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 Indeed, there wouldn’t be if arguments had not been replaced by threats and ultimatums five years ago.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”