JPRI Working Paper No. 91, January 2003
North Korea: Coming in from the Cold?
by Gavan McCormack

As the sands of 2002 drained away, tension was rising steadily around the Korean peninsula. In late December the Bush administration’s formal position changed from “the U.S. has no plans to attack North Korea” to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s declaration of readiness to fight wars on two fronts (meaning Iraq and North Korea) and confidence of “winning decisively in one and swiftly defeating in the case of the other.” They changed again when Secretary of State Colin Powell declared that a diplomatic solution would be sought. Steps to refer the disputed nuclear issues to the U.N. Security Council were foreshadowed and the possibility of sanctions, intrusive inspections, and an “Iraq scenario” loomed.

The sticking point, on the surface, is North Korea’s decision to resume its nuclear program in order to generate power to make up for the oil shipments suspended by the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) in November. North Korea insists that it has no intention of producing nuclear weapons, but Washington quotes CIA sources to the effect that it may have two or three already, not to mention the uranium enrichment centrifuge technology that Pyongyang admits purchasing (but not yet operating). The 8,000 spent fuel rods that sit in storage ponds at Yongbyon already contain enough weapons-grade plutonium to produce several nuclear bombs, and once the reactors resume operation more would accumulate. The removal of the seals from the monitoring equipment and ordering the U.N. inspectors to leave the site drove home North Korea’s decision to defy the U.S., its allies, and (through the International Atomic Energy Agency) the international community.

However, as the denunciatory campaign against North Korean irrationality, unpredictability, and provocation gathers strength, it is easy to lose sight of some fundamental facts. Pyongyang insists that it has no weapons of mass destruction, nor any intention of making or deploying them. It declares its readiness to enter into formal, internationally-binding commitments—or, strictly speaking, to honor those it has already entered—if only the U.S. will do what it promised in 1994. The Agreed Framework that Jimmy Carter at that time helped negotiate was not a unilateral North Korean promise to give up its nuclear ambitions in return for the construction of two light-water reactors but a complex web of commitments. For North Korea, the provision that the two sides would “move toward full normalization of political and economic relations” and that the U.S. would provide “formal assurances to the DPRK against the threat or use of force of nuclear weapons by the United States” were crucial. Pyongyang has reason to feel that all emphasis has been unfairly placed on its obligations, and none on the broken commitments of the U.S. North Korea, it must be recalled, has faced the concentrated hostility of the United States since fighting it to a standstill in 1953. Beginning in early 2000, the North began to take steps to break out of its isolation. If Pyongyang’s leaders are indeed seeking a way in from the cold, they deserve some sympathy and understanding, but no state and no people in modern times can have less expectation of getting it.

In June, 2000, the South Korean President Kim Dae Jung went to Pyongyang to meet the North’s leader, Kim Jong Il. A North-South Joint Declaration committed the two sides to work for reunification, the settlement of humanitarian issues, including that of separated families, and to promote economic, social, cultural, sporting, and other exchanges. The agreement was signed in a mood of euphoria and anticipation, and a more detailed memorandum was drawn up between the two governments in December, 2001.

Some separated families, albeit a tiny fraction of the total, were soon reunited via visits, a joint tourist development was opened in a mountain district in North Korea with sacred significance to all Koreans, and South Korea’s Hyundai Corporation began work to develop the region around the city of Kaesong, just north of the DMZ, as a special economic zone. Teams of bureaucrats, politicians, and experts from Pyongyang scoured the world for development models and technical and financial assistance. Relations were normalized with many countries, including most of Western Europe (with the exception of France) and Australia. The mines began to be cleared from the DMZ and the railway tracks to be repaired. The reopening of the Seoul-Pyongyang line, and beyond that to China, Russia and Europe, looms as an early, and dramatic, symbol of the transformation.

However, the country is in desperate economic straits: refugees speak of starvation and malnutrition on a wide scale. Factories operate at around 20 per cent of capacity. In July, 2002, a series of drastic economic reforms was adopted, affectingvirtually all aspects of economic life. Rationing of goods was abolished in all but a very few categories. Wages were increased by large amounts, and differentiated by category in terms of social productivity; with important categories of workers such as coal miners given a 20 times increase. The purchase price paid to farmers for rice rose by more than 500 times, but public transportation charges also went up by twenty times. The national currency was devalued to one seventieth of its current (purely nominal) rate. These were dramatic developments. By some scrapping of centralized economic controls in favor of market principles for the determining of wages and prices, Pyongyang was opening the door to capitalism.

