North Korea shifty on nukes? Don’t believe the hype

[An old piece from ’07 to provide some historical context for NK’s current “sabre rattling.” I’d like to update this sometime.]

The latest reporting on North Korean arms talks repeats the idea that recent successes represent a kind of tentative “breakthrough” with a recalcitrant negotiator, all the more so due to the “shiftiness” of this opponent. For example, CNN: “Few people believe that North Korea will fulfill all of its promises. After all, Pyongyang has sidestepped previous agreements.”This is quite far from the truth. Not only would a reasonable agreement have been struck long ago had the US negotiated for such in earnest, but North Korea (NK) has proved quite true to its word, and indeed in the face of consistent US diffidence and aggression.

I wrote the following timeline awhile ago to demonstrate the US role in the failure of US-NK relations and in the (alleged) nuclear rearmament by NK. I wanted to debunk the claim that NK “broke a promise” to halt nuclear armament and that as a result, future negotiations over nuclear arms would be pointless, as they could produce at best highly unreliable agreements.

Recall that the “Agreed Framework” (AF) of 1994 brokered by Clinton basically called for cessation of the NK nuclear programme—along with its membership in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and admission of IAEA nuclear facility inspectors. In return, the US would build two non-weaponizable light-water nuclear reactors to provide energy for NK and would supply heating oil (500,000 tons per year on a scheduled dispensation) until their completion. Perhaps most importantly, the AF called for both sides to “move toward full normalization of political and economic relations,” including reduction of trade and investment barriers and a formal assurance by the US ruling out threat or use of nuclear weapons against NK.

(Background point: Consider the circumstances under which NK adopted the AF before you accuse them of being quick to break “their” agreements. At the beginning of the year (1994), the US announced deployment of Patriot missles to Scout Korea (SK) and continuance of its nuclear war games there, called “Team Spirit”–both aimed at NK. In all, 48 launching ramps and 192 warheads were sent to SK. This would have effect of “softening up” NK for imposition of the AF. The nuclear “crisis” that more immediately precipitated the AF talks led Clinton to dispatch stealth warplanes to NK, knowing that war might result from this decision. He was turned back from this path by a sobering calculation by the Pentagon: General Luck, US Commander in SK, estimated that resumption of full-scale war on the peninsula would cost 80-100,00 deaths; $100 billion cost to US; $1,000 billion in damages to countries involved and their neighbors. None of these considerations were lost on NK–making it hard to say that they properly “Agreed” to the Framework in the first place, that it was in fact “their” treaty to break even if they went against what it demanded. (But again, as I’ll show, NK did what the AF asked of it–coerced or not.))

There are two basic phases to the (latest) breakdown of US-NK relations:

First, the US under Clinton violated the AF in two major areas:

(1) The US waited until 1999 to lift the economic blockade against NK. This was a full five years since the AF and the clauses demanding mutual ‘normalization’ of relations.

(2) The US delivered the promised fuel only intermittently, dropping deliveries especially during the harsh NK winters. Also, the US seriously slow-walked construction of the two promised reactors.  As David Kang of the Financial Times wrote in 2003, “the first of these [reactors] were due to come into operation this year but it was clear in 1998 that it could be at least three years behind schedule because of US reservations and hesitancy,” and the progress is described as “barely begun.” (The South Koreans locally administering the project specified its defunding by the US.)

The second phase amounts to a campaign of outright aggression—including nuclear aggression—waged by the Bush administration against NK. Consider:

(1) After his first election, Bush immediately cut off diplomatic relations with NK per the negotiations begun under Clinton.

(2) After a “policy review,” Bush racheted up demands upon NK beyond that called for by the Agreed Framework (e.g., NK could now have no ballistic missles and had to cut conventional forces–both exceeding the dictates of the AF.)

(3) In Jan., 2000, he famously placed NK on the “axis of evil,” ultimately invading one of the other members.

(4) The US suspended its already limited food aid to NK.

(5) In Mar., 2002, leaked portions of the Pentagon’s “Nuclear Posture Review” showed the US is prepared to use nuclear weapons against NK, in violation of the Agreed Framework (and the 1992 Nuclear-Free Declaration which it reaffirmed).

**Note that at this point there is no indication, nor even a US allegation, that NK is pursuing nuclear rearmament.**

(6) In Oct., 2002, the US alleged that NK admitted to pursuing uranium enrichment during talks. (NK, along with US observers at the talks in question, deny this.) The US claimed that this violates the Agreed Framework, though uranium enrichment is not covered by the AF.

