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Kim Jong Il

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North Korea: Do Not Access All Areas

14 October 2008

North Korea: Do Not Access All Areas

By Gwynne Dyer

Korea is not a tropical country. In the autumn, the leaves turn yellow and red, and by October the process is pretty far along, especially in North Korea. Which is why there are grave doubts that Kim Jong-Il is in good health, as Pyongyang pretends, and indeed some question whether he is alive at all. And despite Monday’s agreement by Washington to take Kim’s neo-Stalinist regime off its list of terrorism sponsors, which persuaded North Korea to let international inspectors back into its Yongbyon nuclear site, we still don’t know where its nuclear weapons (if they exist) might be hidden.

Kim, the “Dear Leader” and absolute ruler of North Korea since 1994, has not been seen in public since early September, when he failed to make an appearance at a military parade marking the regime’s 60th anniversary. There was intense speculation in South Korea that the 66-year-old dictator had suffered a stroke and undergone surgery, although the source of this rumour was never clear.

The North Korean regime denied anything was wrong (as it always does), and last Saturday it finally produced some recent footage of Kim Jong-Il inspecting a women’s military unit. The only problem was that it was an outdoor location with lots of trees and bushes, and all the leaves were a lush green colour. Nowhere in Korea looks like that in mid-October; a horticultural expert at Seoul National University estimated that the event took place in July or August.

Couldn’t they at least have produced some INDOOR footage of the Dear Leader that nobody had seen before, so that the deception was not so obvious? Probably not, since this is a regime where the dictator’s activities are on the front page of the papers every day and lead the television news each evening. His every public act is documented, but the material is used immediately. They must have searched long and hard for some footage that would not already have been seen by every foreign embassy in Pyongyang. Too bad about the leaves.

This confirms that Kim Jong-Il is at least seriously ill. For all we know, he may be dead, and there may be a fierce succession struggle going on behind the scenes in Pyongyang. (The Dear Leader inherited power from his father, the “Great Leader” Kim Il-Sung, who founded the regime in 1948, but none of the current ruler’s children have been publicly groomed for the throne.) Whatever the state of palace politics in Pyongyang, however, the regime retains the ability to run circles around the Bush administration in diplomacy.

The most recent confrontation began last month, when North Korea announced that it intended to restart nuclear activities at Yongbyon because the US had not kept its promise to remove Pyongyang from its terrorism blacklist. That was part of the six-country deal signed last November, in which North Korea agreed to end its nuclear activities in return for badly needed aid.

As part of the deal, Washington agreed to remove North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism — and a lot of the aid could not legally flow to Pyongyang until that was done. But the Bush administration, as so often before, overplayed a weak hand: it stalled on removing the terrorism label in the hope of forcing North Korea to allow American and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors freer access to suspected North Korean nuclear sites.

So the North Koreans simply stopped dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear site (including the plutonium reprocessing plant) and announced that they were re-activating it. It took the Bush administration, in legacy mode and desperate for at least one apparent foreign policy success, only a couple of weeks to yield to Pyongyang’s demand. Washington removed North Korea from the terrorism list on Saturday, and Pyongyang let the inspectors back in on Sunday. But they can’t go wherever they please.

As before, international inspectors only have access to “declared” North Korean nuclear sites. “Undeclared” sites — ones that Pyongyang forgot to mention — can only be inspected with the regime’s permission, on a case-by-case basis. The whole play around the terrorism designation was an attempt by Washington to force Pyongyang to allow wider access, and it has failed miserably. Game, set and match to North Korea.

The harshest critic of this outcome is none other than John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security in the first Bush administration. Washington’s climb-down last weekend left all the key questions unanswered, he complained: “Where are their weapons? Where is the rest of their plutonium? Where is their uranium enrichment program? What have they done in terms of outward proliferation? And we got essentially nothing new on that other than a commitment to keep negotiating.”

What’s ironic about this is that Washington’s tactics in this diplomatic fiasco are very reminiscent of the style that Bolton favoured himself when he was in office: bluster and threats, with not much ability to deliver. It didn’t work for him, either.