In September, 2002, a special law was passed to set up a Sinuiju Special Economic Zone on the North Korean side of the Yalu River frontier with China. It is intended to be a walled, capitalist enclave of international finance, trade, commerce, industry, advanced technology, leisure and tourism. Its currency would be the U.S. dollar, and it would be administered independently, with its own legislature, judiciary and administration. The existing population, some half million people, would be moved out over the initial two years to accommodate the influx of young and skilled Chinese and Korean workers. The Zone began inauspiciously, however, when the newly appointed Governor, a millionaire Chinese businessman, was detained by authorities in China over alleged tax and other financial irregularities. China may have been less than enthusiastic at the prospect of a potential haven for hot money, speculators, gamblers, and others likely to be drawn by the prospect of an extremely unregulated environment. It was scarcely a good start, but well-informed Japanese sources predict that the same liberalization will be adopted in the near future for the much more sensitive zone around Kaesong, just north of the DMZ and adjacent to both Pyongyang and Seoul.

Pyongyang appears to be moving with a kind of desperate haste. The grandeur of the Sinuiju design contrasts sharply with the reality of continuing economic crisis, the virtual collapse of the energy sector, near collapse of manufacturing and mining, and drastic cuts in agricultural production due to a combination of shockingly bad natural conditions (successive years of drought and flood) and a decline in chemical fertilizer production. To the world, North Korea became best known from the mid-1990s for its famine and for the steady flow of refugees, especially into Northeast China.

The conclusion that seems to have been drawn in Pyongyang is that it will be impossible to achieve its goals unless relations with Japan and the U.S. are normalized. In Washington, the label “terrorist state,” the charge of membership of the “axis of evil,” and suspicions related to “weapons of mass destruction” mark North Korea with a special hostility. In Japan, there were sporadic meetings during the 1990s to try to resolve differences, but little progress was made. Suspicions remained that during the 1970s and 1980s North Korea had abducted at least a dozen Japanese nationals. The 1998 firing of a Taepodong missile into Japanese waters was seen as an outrageous provocation, and the periodic sighting in Japanese waters thereafter of “mystery ships,” thought to be conveying North Korean special agents on espionage missions or engaged in counterfeiting or drug running, served to heighten fear and hostility.

Only from Japan, however, can an immediate flow of investment and aid funds be expected, and only normalization with Washington can create the context within which the path to “normalcy” as a state can be pursued. Without a comprehensive settlement, stagnation could deepen into economic collapse and perhaps the collapse of the state itself. In October, 2001, therefore, the North Korean government sent out feelers to Tokyo for a renewal of negotiations leading towards normalization. During the subsequent year, quiet diplomatic exchanges continued with at least 30 meetings between Japanese and North Korean diplomats. Eventually broad principles were agreed to and the stage was set for Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi’s visit to Pyongyang.

Apologies: The Unequal Exchange

When the visit took place, on September 17, 2002, the tension was palpable. The Japanese Prime Minister brought his own boxed lunch with him, but it remained unopened throughout the day. It was perhaps the first summit whose main agenda consisted of apologies on both sides. Kim Jong Il apologized for the abduction and detention of a dozen or so Japanese people in the 1970s and 1980s, and for the December, 2001, spy ship encroachment into Japanese waters (actually sunk in an encounter with Japanese coastguard ships in the East China Sea). Koizumi apologized for the four decades of Japanese colonialism, which ended 57 years ago.

Since the abductions and the spy ship incident had been denied by North Korea, long and strenuously in the former case, the apology was astonishing and dramatic. Kim Jong Il admitted that a dozen Japanese people had been abducted, including a school girl, a beautician, a cook, three dating couples (whisked away from remote beaches) and several students touring Europe, all of whom were taken to Pyongyang either to work in Japanese language programs at a training institution for North Korean special operatives or else so that their identities could be appropriated by North Korean agents for covert operations in South Korea, Japan, or elsewhere. “Some elements of a special agency of state” had been “carried away by fanaticism and desire for glory” in carrying out the abductions, Kim explained. He also admitted sending spy ships into Japanese territory, and blamed “some elements” of the military for that. He insisted that those responsible for all the offenses had been punished, and gave his assurance that there would be no recurrences.

