When I was growing up in the 80’s, the political climate was volatile. The Cold War was in full effect and thermonuclear war was on everyone’s minds with movies like “Threads”, “Wargames”, and “The Day After”. Nuclear disarmament is again a popular topic in world politics with the “War Against Terror” and countries like North Korea, which is considered to be part of the “Axis of Evil” as coined by President George W. Bush in his State of the Union address on January 29, 2002. His exact words were as follows:
[Our goal] is to prevent regimes that sponsor terror from
threatening America or our friends and allies with weapons
of mass destruction. Some of these regimes have been pretty
quiet since September the 11th. But we know their true nature.
North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of
mass destruction, while starving its citizens.…
…States like [this], and their terrorist allies, constitute
an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.
By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes
pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide
these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match
their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to
blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price
of indifference would be catastrophic. (http://vote-smart.org)
Upon George W. Bush’s arrival into office in 2000, the U.S. has held a tougher and more aggressive stance toward North Korea. Cutting off one-on-one diplomatic relations initiated by the Clinton Administration, the Bush Administration accused North Korea of “violating the spirit of the Agreed Framework by developing a secret uranium program that the U.S. believed would circumvent the agreement.” The U.S. ceased the shipment of fuel oil it was supposed to provide. Pyongyang retaliated by expelling international inspectors and resuming the reprocessing of plutonium, which it had previously stopped under the 1994 Agreed Framework and on January 10, 2003, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (Harrison 1).
David Cortright, in his article, “The New Nuclear Danger”, says, “A strategy of selective coercion is fundamentally flawed” (20). According to Cortright, it has been the Bush Administration’s response to proliferation dangers to increase coercive pressures (19). Ronald E. Powaski reports in his article, “North Korea’s Nuclear Challenge” that in September of 2005, the Treasury Department ordered U.S. banks to sever relations with Banco Delta Asia because the bank was accused of passing counterfeit $100 bills manufactured by the North Korean government as well as helping to launder North Korean money made from drug smuggling and other illicit activities. “The restriction curtailed [North Korea’s] access to the international banking system, even for the purposes of legitimate foreign trade” (10). In Time’s article, “When Outlaws Get the Bomb”, Henry Soloski, former Defense Department nonproliferation expert in the Bush Administration, is quoted as saying, “The tactical game with North Korea—trying to get them to stand down their nuclear program—is now pretty much over. Now it’s a strategic game, containing them and waiting for the regime to collapse” (Powell 34). Cortright states that the attack on Iraq, which was ironically coined a “war for disarmament” by Jonathan Schell, has only served to harden the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea with the example made of Saddam Hussein. He also cites Former Defense Secretary William Perry who said, “I have never been as worried as I am now that a nuclear bomb will be detonated in an American city. I fear that we are racing toward an unprecedented catastrophe.” Cortright goes on to warn that if the North Korean nuclear danger continues to persist, the pressure will be on for Japan and perhaps also for South Korea and Taiwan to develop corresponding nuclear capabilities (19).
…On July 4, 2006, North Korea tested four or five short range missiles, which landed in the Sea of Japan. The sixth missile, the Taepodong 2, was a long range missile but either failed or was aborted 40 seconds after launch. The seventh missile was launched the following day at 8:22 UTC. Media reports out of South Korea indicate that North Korea has three to four more missiles on launch pads and ready for firing. These missiles are believed to be of short to medium range…On October 9 2006, North Korea claimed that it had tested its first nuclear weapon at an undisclosed, underground test site. Within days, both the United States and China reported collecting air samples from the region that contained small amounts of radioactive material as well as seismic data showing a possible subterranean explosion, consistent with North Korea's claim that it had conducted a nuclear test…(Harrison 4)
Powaski details that in reaction to the nuclear test, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on North Korea on October 14. “The sanctions included freezing the assets of businesses connected to North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic weapons programs, restricting the sale of luxury goods and placing travel bans on government officials. The Security Council also authorized neighboring countries to inspect cargo going into and out of North Korea” (10). Bush's reaction to the blast was to say, "The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to other states or nonstate entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States, and we would hold North Korea fully accountable for the consequences of such action" (Powell 33). As President, Bush has proven himself to be quick to take military action and with this track record, I do not perceive him as a “negotiator” or a “peacemaker”. It is one thing for him to give a tour of Graceland to the Prime Minister of Japan or to hold hands with the King of Saudi Arabia in a garden, but to talk a madman down from detonating weapons?
