded that Bush just won't enter into serious talks with Pyongyang: "My theory is the reason we don't have a policy on this, and we aren't negotiating, 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."39 Thus do an insecure, reclusive dictator and an insecure, impulsive foreign affairs naïf hold the peace of the world in their hands--according to a former official who knows as much about our Korea policy as anyone. A less alarmist and hopefully more accurate view came from a fine young scholar who knows as much about Korean security as anyone: "The fundamental difference between Clinton's near-success and Bush's stalemate [with the North] lies . . . in [Bush's] refusal to end the enmity between the two nations."40

Back to the Future?

Secretary of State Powell gained control--perhaps only temporary control--of Korea policy during the heat of the Iraq War (causing the Vulcan Group of Pentagon civilian appointees to complain that they were too distracted to block what he was doing41) and convinced Bush to allow Kelly to meet the North Koreans again, in Beijing in April 2003, and then to participate in six-party talks that China moved heaven and earth to arrange at the end of August 2003. A second round of six-party talks was held in April 2004. David Sanger heralded the result of the first set of talks as a sign that the Bush administration had fundamentally altered its approach toward the North, at the urging of the State Department. The mess in Iraq had enhanced Secretary Powell's stature, another reporter wrote, and Bush had decided he needed help from our UN allies and friends after all (but "the question is whether the world is ready to pick [them] up off the floor and dust them off. A lot of people aren't ready yet," said a Western diplomat).42 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 United Nations in September 2002. If so and Bush gets an agreement, he will only return matters to the state achieved by the Clinton administration that was offered to him on a silver platter in 2001.

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 program can be successful around the terms of a 'package deal' that they first tabled in November 1993. Instead of the Bush policy of all-or-nothing-at-all, the North has steadfastly said it would give up its nukes and its missiles in return for a formal end to the Korean War, a termination of mutual hostility, lifting of numerous economic and technological embargoes that the US maintains on the North, diplomatic recognition, and direct or indirect compensation for giving up these very expensive programs. Their will to do so was tested in 1994 when they froze their entire nuclear complex and kept it frozen under the eyes of UN inspectors for eight years, until Bush made it crystal clear that he would not fulfill the American side of the 1994 bargain. Two authors recently revived a 'grand diplomatic bargain' to accomplish about the same thing, an ambitious and complex program that is worth a careful perusal by anyone concerned with the issues: in return for a verifiable end to the North's nuclear programs, a ban on selling and testing its missiles, a steep cut in its conventional forces, outward-opening economic reforms and the beginnings of a dialogue about human rights in the North (or the lack thereof), 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 program of "perhaps $2 billion a year for a decade" (that burden to be shared with our allies). They muster a host of nuanced, clever and convincing arguments on behalf of their strategy, with the ultimate goal being "a gradual, soft, 'velvet' form of regime change--even if Kim Jong Il holds onto power throughout the process."43 We will have that, or we will have more dangerous drift in US policy, or we will have a terrible war. Unfortunately for the time being this choice is not in the hands of the people, but a capricious administration that listens to nobody and a jumpy group in Pyongyang.

Having said all this, there are still many readers who may or may not like George Bush, but who will think that the North Korean regime is among the most despicable on earth (I watched a former US ambassador to Japan lecture President Roh Moo Hyun on this point at a Blue House meeting on the day after Roh's inauguration), and 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 readers to remember that 23 million human beings live in the North, that the leadership has had huge piles of chemical weapons for decades, and perhaps biological weapons; we deterred them from using such weapons for half a century, and if they deter the warmongers among the Vulcan Group with those same weapons, that is a predictable and perhaps even a stabilizing outcome. In any case, there is nothing we can do about it, short of a catastrophic war that will destroy Northeast Asia, cause untold needless deaths, and demolish the Bush administration. Furthermore, it does not dignify the United States to have an enemy like this; rather it demeans a great country. And the unthinking, uninformed, bigoted, but seamlessly uniform pillorying of the North in the American media is a symptom of a deeper disturbance.

The 'North Korean problem' is an outgrowth of a truly 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 through which the Korean people have suffered beyond measure and beyond any American's imagination. We could have solved the North Korean problem decades ago but our leaders have chosen not to try (with the exception of Bill Clinton), and in this new century we are all the worse for it.


