In-depth Business Intelligence
Books on North Korea
22,224,195 (July 2002 est.)
North Korean won (KPW)
Update No: 022 - (28/02/05)
Global attention to North Korea in February focused on a
single event; or more exactly, a statement. For the first third of the month,
the prevailing expectation was - despite a lack of hard evidence for this - that
Pyongyang would soon end its long boycott of dialogue on the nuclear issue and
return to the six-party talks in Beijing, last held in June 2004.
Pyongyang drops a bombshell
On February 10, however, North Korea raised the stakes and temperature
dramatically. A statement from the the DPRK ministry of foreign affairs, carried
by the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), said that it felt
"compelled to suspend our participation in the [six-party] talks for an
indefinite period" because of the USA's hostile attitude. It added that
Pyongyang had "manufactured nukes [sic] for self-defence," and would
retain a "nuclear deterrent for self-defence under any circumstances."
Rather like Pyongyang's earlier and opposite declaration of peace and friendship
with the US almost a month earlier on January 14, discussed in last month's
Update, this double bombshell briefly made headlines around the world.
Wrongfooting everyone is itself one of North Korea's weapons of mass
distraction, and this was a classic example. If one aim was simply to get some
attention, it must be judged a success.
Noteworthy too was the relatively low-key reaction of all concerned. The
prevailing note was one more of sorrow than anger. The new US secretary of state
Condoleezza Rice, on her first visit to Europe in that capacity, was notably
mild. With rare unanimity, the US, China, South Korea, Japan, Russia and others
all urged North Korea to return to the talks.
There were several reasons for the apparent calm. Although this is North Korea's
clearest claim yet to have nuclear weapons, it is by no means the first. After
long insisting that its nuclear research was peaceful, for the past two years
Pyongyang has repeatedly defended its right to have, and ever more openly hinted
in private and public at actually possessing, a nuclear deterrent. So this
information as such is not the bombshell it at first seemed.
Another reason to keep a cool head is that, in this high-stakes poker game,
there is just a chance that Kim Jong-il might be bluffing. In the absence of a
physical test - and despite rumours that Pakistan's Dr A Q Khan had helped on
that front - there can be no certainty that Pyongyang has successfully
weaponized plutonium for any form of delivery; much less miniaturized it to fit
on its Nodong (short-range) or Taepodong (medium-range) missiles. That is the
real worry to Japan - and even the US, whose controversial missile defence
shield, still in its infancy, is being planned very much with North Korea in
Complacency is ill-advised
Yet complacency on this score seems ill-advised. By most estimates North
Korea has had over a decade to work on plutonium made with spent fuel from its
Yongbyon reactor, before the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) gained
access in the early 1990s. On this basis the CIA has long supposed that
Pyongyang might have one or two nuclear devices. It could now have made more -
perhaps half a dozen - using 8,000 spent fuel rods taken from Yongbyon after
IAEA inspectors were expelled at the end of 2002.
That would increase the threat in two ways. Whereas one or two bombs would be
kept for self-defence, a production line might tempt Pyongyang to sell them.
Nuclear proliferation - especially to terrorists - is a major US nightmare; and
would surely constitute the 'red line' that the Bush administration, for all its
rhetoric, has failed to lay down so far. North Korea's drug trafficking and
counterfeiting activities, both well documented, suggest few scruples in selling
anything to anyone. Even if Kim Jong-il would surely not be so foolish as to
supply al-Qaida directly, this might come about through a chain of
Did the DPRK sell nuclear materials to Libya?
In that context, reports in early February that a uranium derivative,
uranium hexafluoride (also known as UF6) found among Libya's nuclear materiel,
now in US hands, may have been sourced from North Korea set alarm bells ringing.
(Though not in itself fissile, UF6 can be enriched into weapons-grade material
if fed into nuclear centrifuges.) Although some queried how new or accurate this
intelligence is, the US at once sent two National Security Council (NSC)
officials - one was Michael Green, the NSC's new director for Asia - to Beijing,
Seoul and Tokyo, specifically to share this information. President Hu Jintao of
China, most unusually, met this relatively junior delegation personally. A key
US aim is to get China to up the ante from just hosting the six-party talks -
itself a more activist stance than Beijing's passive past diplomacy - and lean
harder on Kim Jong-il.
