What's Left

September 3, 2003

The End of North Korea

By Stephen Gowans

It would hardly be going too far to say that what has been written in the US press about the events that attended the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program is hogwash. But then this has always been so. Over 50 years ago, Anna Louise Strong wrote, "In the days to come Korea will continue to supply headlines. Yet there is little public knowledge about the country and most of the headlines distort rather than reveal the facts." {1}

Today, headlines in the New York Times and Washington Post distort rather than reveal the facts. And there is little public knowledge about the country; only vague and frightening impressions based on caricatures and demonic portraits.  North Korea, it is said, is a bellicose country that threatens the security of Japan and South Korea by pursuing a nuclear weapons program.  It could very well threaten the security of the United States. Yet the country's leaders believe it is the United States that is a threat, not the other way around. This is untrue, mere paranoia. North Korea's leadership is irrational and given to issuing threats as a bargaining ploy. And when it comes to negotiating, the country is all over the place. Worst, the country's leaders have no interest in peace. If they did, would they be developing nuclear weapons? Would they have rejected further negotiations with the US, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea?

The headlines and news stories are wholly at odds with reality, though importantly, entirely in sync with Washington's aims, which are nothing less than the obliteration of North Korea's communist government, by war if necessary, and its replacement by a pan-Korean government, wholly in the US orbit, presiding over a market economy open to US investment and trade on preferential terms.

So what's the real story, if not this? It starts with North Korea building nuclear power facilities at Yongbyon to address a pressing energy shortage. For North Korea, its new facilities were much needed and welcome. For Washington, they were a problem. They could, if Pyongyang desired, furnish the country with material necessary for the development of nuclear weapons. And one thing Washington was not keen on was a Third World regime, especially a communist one it had been trying to topple for over half a century, being in a position to develop nuclear arms.

The Clinton administration wrestled with the problem. What to do? It contemplated, indeed went so far as to plan, a strike on the Yongbyon facilities. A few cruise missiles would wipe out North Korea's potential nuclear weapons capability. And there would be an added benefit. The country would remain on the ropes, its attempts to provide for its energy needs dashed. But an unprovoked air-strike would be an act of war, and one the North Koreans would almost certainly respond to. This wasn't Sudan or Afghanistan, countries you could lob a few cruise missiles at from hundreds of miles away with impunity, and expect no response. This was North Korea, a heavily armed country that had been on a war-footing ever since US forces set up an occupation on the southern part of the Korean peninsula over half a century earlier. The result would be catastrophic.

Unwilling to live with the catastrophe, the Clinton administration decided to strike a deal. In return for North Korea shutting down its nuclear power facilities, Washington would arrange to have two light water reactors built. They would be incapable of producing bomb grade material but would supply the country with needed energy. And while the North Koreans were waiting for the reactors to be built (the target completion date was 2003) fuel oil would be provided to address the country's energy requirements. Meanwhile, Washington would work towards normalizing relations with Pyongyang.

Future members of the Bush administration regarded the deal as wussy, hardly befitting the powerful United States. Washington, they believed, shouldn't negotiate. It should demand, and expect immediate compliance, making examples of countries bold enough to resist. Clinton had done so with Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia, issuing an ultimatum at Rambouillet, demanding Milosevic effectively turn over control of the country to the US. But he'd wimped out on North Korea.

When the Bush administration came to power, shy of votes, but with the backing of the US Supreme Court, it was determined that North Korea would feel the United States heavy hand. There would be no normalization of relations. Instead, Bush declared North Korea (along with Iraq and Iran) to be part of an axis of evil, and made clear that the United States was prepared to deal militarily with the countries that made up the axis, North Korea included.