1. Judith Miller, "A Chronicle of Confusion in the US Hunt for Hussein's Chemical and Germ Weapons," The New York Times (July 20, 2003), p. A12. [RETURN TO TEXT]

2. Leon V. Sigal, Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), p. 95; Selig S. Harrison, Korean Endgame: A Strategy for Reunification and US Disengagement (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 223. [RETURN TO TEXT]

3. I discuss these Sanger articles in North Korea: Another Country. [RETURN TO TEXT]

4. Albright cited in Glenn Kessler, "Proposals to North Korea Weighed," Washington Post (July 22, 2003), p. A1. [RETURN TO TEXT]

5. Thom Shanker with David Sanger, "North Korea Hides New Nuclear Site, Evidence Suggests" The New York Times (July 20, 2003), pp. A1, A6. [RETURN TO TEXT]

6. Caspar Weinberger, Foreword, The Cox Report (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 1999). [RETURN TO TEXT]

7. The Cox Report, p. 1. [RETURN TO TEXT]

8 As advertised by the Wienberger-introduced Cox Report, op. cit. [RETURN TO TEXT]

9. "Bush's Strategy is Complicated by North Korea," Wall Street Journal (October 18, 2002), p. A1. [RETURN TO TEXT]

10. Sanger, "US to Withdraw from Arms Accord with North Korea," The New York Times (October 20, 2002), p. A1. [RETURN TO TEXT]

11. Dr. Alexander V. Vorontsov visited the DPRK recently, and I am grateful to him for sending me a copy of his recollections of the visit. [RETURN TO TEXT]

12. Jonathan D. Pollack, "The United States, North Korea, and the End of the Agreed Framework," Naval War College Review (Summer 2003), pp. 1, 13. (I read this on the Internet and so my pagination may not follow the published article.) Dr. Pollack is now teaching at the Naval War College. [RETURN TO TEXT]

13. David Sanger, "US Sees Quick Start of North Korea Nuclear Site, The New York Times (March 1, 2003), p. A1. [RETURN TO TEXT]

14. Pollack, op.cit., p. 15. [RETURN TO TEXT]

15. Bruce B. Auster and Kevin Whitelaw, "Pentagon Plan 5030, A New Blueprint for Facing Down North Korea," US News and World Report (July 21, 2003). [RETURN TO TEXT]

16. See my detailed discussion in North Korea: Another Country. [RETURN TO TEXT]

17. "Nuclear Site in North Korea Provides Clues on Weapons," The New York Times (May 17, 1992). [RETURN TO TEXT]

18. James C. Dao, "Senate Panel Votes to Lift Ban on Small Nuclear Arms," The New York Times (May 10, 2003), p. A2. [RETURN TO TEXT]

19. Ibid. [RETURN TO TEXT]

20. I am indebted for this information to several discussions with Stephen Schwartz, the editor of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. He also presented a paper to this effect at a symposium in Japan on August 1, 2003, held to commemorate the 58th anniversary of the obliteration of Hiroshima. (I also spoke at this symposium.) [RETURN TO TEXT]

21. Thom Shanker, "Lessons From Iraq Include How to Scare Korean Leader," The New York Times (May 12, 2003), p. A9. Rumsfeld's provocations came in spite of Secretary Powell's attempt "to assure the North Koreans that we are not looking to overthrow them, to take them out." See David Sanger, "Bush Takes No-Budge Stand in Talks With North Korea," The New York Times (April 17, 2003), p. A11. [RETURN TO TEXT]

22. Perhaps the most memorable couplet in Graham Greene's The Quiet American. Rumsfeld also dreamed up a laughable scheme to team up with China and oust the North Korean regime--and told it to the press just a few days before US negotiators met in Beijing with the North Koreans, a meeting arranged through great effort by China. See Sanger, "Administration Divided Over North Korea," The New York Times (April 21, 2003), p. A15. The only conclusion appears to be that Rumsfeld tried mightily to sabotage any possibility of solving our problems with North Korea through give-and-take diplomacy. [RETURN TO TEXT]

23. See Cumings, "Our First Post-Modern Dictator," in North Korea: Another Country. [RETURN TO TEXT]

24. Korean Central News Agency (Pyongyang), April 18, 2003. [RETURN TO TEXT]

25. All quotes from Howard W. French, "US Approach on North Korea is Straining Alliances in Asia," The New York Times (February 24, 2003), p. A9. [RETURN TO TEXT]