With North Korea’s closed off, secretive and isolated nature, it is hard to tell if Kim Jong Il, dictatorial Leader of North Korea, is bluffing or if he really holds under his command a giant cache of WMD. In Dismantling the DPRK’s Nuclear Weapons Program, David Albright writes that the current size and status of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program are unknown although North Korean officials have often stated since February 2005 that the DPRK has nuclear weapons, but have refused to say just how many or whether the weapons could be delivered by ballistic missile, which is the most threatening delivery system to Japan and the United States (7). Cortright states that the risk of a bomb blowing up in a city is arguably greater than during the Cold War and is likely to increase in the years ahead. It is speculated that Pyongyang has enough weapons-grade plutonium to produce 10 bombs. North Korea had only enough material for one or two bombs at the beginning of George W. Bush’s Presidency because during the Clinton Administration, North Korea agreed to freeze its existing nuclear programs and accept on-site monitoring. In the 90’s, the North Korean nuclear program was under inspected lockdown. The deal began to fall apart in 1998 and though the Clinton Administration negotiated a new arrangement with North Korea to halt missile tests and nuclear development, swapping for a U.S. commitment to normalize economic and diplomatic relations, as one of its last acts, the Bush Administration refused to carry on the negotiations (Cortright 19). Albright reports that in the process of negotiating a verified dismantlement plan, North Korea and the U.S. have made unacceptable proposals to each other due primarily to a lack of confidence in the other’s veracity. The United States has joined with China, Japan, Russia and South Korea in six-party talks to attempt to create a plan to dismantle North Korea’s program in a manner with which all nations can feel secure (Albright 1).
Made clear by President Bush’s 2002 address, his tone concerning North Koreans was very ominous, which reminds me of another time. As a kid in elementary school, I was offspring to one of the first waves of South Korean immigrants to arrive in the United States back in the late 60’s/early 70’s and I was asked frequently, “Are you from the South or are you a Red?” by the other kids. Not knowing any better and thinking that being Communist was an awful, awful thing, I would say I was from the South even though I was born in San Francisco and didn’t really know my history or the history of Korea.
Growing up, my Mom would tell me stories about where we came from and I also did some of my own research. In five thousand years, Korea had survived five major Occupations, several wars, and up until the Korean War, the North and the South had been one country with its capitol in Pyongyang. My great-great-grandfather was the last tutor to the last Prince of Korea, and our family had long been living in Pyongyang. Technically, I guess it is not incorrect to state I have roots in North Korea.
When I was twelve, I walked miles through a dark tunnel on the border of South Korea to a wall with a box to step up on in order to peer through a small rectangular window onto the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). I could see North Korean soldiers, heavily armed on the other side. I would find out later that the town at the border was all for show, constantly lit up, but empty. I became very concerned about the split between the two Koreas after that experience and when I got a bit older, after the fall of the Berlin wall, I was asked to give a speech in a contest held by the community of Bay Area Korean Methodist churches. I orated a piece I had written about the reunification of Korea looking to Germany as an example. I lost out to “How to Make a Christian Salad”.“Add a bit of love, a dash of kindness, some rainbows…” Needless to say, I was disappointed by Koreans in the U.S. People, all elders, came up to me after my speech and said that the subject was too heavy, that I shouldn’t have chosen the topic because it went against the spirit of being American. This is when I began to develop confusion about my identity. I became split by being American and my own race. I just couldn’t understand how we Koreans had the same roots, but weren’t the same people. After all, everyone from the South has some family on the other side. It is unfortunate that the government in place in North Korea is self-interested and unconcerned for its citizens. I now agree that the increasingly maniacal disregard for his people has proven Kim Jong Il’s need to be checked. And when I hear about the North Korean human rights atrocities and starvation rates, rumors of cannibalism in the streets due to the lack of food, I find myself horrified and also disgusted by the overindulgent Kim Jong Il. I feel for those suffering under his dictatorial regime.