The first of the axis countries targeted for regime change was Iraq. Iraq's reserves of oil, second largest in the world, and the government's refusal to turn over its markets and natural resources to US capital, made the country a tempting target. After forcing Iraq to disarm, first under the weight of over a decade of sanctions, and second under the threat of war, the US and Britain attacked.  John Bolton, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, immediately put Iran, Syria and North Korea on notice. "Draw the appropriate lesson from Iraq," he warned. {2}

Bolton, a far-right fanatic who worked for Barry Goldwater, befriended North Carolina Senator Jesse Helm, worked in the 80's to counter efforts to register Black voters, and spearheaded the Bush administration's opposition to the International Criminal Court, is central to Washington's North Korea strategy. After Bolton delivered a cataract of invective aimed at the country and its leadership ("a hellish nightmare," he called it) the North Koreans shot back, calling Bolton "human scum." On the surface, the North Korean rejoinder seemed excessive, but when you think about it, it's not too far off the mark. Bolton is hardly a cuddly guy. But he is direct. Asked by the New York Times what the administration's policy on North Korea is, Bolton "strode over to a bookshelf, pulled off a volume and slapped it on the table. It was called 'The End of North Korea.'" "'That,' he said, 'is our policy.'" {3}

Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, who led the US delegation at the six-party talks, also plays a central role. Last year he returned from a meeting with North Korean officials, claiming Pyongyang had admitted to secretly pursuing the development of nuclear weapons in violation of the 1994 agreement with the Clinton administration (called the DPRK-US Agreed Framework. DPRK stands for Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the country's official name.) Washington soon canceled fuel oil shipments and halted construction of the light water reactors, which, while promised for 2003, were nowhere near completion. But no one had ever actually heard the North Koreans admit to secretly developing nuclear weapons. It was all Kelly's say-so. Pyongyang, who no one was listening to, had a different story.

"[W]e made it clear that we [had] no secret nuclear program. After Kelly's Pyongyang visit, the U.S. misled...public opinion, saying that we admitted to the secret nuclear program. [Washington then] unilaterally stopped the supply of heavy fuel oil from November, 2002." {4}

Only Kelly and his North Korean interlocutors know for sure what was really said (or not) at the Pyongyang meeting, but there's reason to believe North Korea's account is true, and Kelly's is hogwash. For one, we know the Bush administration was unhappy with the Agreed Framework and wanted out. The United States wasn't going to bargain with a Third World country, much less a communist one, not on Bush's watch. What better way to scrap the deal than to say North Korea had violated the agreement? The US media could be counted on not to dig too deeply into the matter, and the communists would be thrust upon the horns of a dilemma. Without access to fuel oil, North Korea would be crippled, and the regime vulnerable to collapse. How long could it hold out? If Pyongyang reopened its mothballed Yongbyon facilities in a bid to address its energy demands, public opinion could be prepared for war. The communist regime would be portrayed as intent on building a nuclear arsenal to destabilize the region, imperil its neighbors, and threaten the United States, and this all the easier given the regime is communist, a red flag guaranteed to evoke a hostile response from the US public, including, and often more vehemently from, much of the US Left, the one part of the population that ought to, but probably wouldn't, spring to North Korea's defense. But if North Korea was secretly developing nuclear weapons, why would it make an admission to the United States, and thereby hand a patently hostile administration the excuse it needed to cancel fuel oil shipments? It didn't make sense. And with the North Koreans denying they had made an admission to Kelly, the whole story reeked of implausibility.

But then almost everything the administration, and by extension, the US press said, and continues to say about North Korea, is held to the bedrock of reality by the thinnest of threads. For example, the Washington Post talks of the threat posed by the United States as "perceived," not real. North Korea only "regards" the United States as a threat. By this account, Bush never issued a virtual declaration of war when he declared North Korea to be part of an axis of evil, Bolton never said the administration's policy is the end of North Korea, and the Pentagon didn't add North Korea to a list of countries targeted for a possible first strike, when the Bush administration ordered a review of its nuclear strategy. {5}

Mindful of the belligerent noises Washington was making, and facing a mounting energy crisis with the Bush administration's unilateral canceling of the hated Clinton agreement, Pyongyang decided it had no option but to reopen its mothballed power plant. It needed energy, and it needed nuclear weapons to deter a US attack. In the words of the country's leadership,

The nuclear issue surfaced and deteriorated as the present U.S. Administration listed the DPRK as part of "an axis of evil" and the target of preemptive nuclear attack and ditched the DPRK-U.S. Agreed Framework. {6}

There was no doubt Pyongyang had got the message. The end of North Korea was in the works.