The rest of the world still doesn’t know whether North Korea has usable nuclear weapons (it tested one in 2006, with unimpressive results), or how many, or where they might be hidden. Whoever is in charge in Pyongyang is playing a weak hand very, very well.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 11. (“Couldn’t…leaves”; and “What’s…either”)

North Korea: Five Wasted Years

14 July 2007

North Korea: Five Wasted Years

By Gwynne Dyer

North Korea has shut down its one nuclear reactor and the associated plutonium reprocessing plant, and a team of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency has arrived in Yongbyon to seal the equipment and oversee the decommissioning process. Pyongyang has promised to deliver a list of all its other nuclear facilities within a few months, and then the real haggling will begin.

Does North Korea really have a separate uranium mining and enrichment programme, as the US Central Intelligence Agency has alleged? What happens if North Korea’s list doesn’t include any information about that? How many bombs has North Korea built, apart from the one that it tested last October, and what happens to them now?

The arguments can go on for years. The arguments WILL go on for years, because that suits Pyongyang’s purposes, but we really didn’t have to start the discussion from this far back. There didn’t have to be any North Korean nuclear weapons at all. Indeed, there wouldn’t be if arguments had not been replaced by threats and ultimatums five years ago.

The main problem was the “mercurial” North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Il. Or rather, it was Kim’s image in the West as an unpredictable, half-crazed megalomaniac whose dream was to rule the world or, failing that, to blow it up. The 2004 film “Team America: World Police,” a somewhat eccentric puppet-based study of the interactions between foreign policy and the intelligence services in the United States, captured the prevailing Washington view of Kim Jong-Il so perfectly that I take the liberty of quoting briefly from the script.

Kim Jong Il: [to terrorists on a giant monitor] Who’s responsibre for browing up Panama?

Terrorist: We were upset about Cairo.

Kim Jong Il: Goddamnit, how many times do I have to tehr you? You don’t use the WMDs untihr you see the signahr! I have worked ten years on this pran! It is a very precise, and a compricated pran! I am sick of you terrorists fucking it up! Now take the weapons where I tord you and wait for the goddamn signahr this time! Goodbye!

[shuts off monitor, and cools down]

Kim Jong Il: Why is everyone so fucking stupid?

 This was the imaginary monster that President George W. Bush had in mind when he included North Korea in his famous “axis of evil” (aka “regimes to be overthrown”) in early 2002. Then John Bolton, his Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, pulled the plug on the ongoing, almost perpetual negotiations in which North Korea traded abstention from a full-scale nuclear weapons programme for badly needed gifts of food and fuel from its neighbours. So Kim decided that he actually had to go nuclear this time to get their attention.

What the Bush gang didn’t realise (although everybody else did) was that Kim Jong-Il is not crazy. He does not yearn for immolation in the fireball of an American nuclear weapon, so he has no actual plan to attack anybody else with nuclear weapons. But he learned from his late father that blackmail works: threaten to build nuclear weapons, and your neighbours will bribe you not to.

Kim Il-Sung got exactly that kind of deal in 1994, and it was still in effect when Bush came into office although neither side had kept all of its promises. Kim Jong-Il needed a new and better deal, because his country’s economy was in even worse shape than it had been in the 90s, so he began hinting about nuclear weapons again. Crude tactics, certainly, but not new or hard to understand. And instead of buying him off with some more fuel and food, the Bush administration put him on a hit list and broke off negotiations with him. So Kim carried out his threat.

There was an abortive “Framework Agreement” in 2005 in which North Korea promised to stop its nuclear programmes in return for supplies of food and fuel, the establishment of diplomatic relations with the United States and an American pledge not to attack North Korea. But the deal was immediately undermined by the US Treasury Department’s apparently uncoordinated action in freezing North Korean funds in foreign banks because of suspicions that Pyongyang was counterfeiting US dollars. That was never proved, but it took another two years to unravel the mess.

It was only after North Korea actually exploded a nuclear weapon last October that the Bush administration was persuaded to abandon its obstructive behaviour and sign onto a binding agreement with Pyongyang.

“North Korea had less than 10 kg (22 lbs) of plutonium in 2002,” South Korean chief negotiator Chun Yung-woo told David Hearst of The Guardian in Seoul last weekend. “Now they could have as much as 50 kg. (110 lbs). In other words…we are not going back to the status quo ante. We are restarting from a much worse position….We have a long way to go before we undo all the damage that (John) Bolton and his like have done to the process of denuclearising the North.”

But at least they have started to clear up the mess.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 9. (“Does…now”; and “There was…mess”) Treat the entire “Team America” quote as a single paragraph.

SOME PAPERS may wish to replace the naughty words in the “Team America” clip with asterisks.