Ironically, Pyongyang itself seems to have achieved that (own) goal with its
February 10 statement. By all accounts Beijing was furious. Besides more
criticism of North Korea in the Chinese press and on websites than is usual,
president Hu personally reaffirmed both the six-party process and the need to
denuclearize the Korean peninsula. A senior party official, Wang Jiarui, was
dispatched to Pyongyang to talk urgently to Kim Jong-il.
In response, the dear leader - little seen of late, fuelling reports of a power
struggle in Pyongyang - was quoted directly (which is rare) by KCNA as
supporting both the goal of denuclearization and the six-party process. As KCNA
reported him on February 22: "We will go to the negotiating table anytime
if there are mature conditions for the six-party talks thanks to the concerted
efforts of the parties concerned in the future, he [Kim] said, expressing the
hope that the United States would show trustworthy sincerity and move."
What is Kim Jong-il's game?
This statement added to the frenzy of speculation since February 10 on the
key question of motive. Several hypotheses have been adduced. One is the Libya
uranium allegation, which will have rattled Pyongyang on two fronts.
Proliferation aside, to be producing UF6 supports US charges that North Korea
has a second covert nuclear programme using highly enriched uranium (HEU). The
HEU allegation was what precipitated the second and ongoing North Korean nuclear
crisis, 28 months ago. Pyongyang denies any HEU activity, and the US is oddly
reluctant to go public with its evidence. China too has been sceptical on HEU,
urging that the admitted plutonium programme be dealt with first.
Yet it is not Pyongyang's style to react so immediately as this. In follow-up
comments explaining their stance, DPRK diplomats took umbrage at comments by
Condoleezza Rice in her confirmation hearings, where their country was cited as
one of six "outposts of tyranny." Yet if North Korea is paying close
attention, as it surely should be, then it knows this is the exception - but
perhaps regards it as proving the rule. Other comment, including President
Bush's State of the Union address, was notably mild in its rhetoric.
Missing subtleties, or sore spot?
One possibility is that Pyongyang's own publicly monolithic politics may
make it hard to grasp the balances and nuances of Washington: for instance, that
the North Korea Human Rights Act, a particular bugbear, came out of Congress
rather than the executive - and has not been fully funded. An earlier diatribe
against Human Rights Watch implied that North Korea cannot even tell the
difference between an NGO and the US government.
Or again, Kim Jong-il may have read only too well the theme of a crusade for
democracy in recent Bush rhetoric, and feel vulnerable. A strange passage, which
almost no western commentary appears to have picked up on, in the February 10
statement hints that this is a sensitive area: "The US now foolishly claims
to stand by the people in the DPRK while negating the government chosen by the
people themselves. We advise the US to negotiate with dealers in peasant markets
it claims they are to its liking [sic] or with representatives of 'the
organization of north Korean defectors' on its payroll if it wishes to hold
A domestic motive?
So the DPRK's own politics may be one factor. The foreign ministry statement
came out while China and South Korea were off celebrating the oriental new year
holiday, and just before North Korea's equivalent: Kim Jong-il's birthday on
February 16. This year is also the tenth anniversary of Kim's Songun
(military-first) policy. Claims of growing tension were at once used in the
DPRK's domestic media to call for stronger unity around the leader. This may
thus be an attempt to paper over growing signs of both elite and popular dissent
as to the regime's direction. Or proud reaffirmation of a right to nuclear
activity may serve (as in Iran) to unite factions otherwise divided, for
instance on reform. It could mean that hardliners have the upper hand - or
conversely, a frustrated Kim Jong-il may want to know once and for all if George
W Bush is prepared to engage with him or not.
The dear leader's comments to his Chinese visitor, President Hu's emissary,
support the latter view. He has a point. The Bush administration remains split
on whether to engage North Korea at all, or wait (or work) for regime change.