Ignoring the connection between the clear and present danger posed by the United States and North Korea's subsequent decision to develop nuclear weapons allowed the administration and the US press to portray Pyongyang as bellicose and aggressive.  So it is that the New York Times could talk of there being "'a real fear that Kim Jong Il,' the North Korean leader, 'sees that the U.S. is distracted in Iraq, and thinks this is the moment to make it clear he has the bomb,''' rather than being straightforward and to the point: Kim Jong Il is developing nuclear weapons because the Bush administration is intent on an unprovoked war.

You would think, however, that Pyongyang's pleas for a nonaggression treaty, and its willingness to abandon its nuclear weapons program, would lay to rest any suspicion that North Korea has malevolent designs on the US. But few people know Pyongyang is anxious to strike a deal -- even less so now that it has been portrayed unfairly as having scuttled the six-party talks. US Secretary of State Colin Powell has treated Pyongyang's repeated offers of a nonaggression treaty dismissively, declaring "We won't do nonaggression pacts or treaties, things of that nature," {7} a declaration you might think a press, were it curious, would respond to with the question, "Why not?" Instead, silence, and no demand for explanation. Washington says it's willing to give Pyongyang a written assurance it has no intention to attack, but it's not clear what that means. "The administration," The New York Times revealed "has already ruled out any language that would assure the North that there would never be a preemptive attack." {8} More importantly, from the perspective of North Korea, a written assurance has no binding force. The offer is more a concession to Washington's public relations requirements than to Pyongyang. It's an empty commitment that allows Washington to say, "Our intentions are peaceful," while planning for war.

As it turns out, Kelly came to the six-way talks with no plan to depart from the administration's modus operandus on foreign affairs -- issue demands, don't bargain. Which means the talks weren't talks at all, but an occasion for Washington to demand, in the company of four other countries whose presence Washington insisted on, that North Korea immediately abandon plans to defend itself. Significantly, the State Department's number one expert on North Korea, Jack Pritchard, who favored negotiations, was forced out. {9} That left Kelly free reign to bully. End your nuclear weapons program, irreversibly and verifiably, he told the North Koreans, and then we'll talk about missiles, human rights and conventional arms (as in, we'll demand you get rid of your missiles, reduce your conventional arms, and respect property rights, the latter code for, "Trash your country's public ownership of a planned economy") and then we'll get around to discussing the normalization of relations. But only then.

Pyongyang's proposal, which the Western press ridiculed as being "all over the place," was anything but. Indeed, North Korea has consistently put forward the same, eminently reasonable plan.

The United States should:

[1] conclude a nonaggression treaty with North Korea;
[2] open diplomatic relations;
[3] guarantee economic cooperation between North Korea and Japan and between the north and the south of Korea;
[4] resume the supply of heavy fuel oil; and
[5] sharply increase humanitarian food aid.

In return, North Korea will:

[a] scrap its nuclear weapons program;
[b] readmit inspectors and dismantle its nuclear facility (once the light water reactors are completed and a nonaggression treaty is signed); and
[c] impose a moratorium on the testing and export of ballistic missiles (once the US and Japan open diplomatic relations.) {10}

There's nothing bellicose, intransigent, or unreasonable about this. It seeks to establish a quid-pro-quo that, at the end of the day, would reduce tensions, open diplomatic channels, and peacefully denuclearize the Korean peninsula. But at the same time, it would give the communist government a lease on life, which, in the context of the administration's intention to put an end to North Korea, is unacceptable.

Washington defends its refusal to bargain by saying it won't give in to North Korean blackmail, a claim that is so absurd it hardly warrants a response. Arguing that North Korea's reopening of its Yongbyon facilities is blackmail completely ignores the country's pressing need to address a dire energy shortage, exacerbated by Washington's unilaterally canceling the 1994 Agreed Framework, and an equally pressing need to develop a nuclear weapons program to deter Washington from carrying out its quite open intention of putting an end to North Korea.