Kim's reputation for personal extravagance is a focus of international attention on both the man and his country. In the context of United Nations sanctions restricting the trade in luxury items to North Korea following the country's October 2006 nuclear test, Reuters coverage noted that "No one enjoys luxury goods more than paramount leader Kim Jong-il, who boasts the country's finest wine cellar with space for 10,000 bottles. Kim has a penchant for fine food such as lobster, caviar and the most expensive cuts of sushi that he has flown in to him from Japan. His annual purchases of Hennessy's cognac reportedly total to $700,000, while the average North Korean earns the equivalent of $900 per year.” (Blitzer 1)
Powaski says that North Korea has had to “swallow a dose of realism” because of imposed UN sanctions, although he also states that neither China nor South Korea, North Korea’s two most important trading partners, have conducted the rigorous inspections required to make the sanctions work (10). I think Kim Jong Il must be feeling the pinch a bit anyway because the latest installment of six-party talks may have made a breakthrough. In “North Korea Deal: Caution Follows”, Brian Bremner reports that according to a joint statement issued by the six-party members, as of February 14, 2007, North Korea has agreed to “shut down and seal for the purpose of abandonment the Yongbyon nuclear facility” and a plutonium reprocessing plant there, and also to invite back International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to look around. North Korea, in exchange, will get an initial emergency energy assistance of 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil and the U.S. and Japan will open up bilateral talks with Pyongyang. Paik Hak Soon, a North Korea specialist at Sejong Institute, thinks that Bush gave Secretary Condoleeza Rice and Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill the running room to convince Kim’s government the U.S. wasn’t intent on regime change and Kim Teng Jianquin, deputy secretary general of China Arms Control and Disarmament Association in Beijing thinks this shift in U.S. approach made a big difference (Bremner 17). Cortright states, “Nonproliferation successes in the past have relied not on military pressure but on diplomacy and carrot-and-stick bargaining” (20).
In Bremner’s article, he says that the compromises made in Beijing by the six party members will be met with blistering criticism in the U.S. and that Bush is sure to come under fire from watchful national-security Republicans who think that the U.S. gave away too much to strike a deal that may be dead a year from now. After all, there is no guarantee that IAEA inspectors will truly be allowed complete access to North Korean nuclear labs and processing plants or that Kim will hand over any of the nuclear weapons that the U.S. CIA believe he has already developed. Another reason there could be a stall in normalizing relations with North Korea is Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been under heavy domestic pressure to have North Korea make restitution for its past abduction of Japanese citizens. North Korea’s removal as a designated terrorist state will still take many years even if all these hurdles can be bypassed (17).
Cortright claims that the challenge in halting proliferation in particular countries “depends on a global commitment to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons everywhere.” He goes on to say that, “ultimately the success of any nonproliferation strategy requires a universal standard” and Washington’s “Do as I say, not as I do” approach is hypocritical not to mention lacking in moral authority (21). I am not claiming to know the answer to safety in a post-911 world, however when asked how all this affects me, I must say that the fact that North Korea is so close to home, and that the United States is my home, the only thing I can do is to separate my identity like an egg white from a yolk, and hope that world peace is the eventual wish for most countries in this global community. I find myself siding with those invested in eventual and total disarmament, however I am also a realist. The war in Iraq which has produced no WMD findings is a painful strain due to its longevity and lack of progress not to mention disappointing because of its lack of evidence, and yet nuclear weapons, especially if in the wrong hands, is a fear that prevents any future peace in a suspicious new age. Therefore there is a need for normalized relations with secretive countries like North Korea which could not only change the course of the nuclear race, but also could be a real first step in breaking down the wall, though that is just a Korean dream.
Albright, David. Dismantling the DPRK’s Nuclear Weapons Program. Washington, DC: U.S. Institute of Peace, 2006.
Blitzer, Wolf. "North Korean leader loves Hennessey, Bond movies." CNN.com, 8 Jan. 2003.
Bremner, Brian. “North Korea Deal: Caution Follows.” Business Week Online. 14 Feb. 2007, 17.
Bush, George. Address. State of the Union. The United States Capitol, 29 Jan. 2002.
Cortright, David. “The New Nuclear Danger.” America. 11 Dec. 2006, Vol. 195 Issue 19, 18-22.
Harrison, Selig S. “Did North Korea Cheat?” Foreign Affairs. January/February 2005. Vol 84, Number 1. 1-5.
Powaski, Ronald E. “North Korea's Nuclear Challenge.” America. 12 Feb. 2007, Vol. 196 Issue 5, 9-11.
Powell, Bill; Baker, Aryn; Burger, Timothy J.; Donnelly, Sally B.; Shannon, Elaine; Elegant, Simon; Graff, James; Hasnain, Ghulam; MacLeod, Scott; McAllister, J. F. O.; McGirk, Tim; Purvis, Andrew; Robinson, Simon; Veale, Jennifer; Walsh, Bryan. “When Outlaws Get the Bomb.” Time. 23 Oct. 2006, Vol. 168 Issue 17, 32-37.