The organization most likely responsible for the abductions of people from Japan was thought to be something known as “Room 35,” formerly the Overseas Intelligence Department of the Korean Workers Party. Japanese government sources believed this same organization was responsible for a series of spectacular operations in the past, including the guerrilla attack on the South Korean presidential residence (The Blue House) in 1968; the October, 1983, bomb attack in Rangoon, Burma, that killed 17 members of a South Korean presidential delegation; and the November ,1987, destruction by bomb of KAL 859, over the Andaman Sea, in which 115 people died. A separate “Section 56,” under the same ruling party’s External Liaison Department, is suspected in the abductions from Europe.

Kim’s acknowledgment of these acts was a truly momentous event. Alexander Fedorovsky, a Russian observer commented that “in a totalitarian state, an apology affects the very basis of the state system. The sense of crisis in North Korea is so deep that they had no alternative but to take this risk” (Asahi Shimbun, September 18, 2002). Having admitted responsibility for one set of acts, Kim Jong Il is now bound to face a rising tide of demands, probing further into the already admitted incidents and raising others strongly suspected, at the same time as he faces the problem of shoring up his own authority.

At the “summit of apology,” Koizumi for his part expressed “deep remorse and heartfelt apology” for the “tremendous damage and suffering” caused the Korean people through Japan’s four decades of colonial rule. His words followed very closely the formula established in 1995 during the brief interlude when the government in Tokyo was headed by the socialist party leader, Murayama Tomiichi, and repeated in the Japan-South Korea talks between Japanese Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo and South Korean President Kim Dae Jung in October, 1998. By the time Koizumi issued it, there was nothing controversial about it. It was a perfunctory formula, acceptable to the Tokyo bureaucracy precisely because it carries no legal implications. While a heartfelt apology might properly have been expected to be accompanied by the offer of reparations, Japan only came to the table with Pyongyang when assured that any such claim had been dropped.

The Pyongyang meeting was a huge step for North Korea, but it may also be that Kim Jong Il miscalculated that his confession would lead to a quick resolution of the abduction issue, followed by “normalization,” not foreseeing the huge uproar and massively negative impact it would cause in Japan. Kim had hoped that by giving up any claim to “compensation” for the crimes of Japanese colonialism, he would receive approximately ¥1.5 trillion (or circa U.S.$12 billion) in “aid” funds. This would be roughly equivalent to the $500 million Japan paid to South Korea on the opening of that bilateral relationship in 1965. However, although it would be a very substantial sum for financially destitute Pyongyang, it will now come only in a tied, project-related form, and be at least as beneficial to the Japanese construction industry as to North Korea. Nor will it be easy to appropriate such a sum through the Japanese Diet in its fiscally straitened circumstances and in the present climate of revulsion against North Korea.

On the Japanese side, the revelations of 17 September stirred a mood of public anguish and anger compared by some to the mood that swept over the U.S. in the wake of September 11, 2001. Anger and distrust of Japanese institutions, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for its vacillation, incompetence, and dissembling, combined with fear, outrage, and desire for revenge against North Korea. The Japanese National Police Agency now thinks that there may be more Japanese abductees than at first suspected, perhaps as many as forty. There are also said to be abductees of various other nationalities—European, Arab, and Chinese—not to mention something like 500 people that South Korea claims have been abducted since 1953. Abduction, however, is a curious phenomenon. In a number of cases, those abducted appear to have successfully accommodated to the North Korean system. By the time the five Japanese abductees returned to Japan in October 2002, after more than 20 years, they did so, apparently, as loyal followers of Kim Jong Il.

Perhaps the most extraordinary case of abduction is that of the South Korean film director, Shin Sang-Ok and the actress Ch’oe Hyun-hi. In 1978, they were abducted and taken to North Korea, where Shin made, and Ch’oe starred in, several films at Pyongyang studios until both eventually escaped in 1986. Both insist that Kim Jong Il was directly involved in their abduction, driven by his obsession to improve the quality of Pyongyang films. In November, 2001, Shin chaired the jury at the Pusan (South Korea) International Film Festival. Looking back on a career making films in Seoul, Pyongyang, and Hollywood, he commented that he thought his best film was one he made for Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, entitled “Runaway.” Ironically, however, this film was withdrawn from screening on orders of the South Korea’s Supreme Prosecutor.

Re-Abduction by Japan?

In the weeks following the dramatic September meeting, North Korea provided further information about the abductions. It transpired that the eight who had died did so in very strange circumstances—two poisoned by a defective coal heater, two killed in traffic accidents (in a country with very little traffic), two dead of heart failure (one while swimming), one of cirrhosis of the liver, one who committed suicide while depressed—and that the remains of almost all had been washed away in floods. In Japan, the families of the victims examined the documentation provided by Pyongyang and pronounced it full of holes. Angry and disbelieving, they insisted the survivors be brought back, even if necessary by force (muriyari ni).