(7) In “response” to this ficticious infraction, the US cut off fuel oil supplies altogether and coerced Japan and other Asian neighbors to do likewise, at the start of the chilly North Korean winter.

**Only at this point does NK begin to speak of the “nullification of the Agreed Framework.”**

(8) On Dec.29, 2002, the New York Times reported on the new US “tailored containment” plan designed to drain NK economically and isolate them politically, ultimately to facilitate regime change. This included a plan to intercept NK missile sales to other states–not for security, but to deny NK much-needed hard currency.

(9) On Dec. 23, 2003, Rumsfeld reassured the press corps that US military is “perfectly capable” of waging war against NK and Iraq at the same time. (Colin Powell affirmed this veiled threat elsewhere, if only a bit more ‘veiled-ly’.) Bush alluded to a possible “nuclear strike” against the reactors.

(10) Jan. 2003:  In response, NK announced withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, freeing it to resume work on two nuclear reactors. (This is not a case of NK’s “breaking” an agreement: Withdrawal is permitted by the rules of the treaty with one month’s notice.) On Jan. 10, NK’s UN ambassador Pak Gil Yon denied NK is producing nuclear weapons–only “civilian” energy such as the undelivered light-water reactors were intended–but is keeping the option open as a matter of sovereign right to defense.

(11) At this time, US Asst. Secretary of State James Kelly toured South Korea and China to petition for tightening of economic sanctions against NK, in accord with “tailored containment.”

(12) In Feb., 2003, Gen. Richard Meyers, US Joint Chief of Staff, told NBC that NK is a target for “nuclear preemptive strike” by the US. South Korean investigative reporter Lee Si-Woo provided documentary evidence verifying that the US military had nuclear weapons in South Korea at the Jinhae naval base and had been practicing nuclear submarine attacks against NK (in violation of the 1992 Nuclear-Free Declaration and the 1994 Agreed Framework).

So to sum up the “Bush phase”: Bush halted the promised light water reactor program due to an allegation, unverified, that NK was pursuing nuclear technology which it was permitted under the relevant treaties to pursue. In response to a stepped-up program of US aggression toward them, NK (at long last) broke the seals on old nuclear technology and [claimed to have] weaponized it. At that point there were no treaties, and frankly no common-sense argument, to stand in the way of this move.

* * * * *

In conclusion, there is an important “deeper” story to all this that goes beyond the point I am trying to make here. I wrote this primarily to show the kind of “partner” the US is to those nations to which, like NK, it bears an imperialist relationship–to show how its behavior must look to these other nations and how this might prompt us to interpret the responsive behavior of these third parties.

I noted above that the US has not negotiated in earnest with NK–a mild way of putting the point. This “false face” is illustrated perfectly by Bush’s post-reelection appointment of Victor Cha as Asia Director for the National Security Council–and therefore chief architect of policy toward NK. Cha wrote a book outlining a nuclear negotiations strategy the US should adopt toward the regime. (You can get it at In it, he argues that the US should expect not to actually resolve anything at these talks. Instead, while maintaining the sincere appearance of desiring resolution, US negotiators should deliberately sabotage any successful outcome–but in such a way that NK appears (but is not actually) at fault. The stated aim is to portray NK as completely unreasonable in the eyes of its neighbors–to isolate it diplomatically and provide rationale for a unilateral strategy to be pursued by the US.

Cha openly states that the aim is the “coercion” and “punishment” of NK under the pretense of diplomatic “multilateralism.” This explains, first, why Bush was so adamant about  maintaining six-party regional nuclear talks with NK rather than the bilateral meetings every other country gets. (Recall his stupid, tautological defense of this policy in the Kerry debates–that bilateral talks should be avoided because “they would dismantle the multilateral talks” already begun: This is like protesting that one cannot get married because that would “dismantle my bachelor status” already in place; the statement is technically true but elucidates precisely nothing about the actual relative merits of bachelorhood versus married life. I mean, any change one makes “dismantles” a previous state of being–the trick is to say why that is a bad idea.) Second, that the sneaky, “coerci[ve]” intent demonstrated by the Cha appointment has held firm throughout the timeline described above should be clear to anyone paying attention.


One response to “North Korea shifty on nukes? Don’t believe the hype

  1. Interesting blog. I’d be interested in a link exchange if you are.

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