TRANSLATORS: There is no need to try to reproduce Kim’s comic Korean accent in the “Team America” clip. “aka” (in para 6) means “also known as”

North Korea: A Cry for Help

9 October 2006

North Korea: A Cry for Help

By Gwynne Dyer

In psychobabble, what North Korea has just done would be characterised as “a cry for help,” like a teenage kid burning his parents’ house down because he’s misunderstood. Granted, it’s an unusually loud cry for help, but now that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il has got our attention, what are we going to do about him?

North Korea’s nuclear weapon test early Monday morning makes it the ninth nuclear power, and by far the least predictable. It probably has only a few nuclear weapons, and it certainly cannot deliver them to any targets beyond South Korea and Japan, but the notion of nuclear weapons in the hands of a “crazy state” frightens people.

So relax: Kim Jong-Il is not crazy. Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who has negotiated with him, says he is well informed and not at all delusional. He pretends to be unstable because his regime’s survival depends on blackmailing foreign countries into giving it the food and fuel that it cannot produce for itself. Rogue nukes are a big part of that image, but like any professional blackmailer, he would hand them over for the right price.

Put yourself in Kim’s (platform) shoes. In 1994 he inherited a country from his father, Kim Il-Sung, that was already in acute crisis. The centralised Stalinist economy had been failing for a decade, and in 1991 post-Soviet Russia cut off the flow of subsidised oil, fertiliser and food, effectively halving North Korea’s Gross Domestic Product.

Yet Kim needed the support of the military and the Party officials who controlled North Korea’s “command” economy, and derived their power and privileges from it. Radical economic reforms would threaten their positions. Kim’s inheritance was far from secure, so he left the economy alone and used the threat of going nuclear to extort aid from foreign countries.

The younger Kim had been put in charge of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme by his father in the late 1980s. By 1993, Washington was so concerned that it offered Pyongyang a deal: stop the programme, and the US would give North Korea huge amounts of foreign aid. Kim Il-Sung died in July, 1994, and it was his son who approved the “Framework Agreement” with the United States that October in which the US promised to send Pyongyang half a million tonnes of oil a year and eventually to build the North Koreans two nuclear reactors.

China, South Korea and other neighbours chipped in, sending grain, other food, and medicines. Kim Jong-Il won some breathing space to consolidate his rule — but then a series of floods and droughts overwhelmed the country’s inefficient collective farms, and up to a million North Koreans starved. By 2002, in desperation, Kim Jong-Il played the nuclear card again.

American intelligence picked up the renewed nuclear activity, and in October, 2002 the North Koreans admitted to US Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly that they had a secret nuclear weapons programme in defiance of the 1994 Agreed Framework. (Blackmail only works if the target is aware of the threat.)

This time, the US refused to yield to blackmail, so the past four years have seen North Korea withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, throw out International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, test-fire missiles near South Korea and Japan on several occasions, and now test an actual nuclear weapon. Kim Jong-Il only has one card, and he keeps trying to play it.

Kim’s crude tactics were always intensely irritating to the other parties to the Six-Power Talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons (the US, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea), and now they are furious with the little dictator. Even China, North Korea’s only ally, called Pyongyang’s test “stupid.” But what are they actually going to do about it?

Sanctions, I hear you cry. But the US has had sanctions against North Korea since 1953, and Japan has had them for more than a decade already — and if China stops sending aid, the entire economy will collapse, millions will starve, and millions more will flee the country. I was at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul in 1994 on the day that Kim Il-Sung died, and I remember the panic that reigned as South Korea’s diplomatic elite contemplated the prospect of 25 million starving North Koreans suddenly landing in their laps.

The regime in Beijing is equally appalled at the notion of millions of North Korean refugees pouring across its border, so there may be sanctions, but they will not be life-threatening for Pyongyang. Which brings us back to the distasteful business of bargaining with blackmailers.

Kim would probably relinquish his nuclear weapons if he were offered enough food and oil aid, an end to trade embargoes, and a firm US promise not to try to overthrow him. None of that would cost very much, and the US is not going to attack him anyway. Nor has Kim any intention of attacking anybody, especially with nuclear weapons: he would have no hope of surviving the instant and crushing retaliation by American nuclear weapons. So it’s just a question of persuading him to stop the nonsense.