South Korean sources suggest the possibility that those who died may have been sent to mountain labor camps for refusing to do what the Koreans call chonhyang and the Japanese tenko, that is, paying obeisance to the ideology of Juche/Kim-ism. In Japan it was speculated that they might simply have known too much. When the five survivors told Japanese Foreign Ministry officials in late September that they were “reluctant to return to Japan,” it was almost universally attributed to brain-washing. In due course, after heavy Japanese government pressure they, but not their six children, returned to Japan for a visit starting on October 15. When they refused to speak ill of North Korea, this was seen as proof positive that they were unable to express themselves freely. Their subsequent statement that they would visit Japan only briefly and then return to Pyongyang was dismissed as inconceivable, and a frenzied Japanese campaign followed with demands that they be restrained from doing so. On October 24, The Chief Cabinet Secretary, Fukuda Yasuo, announced that, despite the initial agreement with Pyongyang that the former abductees would be returned after two weeks, the hapless five would not be allowed to go back.

When Japanese and North Korean delegates met in Kuala Lumpur at the end of October, the Japanese demand for the “return” (i.e., the handing over) of the children was a major bone of contention. For Japan, the children are unquestionably “Japanese,” whether they know it or not. They therefore belong to Japan. For Pyongyang, Japan was in breach of the agreement under which the five abductees came to Japan for up to two weeks, and the children could not simply be “handed over” (by force if necessary, as the Japanese side implied). By taking the view that the families themselves should decide where they wish to live, for which it is indispensable that they first be reunited, North Korea was, for once, on the side of the angels.

Perhaps the most poignant case is that of fifteen-year old Kim Hye Gyong. Kim’s mother, Yokota Megumi, was snatched on her way home from a badminton game in 1977, when she was only thirteen, and taken to North Korea. In 1986, she married a North Korean man, Kim Chol Ju, and a year later gave birth to her daughter. According to Pyongyang, Yokota, suffering from depression, committed suicide in 1993, when her little girl was five. The wisdom of Solomon would scarcely suffice to decide how to address the demand of the Japanese grandparents for the “return” of their grand-daughter, brought up entirely in North Korea by her father. A barrage of Japanese efforts was launched to persuade this young girl to leave home and “visit” her grandparents in Japan. Interviewed by Japanese television, she tearfully asked why her grandparents, having promised to visit her, now insist that she come to see them instead. Her grandparents responded with the enticing offer of a visit to Tokyo’s Disneyland. Meanwhile, Japanese government statements have made it clear, although perhaps not to the girl, that any such “visit” would be a one-way trip, as it has become for the five “returnees.” The tragedy of the abductees thus seems to continue, their rights and wishes once again ignored or compromised.

Shortly after the Pyongyang meeting, a “mystery ship” that had been sunk in December, 2001, after a gunfight in Japanese waters in the East China Sea was lifted from the seabed. Its North Korean origins were confirmed, and it was found to have been armed to the teeth. No evidence was found to suggest it had been involved in drugs, counterfeiting, smuggling or other operations, but it was plainly a spy ship. The incomprehensible, threatening, evil image of North Korea was reinforced.

During October, 2002, mass opinion in Japan was swayed by a tumult of emotions—sadness shared with the victims’ families, rage at Pyongyang and desire for revenge, anger at the Japanese government, and the belief that Japan would have to teach North Korea how to be a “normal state.” Prime Minister Koizumi, responding to the popular mood, denounced North Korea as a “disgraceful (keshikaran) state that abducts and kills people.” At Kuala Lumpur, when the follow-up talks on normalization were held in late October, the North Korean delegates were asked to show more “sincerity,” and were told that “concerning the life of human beings, Japan and North Korea seemed to place a different value on people’s lives.”

One commentator, Yamazuki Masanori (Shukan Kinyobi, September 27, 2002), tried to set this in context by reminding his readers that Japan “invaded a neighboring country and turned it into a colony, appropriated people’s land, names, language, towns and villages, killing those who resisted, forcibly grabbing and abducting and sending off around various war zones young men as laborers and soldiers for the imperial army and women as ‘comfort women,’ at the cost of countless lives, and then for 57 years did not apologize or make reparation.” The respected Korean-in-Japan novelist, Kim Sok Pon, denounced both North Korea for the abductions and for its “traitorous and shameful” act of abandoning claims for reparations, and Japan for its “historical amnesia.” Such voices were, however, drowned in the chorus of self-righteous Japanese anger.