26. See Cumings, "South Korea's Academic Lobby," Japan Policy Research Institute Occasional Paper No. 7, 1996. [RETURN TO TEXT]

27. Richard V. Allen, "Seoul's Choice: The US or the North," The New York Times (January 16, 2003), Op-Ed page. [RETURN TO TEXT]

28. James Dao, "Why Keep US Troops?" The New York Times (January 5, 2003), News of the Week in Review, p. 5. [RETURN TO TEXT]

29. Howard W. French, "Bush and New Korean Leader to Take Up Thorny Diplomatic Issues," The New York Times (December 21, 2003), p. A5. [RETURN TO TEXT]

30. Tami Overby, an employee of the American Chamber of Commerce in Seoul, as quoted in James Brooke, "G.I.'s in South Korea Encounter Increased Hostility," The New York Times (January 8, 2003), p. A10. [RETURN TO TEXT]

31. "Anti-US Sentiment Deepens in South Korea," The Washington Post (January 9, 2003), pp. A1, A18. [RETURN TO TEXT]

32. Howard W. French, with Don Kirk, "American Policies and Presence are Under Fire in South Korea, Straining an Alliance," The New York Times (December 8, 2002), p. A10. [RETURN TO TEXT]

33. Pollack, op.cit., p. 17. [RETURN TO TEXT]

34. Christopher Marquis, "Absent from the Korea Talks: Bush's Hard-Liner," The New York Times (September 2, 2003), p. A3. [RETURN TO TEXT]

35. Ibid. [RETURN TO TEXT]

36. If Kim Il Sung was tall, handsome and charismatic, standing over six feet with a broad forehead prized by Korean mothers and aestheticians, the son looked just like his mother--a formidable woman, nurturing, kind and fun-loving, but less than five feet tall, standing pear-shaped in her guerrilla uniform. But where her face is round, wide, smiling, endearing, optimistic, six decades later his is round, wide, frowning, off-putting, and cynical. And he sees himself as a pygmy: ergo the unkind cut from the 45th president. During her sojourn in the North, a South Korean movie actress found that Kim didn't like his body--he wasn't "comfortable in his own skin," to use the current cliché. Indeed, he thought he looked like "a little turd." [RETURN TO TEXT]

37. Bob Woodward, Bush at War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), p. 340. In typically convoluted syntax, Bush referred to what would happen "if we try to--if this guy were to topple." Some people thought the "financial burdens" of such an outcome would be too onerous, but not the president: "I just don't buy that. Either you believe in freedom, and want to--and worry about the human condition, or you don't." [RETURN TO TEXT]

38. William F. Buckley, Jr. was once asked if he coveted a position in the White House, and he immediately shot back "Yes: ventriloquist." [RETURN TO TEXT]

39. Thomas E. Ricks and Glenn Kessler, "US, N. Korea Drifting Toward War, Perry Warns," Washington Post (July 15, 2003) p. A14. [RETURN TO TEXT]

40. Jae-Jung Suh, "The Two-Wars Doctrine and the Regional Arms Race," Critical Asian Studies 35:1 (2003), p. 21. [RETURN TO TEXT]

41. "There's a sense in the Pentagon," one intelligence official said, "that Powell got this arranged while everyone was distracted with Iraq. And now there is a race over who will control the next steps." Sanger, "Administration Divided Over North Korea," The New York Times (April 21, 2003), p. A15. [RETURN TO TEXT]

42. David Sanger, "US Said to Shift Approach in Talks with North Korea," The New York Times (September 5, 2003), p. A1; see also Steven R. Weisman, "Bush Foreign Policy and Harsh Reality," ibid., pp. A1, A9. [RETURN TO TEXT]

43. Michael O'Hanlon and Mike Mochizuki, Crisis on the Korean Peninsula: How to Deal with a Nuclear North Korea (Washington, D.C.: McGraw-Hill--A Brookings Institution book, 2003), pp. 19, 50. For another road map toward peace in Korea, see "Turning Point in Korea," the report of the Task Force on US Korea Policy, Sponsored by the Center for East Asian Studies, University of Chicago, and the Center for International Policy, Washington, D.C., 2003. (I co-organized this task force with Selig S. Harrison.) [RETURN TO TEXT]

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