Hawk talk is a poor gambit

Going Critical - Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies - North Korea

September 24, 2004

Ignorance of North Korea has hindered engagement, suggests James Hoare.

I worked through the first Korean nuclear crisis and played a small part in the second. One Friday evening in October 2002, as we prepared to close up our Pyongyang embassy, I had a call from an agitated US diplomat. He was part of Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly's delegation that had come to discuss relations between the US and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), to give North Korea its correct name. They needed help. My contact said little beyond indicating that the delegation wished to use our secure communications and that they did not want to use their DPRK-supplied cars, which came complete with escorts. In jeans and sweatshirt - we dressed down on Fridays because the North Koreans would not do business with us and we were working on a building site - I set off with our embassy cars to pick up the Americans from the Koryo Hotel.

They were clearly shocked and tired but, on reaching our embassy, began work on telegrams to Washington. I kept out of their way, supplying drinks as needed. Later, Kelly gave me a brief account of how the North Koreans had admitted that they had an enriched uranium programme, in breach of the 1994 Agreed Framework. This revelation led him to break off the talks and report to Washington. After Kelly left, North Korean officials repeatedly said during my round of farewell calls that he had made a mistake and should have stayed talking. When the story leaked in Washington DC two weeks later, not only had I left Pyongyang for good, but I was almost retired from the diplomatic service. It was an interesting note on which to end my diplomatic career.

Reading Going Critical brought back the tensions and concerns of the earlier nuclear crisis of the 1990s. Of the three books under review, this is the most scholarly and the one most likely to have lasting value. It tells in detail how initial concern about the DPRK's nuclear programme gradually hardened into certainty that this programme was not solely for peaceful purposes but would ultimately produce nuclear weapons.

The detail can be a bit overwhelming, in the style of Time magazine. We learn that President Bill Clinton uses a Mont Blanc pen with a thick nib.

We also learn, not once but three times, that Kang Sok Ju, the chief DPRK negotiator, is fond of referring to the story of the Trojan horse but talks of the "Horse of Troy". Such detail reflects the major role that the three authors played in negotiating the 1994 US-DPRK Agreed Framework, which capped at least one line of DPRK nuclear development until the George W.

Bush Administration in effect ended it in 2002, in the aftermath of Kelly's visit. Now all three authors are academics. Then they were senior officials in the Clinton Administration; indeed, it was Robert Galluchi who negotiated and signed the Agreed Framework.

The book tells the story at a good pace without suffering from its multiple authorship. It shows that the Clinton Administration considered many ways of handling the DPRK issue before deciding on negotiations. It remains unclear how close the administration really came to a military option. The military believed that it could win a war but that the costs in lives and destruction would be very high, especially given the closeness of the South Korean capital, Seoul, to the demilitarised zone. In addition, nobody could be sure of hitting the right targets when dealing with a country adept at hiding its military equipment. Negotiations therefore became the favoured approach.

It proved no easy task to negotiate with the North Koreans. Few in the US Administration had any direct knowledge of North Korea and few seem to have tried to understand why they were behaving as they did.

The authors note that when the negotiations began, hardly anybody on the US side had ever met, never mind negotiated, with a North Korean. They do not do irony, or they might have realised that this lack of contact was a major contributory factor to the crisis. It was also difficult handling Japan and, above all, the Republic of Korea. The latter, the likely target of any DPRK attack, was understandably jittery about negotiations in which it had no direct part. It also had a new type of president in Kim Young-sam, a long-time opposition politician. Kim, unlike his military predecessors, tended to follow rather than try to lead public opinion. When it shifted, so did he, which did not make for an easy relationship.

In the end, an agreement emerged. It did not settle all the issues, and some continue to criticise it for this. Whatever the defects, it capped the DPRK nuclear programme for several years. It brought the US and the DPRK into productive contact for the first time since the end of the Korean War and helped to persuade the DPRK out of its isolation. If Bush had lost the 2000 election, there would have still been a nuclear problem, but I doubt whether it would have developed in the same way if the Democrats had been handling it.