In North Korea the talks were nonetheless declared a triumph in that the Japanese Prime Minister had come to Pyongyang at last to apologize and a normal relationship could be expected, all thanks to Kim Jong Il’s extraordinary intellect and resourcefulness. Sooner or later, however, Japanese pressures for open access to investigate the fate of the other abductees will perhaps cause Kim to lose face. One of the world’s leading authorities on North Korea, Wada Haruki, believes that North Korea may now be in the throes of a power struggle, with Kim Jong Il’s commitments to openness and reform, scarcely reported in the North Korean media, contested by “hard-liners.” Incidents such as the December, 2001, spy-ship intrusion and the May, 2002, clash between fishing fleets of North and South Korea in the West Sea (for which Kim was quick to apologize) may well have been orchestrated in an attempt to block his reform moves. Wada thinks Kim is in a position similar to Gorbachev’s, isolated in a rigid and conservative establishment and able to advance reform only by a zigzag process.

Terror in East Asia: A Historical Note

North Korea’s regime has little if any international support and is widely, especially in the U.S. and Japan, treated as an outlaw, terrorist state. Yet simply to label North Korea “terrorist” is neither to understand the burden of the past, nor to offer any prescription for the present or future. “Normalcy” has not been known in the area of East Asia surrounding the Korean peninsula for a hundred years. The frame of state and inter-state relationships has been so distorted by colonialism, division, war, Cold War and confrontation, that the warping has affected not only state systems but also minds and souls.

At the heart of the terror of the 1930s and 1940s was the abduction by imperial Japan of hundreds of thousands of young Korean men for forced labor and young women for forced prostitution. Responsibility for that is only slowly being forced upon an extremely reluctant government in Tokyo. Compensation is still refused. As the abduction issue raged in Japan, media and government sources urged that compensation for the abductees’ families be sought, and in late October it was announced that, indeed, Japan would demand compensation from North Korea. However, it is extremely difficult to argue a moral justification for demanding compensation for the abductions of the 1970s and 1980s, while at the same time persisting in the denial of compensation to the former “comfort women,” slave laborers, and the countless other victims of the colonial era.

In South Korea, until the democratic revolution of 1987, kidnapping, torture and murder by organs of the state were also common. In 1967 and 1969 over one hundred students, artists and intellectuals who were studying or resident in Europe and North America were dragged back to Seoul, accused of spying, tortured, tried, and a number of them sentenced to death or long terms of imprisonment. The most eminent was the renowned composer, Yun I-Sang (who died in 1995), now regarded as one of both Korea’s and Germany’s greatest composers of the 20th century. His death sentence was eventually commuted, but the torture left a mark on him from which he never fully recovered. Others, such as the then Oxford university student Park No Su (Francis Park), were executed. A few years later, in 1973, Kim Dae Jung (now South Korean president) was abducted by agents of the South Korean CIA from a Tokyo hotel room. He too barely escaped with his life. The affair was quietly buried by the two governments in 1975 and to this day it has never been properly investigated, much less resolved by apologies and compensation. The terrorist quality of the South Korean regime reached its apogee in 1980, when hundreds, if not thousands, of people were slaughtered in one of the century’s worst state atrocities—the Kwangju massacre.

The historical process underway today may be seen as that of “normalizing” relations between three states—Japan, North Korea and South Korea—all of which at one time or another and to varying degrees have deployed terror, and creating institutions that will diminish the risk of such terror recurring in future.

The Nuclear Contest: North Korea Versus the U.S.

The issue between North Korea and Japan was complicated enough by the abductions, but that between North Korea and the U.S. has been even more vexed because it centers on the nuclear question. If U.S. hostility toward Iraq has a peculiar intensity because of the failure to unseat Saddam Hussein in 1991, that between the U.S. and North Korea is no less visceral because North Korea, under Kim Il Sung, the father of its present leader, fought the U.S. to a standstill in 1953 and has resisted it ever since. The nuclear threat is familiar to North Korea because it faced it, living under its shadow, for almost its entire history. In the early winter of 1950, General MacArthur sought permission to drop “between 30 and 50 atomic bombs” and lay a belt of radioactive cobalt across the neck of the Korean peninsula. The Joint Chiefs of Staff several times deliberated and came very close to using the atomic bomb, and during the autumn of 1951, one U.S. operation known as “Operation Hudson Harbor,” involved the dispatch of a solitary B-52 to Pyongyang as if on an atomic mission, designed to cause terror, which it undoubtedly did. Four years after the war ended, the U.S. introduced nuclear artillery and missiles intoKorea, adding thereafter to its stockpile kept adjacent to the Demilitarized Zone and designed to intimidate the then non-nuclear North. When nuclear weapons were withdrawn in 1991, at South Korea’s insistence, the U.S. continued its rehearsals for a long-range nuclear bombing strike on North Korea. North Korea seeks no apology, but it seeks an end to the threat of nuclear annihilation under which it has lived longer than any other nation.