Advocates of the latter are encouraged by rumours of elite unrest in Pyongyang;
ignoring not only the risks attendant in any North Korean collapse, but also the
real chance that Kim Jong-il might be replaced by something even worse -
hardline generals, for instance. On the other hand, playing the nuclear card as
he has just done is not calculated to win the dear leader friends in Washington,
or indeed anywhere. There is also the simple possibility that Washington prefers
one confrontation at a time and currently the focus is on the complexities of
Bad for business
It also does no favours to those few dedicated optimists who are trying to
tempt foreign investors to put their money into North Korea. It seems
extraordinary if Kim Jong-il, who is no fool, cannot grasp how his nuclear
antics undermine the economic reforms to which he also seems committed. To work,
the latter require substantial foreign investment in a nation desperately short
of capital. This simply will not be forthcoming while the nuclear crisis
persists. Kim literally faces the textbook economics choice: guns or butter.
Admittedly, and remarkably, South Korea swiftly said that inter-Korean projects
like the Kaesong special industrial zone will continue, unless the situation
deteriorates further. It is odd that Seoul apparently forswears using economic
aid for political leverage. But the worm may be turning; even before the nuclear
announcement, the South deflected a new Northern demand for 500,000 tonnes of
fertilizer (more than usual) by saying this can be discussed at an inter-Korean
economic committee - which the North has been boycotting.
Continuing to aid a nuclear North Korea may also exacerbate already strained
relations between Seoul and Washington. The US basically looks askance at
Kaesong anyway, and has insisted that South Korea enforce restrictions on the
transfer of sensitive technologies into the zone under the Wassenaar
Arrangement, of which Seoul is a signatory. Despite denials of a rift, the US
will also not be keen if South Korea does in the end send half a million tons of
fertilizer (as on past form it probably will), as if everything were normal.
The complex wider relations between the six parties also seem to be turning
negative. A China angered by closer US-Japan defence cooperation, particularly
over Taiwan, and by US pressure on Europe not to lift its arms sales embargo to
China, is hardly likely to go out on a limb for Washington over the North Korean
Plaintiff or cynic? Light from literature
Needless to say, this whole episode also inspired a fresh crop of op-ed
articles on what Pyongyang really wants, and how to handle it. Such commentary
tends to fall into two main camps: hawks who see North Korea as incurably evil
and playing a cynical game, versus doves who aver that in his own peculiar way
Kim Jong-il really does want to deal.
Over the years these positions have become entrenched, with new angles and
evidence all too rare. One exception was a New York Times op-ed on February 13
by B. R. Myers, an expert on North Korean literature, which shed fascinating if
depressing light on the kinds of stories Kim Jong-il's regime tells its own
people about these matters. As Myers shows, this if anything mirrors the western
hawk view: "School textbooks, wall posters, literary works: all celebrate a
cynical 'attack diplomacy' that makes a frightened and uncertain world dance to
the drum of Kim Jong-il." Thus a novel on the nuclear crisis published in
2003, The Barrel of a Gun, not only has the dear leader forcing the Clinton
administration to its knees, but cheerfully admits that Pyongyang signed the
Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985 merely for diplomatic purposes -
and then proceeded to "ignore" it.
What happens next is unclear. China will doubtless lean heavily on Kim to
return to the six-party talks, which would be hailed as progress. But around the
table North Korea may well stall as usual, or at least continue to demand
assurances of US goodwill while itself giving little away. This stalemate could
drag on for some time. With memories of how a decade ago Jimmy Carter defused a
similar (but tenser) standoff by visiting Pyongyang, there is speculation that
Bill Clinton, who recently visited Seoul, might play a similar role now of
cutting the Gordian knot. In the last weeks of his presidency Clinton was ready
to go to Pyongyang to sign a missile agreement, but time ran out. Whether he
would be acceptable to his successor as an envoy is unclear, though they get on
at a personal level.
The fear, however, must be that despite Pyongyang's latest gesture, neither the
US nor other powers will prove any more inclined to prioritize the North Korean
nuclear issue now than previously. In which case North Korea (or Kim Jong-il's),
back to the wall, may be driven to some new attention-seeking gesture - perhaps
a nuclear test, to seek to settle things once and for all and to perhaps feel
that it is they who are driving the situation. Thus as of now the omens do not
look good - unless the two principals, the US and DPRK, can find a way to trust
each other and deal seriously. We live in hope.