Secondly, equating negotiating to bowing to blackmail is to do nothing more than to don a mock moral cloak to disguise a complete lack of interest in give and take. This is equivalent to management saying "We're not going to bargain with the union, because its threat to strike is blackmail." Anyone who dismisses the other side's position in this way betrays a lack of genuine interest in arriving at a settlement.

Washington's virtually guaranteeing the talks would fail, using them as an occasion to issue ultimata rather than negotiate, is all the more ominous considering the talk's failure is regarded by some in the administration as a tripwire for war. US Secretary of Defense "Donald Rumsfeld and other hard-liners are said to support negotiating with North Korea, if only because they expect the talks to fail. They believe that would make it easier to rally support from other countries for more economic and political pressure and, eventually, military confrontation." {11} Since the US went into the talks with no interest in pursing the give and take necessary to arrive at an agreement, military confrontation, unless North Korea gives into US blackmail to disarm, reduce its conventional forces, and scrap its socialist system, seems all but inevitable. Were the talks set up as a deliberately planned train wreck, designed to rally support from other countries for more economic and political pressure and, eventually, military confrontation?

Commenting on the failed six-party talks, North Korea's Foreign Ministry remarked,

At the bilateral contact made between the DPRK and the U.S. on the sidelines of the six-way talks the U.S. [representative, James Kelly said]... that a full range of other issues...including missiles, conventional weapons and human rights [would have to be] discussed for the normalization of relationship between the DPRK and the U.S. [to occur, and then] only after [North Korea's] "nuclear program" is scrapped. This means the U.S. [is] asking the DPRK [to] drop its gun first, saying it would not open fire, when both sides are leveling guns at each other. How can the DPRK trust the U.S. and drop its gun? Even a child would not be taken in by such a trick. What we want is for both sides to drop guns at the same time and coexist peacefully. This only convinced the DPRK ...that the U.S. [is unwilling] to improve relations with the DPRK [and has no] intention to [change] ...its policy toward the DPRK and does not want to co-exist with the DPRK in peace but seeks ...to totally disarm the DPRK at any cost. The talks, therefore, were...only an occasion [for the US to demand] the DPRK disarm itself. {12}

Iraq is an object lesson in what happens to countries that disarm. They're taken over. The demand to disarm is simply a prelude to war, a way, if the demand is acceded to, to make the invasion easier. It's not North Korea that's a threat to the US, it's the US that's a threat to North Korea. It's not the US that seeks peace, it's North Korea that seeks peaceful coexistence and is rebuffed. But while peace and denuclearization and proliferation are bandied about as if these are the real issues, the real issue is control. Who gets to control the northern part of the Korean peninsula and its resources, markets and labor -- the United States, for the benefit of US banks, corporations and investors, or the North Koreans, for the benefit of themselves?

1. Anna Louise Strong, "In North Korea: First Eye-Witness Report," Soviet Russia Today, New York, 1949.

2. "U.S. Tells Iran, Syria, N. Korea 'Learn from Iraq," Reuters, April 9, 2003.

3. "Absent from the Korea Talks: Bush's Hard-Liner," The New York Times, September 2, 2003.

4. KCNA, August 29, 2003.

5. "Pentagon broadens nuclear strategy Bush lists 7 nations as potential targets," San Francisco Chronicle, March 9, 2002.

6. DPRK Statement on Six-Party Talks, KCNA, August 14, 2003.

7. "U.S. Weighs Reward if North Korea Scraps Nuclear Arms," The New York Times, August 13, 2003.

8. Ibid.

9. "Absent from the Korea Talks: Bush's Hard-Liner," The New York Times, September 2, 2003.

10. KCNA, August 29, 2003.

11. "U.S. Weighs Reward if North Korea Scraps Nuclear Arms," The New York Times, August 13, 2003.

12. "DPRK Foreign Ministry on Six-way Talks, KCNA," August 30, 2003.


You may re-post this article, providing the text remains unchanged.

Join our e-mail list. Send an e-mail to sr.gowans@sympatico.ca and write "subscribe" in the subject line.

What's Left