North Korea knows that the world is full of nuclear hypocrisy. Non-nuclear countries bow to the prerogative of the great powers that possess the bomb, while resenting their monopoly. They recognize that entry into the “nuclear club” paradoxically earns the respect of current club members—at the same time that it threatens annihilation for those outside. While Washington demands that other nations disavow any nuclear plans, it has refused to ratify the test-ban treaty and signalled its intent to pursue the militarization of space. In addition to an estimated 9,000 nuclear weapons, the U.S. has on several occasions deployed depleted uranium, both in the Gulf War and in the Balkans. Congress is being pushed to authorize production of “robust nuclear earth penetrators,” designed for use against underground complexes and bunkers.

In 1993, U.S. intelligence reports that North Korea was developing a plutonium-based nuclear program led to the threat of war. In the end, however, President Clinton was advised that if “Operations Plan 5027” were implemented “as many as one million people would be killed in the resumption of full-scale war on the peninsula, including 80,000 to 100,000 Americans, that the out-of-pocket costs to the United States would exceed $100 billion, and that the destruction of property and interruption of business activity would cost more than $1,000 billion (one trillion)” (Don Oberdorfer, The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History, p. 324).

Much as the U.S. would have liked to force a “regime change” in Pyongyang, it was obliged to negotiate. Jimmy Carter was dispatched to North Korea, and in June, 1994, a deal was done that became known as the “Agreed Framework.” North Korea would drop its nuclear program—which had been based on natural uranium abundantly available in the country—in return for two electricity-generating light-water reactors, to be installed by 2003, and an interim annual purchase of 3.3 million barrels of oil, while the U.S. pledged to “move towards full normalization of political and economic relations.” As Don Oberdorfer concludes in his study of these events, Pyongyang played the nuclear card “brilliantly, forcing one of the world’s richest and most powerful nations to undertake negotiations and to make concessions to one of the least successful nations” (p. 336).

The U.S. was reluctant about the Agreed Framework from the start, probably hoping or expecting that North Korea would collapse long before the reactors were installed. The “2003” date was never taken seriously: delays were chronic and construction on the site only began in 2002. No electricity could possibly be generated until around the end of the decade at the earliest. On the move toward “full normalization” of relations—a crucial part of the deal for Pyongyang—progress was equally slow, speeding up only in the last months of Clinton’s presidency, when visits were exchanged between Kim Jong-il’s right-hand man, Marshal Jo Myong Rok, and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Clinton himself would probably have gone to Pyongyang had time not run out on his presidency.

Under the (George W.) Bush administration, however, it was back to square one. The Agreed Framework came to be seen as a one-sided North Korean commitment to abandon its nuclear program, while moves towards rapprochement were set aside. The January, 2002, “Axis of Evil” speech and the June, 2002, commitment to preemptive war were stark signals to Pyongyang. The formal presidential statement of strategy presented to Congress in September, 2002, referred to only two “rogue states” (Iraq and North Korea), which were said to constitute “a looming threat to all nations.”

From around 1998, American intelligence agents appear to have discovered that North Korea was engaged in the enrichment of uranium. Uranium enrichment, it should be noted, was not covered by the Agreed Framework. Nor is it entirely clear what processes Pyongyang has been using. Only highly enriched uranium can be used to create nuclear weapons; at lower levels of enrichment it is used in reactors—although not in the type of reactors that North Korea was building in the early nineties. On October 3, 2002, a special U.S. envoy, Deputy Secretary of State James Kelly, was dispatched to Pyongyang to “stress the nuclear issue more forcefully.” The expectation was that Pyongyang would deny the charges, which could then be taken as an excuse to scrap the Agreed Framework. Instead, however, First Vice-Minister Kang Song Ju—according to Kelly—admitted to a uranium-enriching program as well as possession of “other weapons” that were “even more powerful.”