But what about the principle of the thing? Won’t other countries be tempted to follow North Korea’s example if we don’t punish it for developing nuclear weapons? You know, like we did when Israel, India and Pakistan developed theirs.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8, 11 and 12. (“American…threat”; and “Sanctions…blackmailers”)

The North Korean “Threat”

22 September 2005

The North Korean “Threat”

By Gwynne Dyer

If you want to understand why they have all been so worried about North Korea, you have to imagine the Doomsday scenario that haunts them.

Kim Jong Il wakes up early, because it’s The Day, but it takes him ages to get ready. The hairdresser alone takes half an hour every morning to get his hair to stand up like that, then they have to tighten the corset that contains his bulging tummy, and finally he has to decide which shade of light tan Mao jacket he’ll wear today. But eventually he slips into his platform shoes and clops downstairs to meet his assembled generals.

“Are our nuclear missiles ready to fly?” he asks General Number One. “Yes, Dear Leader, they are both ready. One will strike Seoul, and the other will strike a large American base in Japan,” the general replies.

Then, mustering up all his courage, he adds: “But are you sure this is a good idea? The Americans will know where they came from, and their retaliation will be terrible. By lunchtime our country will be destroyed and we will all be dead.”

A single shot rings out and the impudent general falls to the floor. “Thus to all cowards and weaklings,” cries Kim Jong Il, and then continues, in a more conversational tone: “We must destroy the nests of the capitalist imperialist vipers. It is our destiny, and we will dwell with Marx forever. Launch the missiles!” General Number Two salutes and says “Yes, sir! At once, sir!”

Having a little trouble with this scenario? Doesn’t quite ring true? Good, because I have trouble with it too. But this is approximately the scenario that the panic-mongers have been asking us to believe in, and if it isn’t true then there never was a crisis.

There wasn’t. Last week was especially silly, with the members of the six-party talks on getting Pyongyang back within the nuclear non-proliferation regime (China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Russia and the United States) declaring a dramatic success on Monday, 19 September, and North Korea apparently reneging on the deal on Tuesday. but the failure is only apparent.

The North Korean negotiating style certainly leaves a good deal to be desired. They make dramatic announcements (“We have nuclear weapons!”), they flounce out of treaties they have signed (like the Non-Proliferation Treaty, in 2002), and they try to change the meaning of deals they have signed before the ink is dry on the paper (like last week). But there are reasons for this.

Partly, it is just the normal behaviour of people who have no experience of negotiations between equals — and indeed, people raised in the authoritarian, almost Orwellian system that prevails in North Korea are very unlikely to have that experience. But these are also shrewd negotiating tactics for people who are so weak that they have practically no cards in their hand. If you have no other way to make other parties pay attention to your concerns, then threatening to be unreasonable and cause a lot of damage is a good way to get them to listen. Even teenagers know that.

North Korea has no real cards in its hand. With half as many people as South Korea, it has an economy around one-tenth the size, and much of that goes to maintaining a military establishment that is more or less capable of matching the South Korean and American forces that confront it in the Korean peninsula. Its people live on the brink of starvation (although Kim Jong Il clearly eats very well), and its ability to threaten the United States directly is precisely zero.

When the Bush administration designated North Korea as part of the “axis of evil”, perhaps next for the treatment after Iraq, Pyongyang panicked. It had long been working on nuclear weapons secretly (and cheating on an earlier agreement to stop doing so), because it believed that they would deter an American attack even if they could only reach nearby targets. Suddenly it pulled out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and announced that it actually had operational nukes — though it may well have been bluffing.

That unleashed the so-called crisis of the past few years, but all North Korea was really looking for was a guarantee that it would not be attacked, and some foreign aid. That was essentially what it got in the agreement of 19 November — North Korea agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons programme in exchange for economic aid, security assurances and improved ties with the United States — so the “crisis” should be over.

It is, really, but old reflexes die hard: North Korea’s deputy foreign minister, Choe Su Hon, immediately cast doubt on the validity of the deal. In a UN speech on Tuesday, he said: “What is most essential at this stage is for the United States to provide light-water nuclear reactors to North Korea as soon as possible as evidence proving the former’s substantial recognition of the latter’s right to peaceful nuclear activities.” All the US had actually said was that it would discuss providing reactors “at an appropriate time,” but Pyongyang could not resist pushing for more.

It doesn’t matter. The US, China and Russia all responded by saying that the agreement stands as signed, and Kim Jong Il will not pursue this demand. He has played a bad hand very well and got most of what he wanted. He is not crazy, and he won’t throw it away.


To shorten to 725 word, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“It is…zero”)