Republicans had not liked the Agreed Framework both because it was a Clinton initiative and because the US seemed to be giving in to blackmail.

Under Clinton, they tried to wreck it in Congress. Once in power, they began a process of re-examining all programmes relating to North Korea.

During 2001, relations between the US and North Korea deteriorated, although the Agreed Framework continued. Even President Bush's "axis of evil" reference in his January 2002 State of the Union address did not end it. Those who opposed it had not gone away, however, and the Kelly visit set in train the end of the agreement.

This is the background to Nuclear North Korea . The authors, both political scientists, dismiss other works on the DPRK nuclear issue as shallow. They say that they had trouble getting their book accepted in 2003 because nobody was interested. However, given the number of publications on the subject, I find this hard to believe, and suspect the problem lies less in the subject than in the format. For Victor Cha and David Kang engage in a debate. Since they used the same device in articles in the May/June 2003 issue of Foreign Policy and the Summer 2004 issue of Survival , they must think it a good one. They write a joint introduction, and two joint final chapters, but otherwise, each contributes alternate chapters. The result is a sort of good cop/bad cop routine.

Cha, a well-known exponent of "hawk engagement", argues for a tough line on North Korea. Only fear of the US will keep the DPRK from fulfilling its goal of conquering the ROK. Kang, however, notes that the DPRK has genuine concerns about its security, which the US and the rest of the world should address. He also believes that the DPRK is nothing like the powerful state its opponents describe. He argues that the North has moved on from earlier positions and should be encouraged to keep moving in this positive direction. When the two come together in the final chapters, they agree that the only sensible way to deal with the DPRK, short of destroying everything the US is defending, is to engage.

Bruce Cumings' North Korea: The Hermit Kingdom is the most readable of the three books but also the most controversial. Cumings is a major scholar, perhaps the major Western scholar of North Korea, and he always writes of that country with clarity and knowledge. This book, however, is a polemic, written with a fierce wish to change attitudes but perhaps with little expectation that they will do so. Readers should not judge it as a scholarly work, although it has a scholarly apparatus (but no index).

Cumings is writing in the tradition of the great agitators. His concern is not solely with the nuclear crisis, but with the wider perception of the DPRK. He is tough on other commentators, whom he condemns for their simplistic approach to a highly complex society.

He argues that part of the problem in dealing with North Korea is that few in the US have ever attempted to understand the country or its behaviour.

(Comments in the other two books certainly bear this out.) From his experience, which echoes mine, he tries to show that there is more to the DPRK than stock images of stark buildings and marching troops produced so regularly on our televisions. Here are a people who go about their daily lives in fear of the US and US firepower, located not thousands of miles away, but just south of the demilitarised zone dividing the Korean peninsula. The problem is that in attempting to redress the balance, Cumings find himself on difficult ground. He paints a picture of DPRK leader Kim Jong Il and his family as trapped in their own system. He argues that the DPRK "gulag" is smaller and less inhumane than it is painted.

While both points may be true, this is unlikely to provoke sympathy for the regime. His conclusion is similar to the others: there is no real choice but engagement.

The last word has not been written on either the 1994 or the current nuclear crisis. The message these three books convey, however, is that whatever the DPRK has in the way of a nuclear weapons capability is now even better hidden than it was in 1994, and Seoul has grown even larger.

The military option remains, but the costs have increased. Such factors lie behind the Bush Administration's reluctant decision to talk to the DPRK and have led to the six-party talks, now entering their second year.

It is a pity it took the Bush Administration so long to reach the position Clinton's did in 1994, but there is hope that the renewed dialogue might, eventually, meet both sides' needs.

James E. Hoare joined HM Diplomatic Service in 1969 and retired in 2003. He has served in Seoul and Beijing, and his last post was as chargé d'affaires , Pyongyang. He holds a PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis

Author - Joel S. Wit, Daniel B. Poneman and Robert L. Galluchi
Publisher - Brookings Institution Press
Pages - 474
Price - £21.50
ISBN - 0 8157 9386 3

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.