There are several questions as to what really happened. What exactly did Kang, Pyongyang’s most experienced negotiator and a central figure in the 1994 talks, admit to, and with what intention? An official statement from North Korea’s Central News Agency merely declared that Pyongyang “made itself very clear to the special envoy of the U.S. President that the DPRK was entitled to possess not only nuclear weapon (sic) but any type of weapon more powerful than that so as to defend its sovereignty and right to existence from the ever-growing nuclear threat by the U.S.” To the United Nations, North Korea declared that it had indeed purchased uranium-enrichment devices but not yet put them into operation. North Korea does have an obligation under the Agreed Framework to allow inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency, but only when “a significant portion” of the reactors are completed and before “key nuclear components” are delivered.

In early December, Pyongyang announced that it would soon restart its plutonium reactors, which could be used to produce nuclear weapons as well as electricity, because work on its other light-water reactors has been stalled and the Bush administration was curtailing further oil shipments. The discovery of a North Korean ship filled with Scud missiles bound for Yemen (and perhaps for Iraq?) further agitated not only the U.S. but also Japan and South Korea.

Perhaps the most likely interpretation of North Korea’s actions is that offered by Seoul’s Ministry of Unification: “their true aim is not to continue the nuclear development program, but to seek a breakthrough in relations with the United States.” Alexandre Mansourov, of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, argues in similar vein: “The DPRK has been pursuing a clandestine alternative nuclear R&D program, as a hedge against possible collapse of the agreed framework since as early as the late 1990s . . . On the one hand, Kim Jong Il responded to what he apparently perceived as Kelly’s threats with a disguised nuclear threat of his own. On the other hand, he extended an offer of comprehensive engagement.” In this view Kim’s actions are not “irrational brinkmanship” but “premeditated coercive diplomacy.” Pyongyang’s calculation may be seen as coldly rational in recognizing that a nuclear program is one thing the U.S. is bound to treat seriously. More recently, Mansourov has also pointed out that the U.S. can never again go to war on the Korean Peninsula without South Korean acquiescence, since such a war would instantaneously devastate Seoul and produce the deaths of thousands of South Koreans.

The South Korean Election

In South Korea, however, the cause that in late 2002 was bringing large crowds into the streets to demonstrate was not anti-North Korean but anti-American. Outrage was especially strong following the acquittal by an American military court of two soldiers accused of negligent homicide of two young girls. On December 19, Seoul erupted in celebrations of the kind last seen during the Soccer World Cup when Roh Moo-Hyun, of the Millennium Democratic Party was elected president. Most saw it as a victory for Korea, especially its younger generation, a commitment to continue the “sunshine” policies of Kim Dae Jung and to steer a course more independent of either Washington or Tokyo than ever before. Roh promised to be even more sympathetic to Pyongyang and deaf to U.S. pressures than the present Kim Dae Jung.

Roh is a remarkable figure: 56 years old, he is the fifth son of a poor farmer, whose formal education stopped at Commercial High School. He educated himself, passed the country’s notoriously difficult bar examination and became a renowned human rights advocate and a leading figure in the struggles that led to the democratic revolution of 1987. Roh has visited Japan only once—in 1983 to attend a short course in yachting—and the United States not at all. The best testimony to his honesty is the fact that his personal “fortune” amounts to the almost derisory sum of slightly more than $200,000 (260 million won).

During the campaign, Roh insisted that “I don’t believe the problem can be solved by pressuring North Korea.” If elected, he said he would not kowtow to Washington, he would not support the imposition of a deadline for Pyongyang’s compliance with international demands to end its nuclear program and, if necessary, he would “guarantee North Korea’s security.” However unappetizing such views are in Washington, Roh was simply expressing the majority view of his countrymen. Gallup polls show nearly 60 per cent of South Koreans no longer believe North Korea poses a security threat, and a majority also believes that Pyongyang is sincere in its efforts for reunification. As president of South Korea, Roh can be expected to convey those views to Washington and to coax Pyongyang to live up to them.

So, although Rumsfeld was beating the drums of war, it was as if the entire, Seoul-based, string section of his orchestra was playing a different tune. War on North Korea, whatever the noises from Rumsfeld, is virtually impossible if South Korea says “No.” Even during the crisis of 1994, when war was avoided at only the last minute, Jimmy Carter was shocked to find that South Korea, then under the conservative leadership of Kim Young Sam, refused to commit a single one of its own soldiers to the U.S. cause. Kim Dae Jung during his presidency starting in 1997, made it plain that he held even more strongly to such a view. His “sunshine” policy has engaged Pyongyang on a broad range of economic and social fronts. When he met George W. Bush in February, 2002, he spoke strongly against any thought of war, reminding Bush of the 1994 Pentagon assessment that any war would be likely to cause casualties of astronomical proportions, including around 50,000 American dead, matching the casualty list for the entire, decade-long Vietnam War.

Japanese intelligence sources believe it may well have been an emissary from Kim Dae Jung (in April, 2002) who persuaded Kim Jong Il to apologize to the Japanese and attempt to resolve the abduction issue, thus opening the way to the Koizumi visit. When Richard Armitage visited Seoul in early December to bring South Korea into line on policy towards the North, he was disconcerted to find the government there more interested in securing a revision of the Status of Forces Agreement, so that it could discipline U.S. soldiers in Korea in future, than in any talk of war. Under President Roh, this “recalcitrance” will almost certainly intensify. His readiness to “guarantee North Korea’s security” certainly implies that in a showdown with the U.S. South Korea would side with Pyongyang, rather than against it.

Could the U.S. rely on cooperation from Japan in such a showdown? Plainly not. Even though the Japanese pacifist commitment under Article 9 of its constitution is being steadily subverted (under American and right-wing Japanese pressure), the use of Japanese forces is out of the question for the simple reason that both North and South Korea share such a fierce anti-Japanese resentment. The first report of Japanese soldiers landing on the peninsula would be enough to unite them in opposition. Tokyo is also well aware that any Korean War today would be nuclear (statements from the Pentagon during 2001 leave little room for doubt on that) and would devastate and destabilize the entire Northeast Asian region. For such reasons, Tokyo is likely, whatever its rhetoric, to be actively seeking a way to normalize its relations with Pyongyang.

For its part, Pyongyang most likely is counting on precisely such a shift. It has therefore been muted in its comment on the extraordinary outpourings of anti-North Korean sentiment in Japan in late 2002. The obstacle to implementing the September 17 accord signed by Koizumi is the still-unresolved problem of the abductees. The question of Japan’s original commitment to return the “Pyongyang Five” is no longer relevant following their decision, announced on December 19, not to return to North Korea. The problem of what to do about their children, however, remains. So far as is known, the children of two of the families to this day go about their lives in Pyongyang with no idea that both of their parents are Japanese and were forcibly abducted 25 years ago. The children consider themselves normal North Koreans; therefore Pyongyang can scarcely just “hand them over” as Tokyo is demanding. The only way to break the impasse without blatantly infringing on their human rights may be to have them meet with their parents in some third country to decide how they, as families and as individuals, wish to conduct their lives hereafter. A January reunion in the Russian Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk is now reported to be under consideration. Meanwhile, Kim Hye Gyong’s grandparents, the Yokotas, breaking ranks with the national coalition of support groups that has formed in Japan, announced that they might, after all, go to Pyongyang to meet their grand-daughter.

Although Seoul displays increasing confidence about dealing with Pyongyang as the mesh of the relationship thickens, elsewhere there is little understanding and less sympathy for Pyongyang’s plight. There will be no easy path in from the cold. How can Kim Jong Il be serious about reform when established state structures still depend on unquestioning allegiance to the order that reform must negate? Observers in Japan and South Korea see parallels between North Korea today and Japan in the last stages of the Pacific War: embattled, desperate to survive, ready to sacrifice almost anything in the hope of preserving some core value. In Japan, that core value was what was called kokutai, literally the “national polity” but in fact the emperor system. In North Korea the core value is the ideology of juche, which means essentially the guerrilla state myth as now preserved by Kim Jong Il, handed down to him by his father Kim Il Sung. Since the state is to an extraordinary degree identified with its leader, his will to change it may be decisive.

Two psychological factors, pride and face, are also immensely important to all North Koreans and they will cling to them with utmost tenacity. At the end of 2002, the readiness to make any concessions to Pyongyang and to understand in a historical context the pain and sense of justice, however perverted, that drive the regime, were conspicuously absent. For this reason, the more the U.S. resolves to ratchet up the pressure and force Pyongyang into submission, the less likely it is that there will be a successful outcome.

GAVAN McCORMACK is a professor of history at the Australian National University and co-author of Korea Since 1950 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993) and Japan’s Contested Constitution (London: Routledge, 2001). Also see his “North Korea in the Vice,” in New Left Review 18, November/December 2002, and Sekai, January 2003.

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