A Chronicle of the Second Korean Nuclear Crisis
Brookings Institution Press, 2007, 592 pp., $36.95
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has been confounding America and its policy leadership for some sixty years. Over that time, both America and Northeast Asia have experienced sweeping change; yet North Korea plods on as it has since the beginning. It has survived a devastating three-year war, Japan’s economic ascent, South Korea’s remarkable economic and political successes, the end of the Cold War and now the rise of China. Only occasional crises have reminded most Asians and Americans that a small but dangerous Kim-led state persists—persists, to be sure, in self-imposed isolation and with impoverished, starving citizens, but guarded by a formidable military machine.
Every peninsular crisis has been different, of course—the Pueblo incident, the assassination of South Korean cabinet ministers, revelations about the abduction of Japanese citizens, games of “chicken” at sea and over nuclear technology. But the underlying situation has remained the same—until now. Today the Kim Jong-il state is equipped with some form of nuclear weapons. The DPRK is also changing significantly in the wake of a major famine and exposure to the bright lights of China’s booming economy. The political elite is trying mightily to keep tight control, and in that effort maintaining isolation and stoking external tensions are very much a part of a singular strategy.
If I were a betting man, I would wager that North Korea’s present strategy will fail. We are six years (and one New York Philharmonic concert) into the second nuclear weapons crisis with North Korea since 1992. Much has happened, including a nuclear weapon test, ruptured agreements and years of stop-and-go talking. The Six Party Talks represent a new instrument of diplomacy, but they are also more than that. The talks’ scope of participation has broadened since the bilateral U.S.-North Korea discussions of 1992–94. South Korea, Japan and Russia now participate, and the sessions are hosted and chaired by China, constituting in essence Northeast Asia’s first inclusive multilateral dialogue. Each participant has a vital interest in the outcome as regards Korea, but each pursues broader regional interests, as well, for which the Six Party Talks are useful.
The talks have produced thus far a process that has been frustrating and slow, and one yet-to-be implemented agreement, reached in February 2007. It is a labor-intensive form of diplomacy, rarely the choice of American leaders. But it’s worth it, for the Six Party Talks are not only a product of broader changes in the Peninsula and the region, but an accelerator and a shaper of them, as well. There is no preferable alternative, either. Now comes Yoichi Funabashi’s monumental effort (nearly 600 pages long), The Peninsula Question, to describe the first four years of the second nuclear crisis, in which the Six Party Talks stand front and center.
The Peninsula Question is comprehensive and very dense, an exceptional example of primary-source history, with more than 160 acknowledged interview subjects from seven countries, plus many more anonymous sources. The narrative is built on these interviews, allowing readers to sense the political microclimate as well as the larger issues at play. Funabashi, the editor-in-chief of Asahi Shimbun, quotes specific conversations, occasionally at length—a technique prominently used by Bob Woodward. Like Woodward, some of Funabashi’s quotations are more likely approximate than literal, but having participated in some of those conversations myself, I can testify that Funabashi’s sense of verisimilitude is uncanny. He has set a standard for documentary reportage against which all future efforts to relate Northeast Asian politics will be measured.
The Peninsula Question, previously published in Funabashi’s native Japanese and in Korean, is also important because it offers Asian viewpoints on a crucial question that endangers Asians more than it does Americans. Funabashi demonstrates his wide access to U.S. policymakers, but probably no other writer could or would have had the ability, time or access (and the support of his editors) to interview the full international panoply of his sources. Surely no American would have had the access or language skills to cover Japanese, Chinese and Korean angles as Funabashi has done. His access to several unnamed North Korean participants helped him trace the origins of North Korean positions in Kim Jong-il’s circumstances and objectives. I certainly learned many new details, including a few about my own government’s internal discussions.
Indeed, Funabashi thoroughly covers the tensions and disagreements in the U.S. government and within upper political echelons of the Bush Administration, especially those between non-proliferation specialists and regional-affairs officials, of which I was one. He recounts one noteworthy instance when those difficulties became all too public. In a background briefing for the media after the APEC Summit in Mexico in late October 2002, I was asked whether the 1994 Agreed Framework was “dead.” Having returned from an unusually telegenic trip to Pyongyang earlier that month, I replied that it was badly injured, but that no decision had been made to shut it down, not least because that decision would have to involve other countries. The following day, newspapers characterized my comments as contrary to Administration policy, representing a State Department “in revolt” against the White House.
In fact, my remarks displayed no nostalgia for the Agreed Framework, only an appreciation of the fact that the agreement had required billions of dollars in investment in North Korean alternate light-water reactors by our Japanese and South Korean allies. It was hardly a novel thought that these allies at least be offered the courtesy of consultation before their costly efforts would have to be suspended. I was also mindful that for eight years the agreement had been keeping a probable fifty kilograms of fissionable plutonium from being reprocessed. So the State Department was not “off the reservation”, but it was poorly attuned to the priority given by our government’s non-proliferation experts to what I call “expressions of indignation.”
There have been many statements of that sort in recent months over reported delays in implementing the agreement reached with North Korea in February 2007. Frustration, even a sense of anger, is natural. But the rhetoric of indignation is more attuned to the applause-meter of American political speech than to the realities of serious negotiations. It reeks of unilateralism, too, which is ironic considering that President Bush’s consistent pursuit of a diplomatic solution in a multilateral setting required just the kind of tailored cooperation with our Six-Party partners that many “non-proliferators”, still steeped in the bipolar atmosphere of the Cold War, find so hard to accommodate.
Though he has access and a sound grasp of what American officials say, Funabashi naturally approaches Korea from a Japanese perspective. He begins the book with two chapters detailing the remarkable visits in 2002 and 2004 of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to North Korea and the surprises (to both sides) that sprang from the abduction issue.1 This level of detail, along with two later chapters on the internal struggles among South Korean politicians and bureaucrats, may prompt some American readers to wish for less, but it would be a great mistake to view North Korea solely through U.S. eyes. Neighboring Asians, especially South Koreans but also Chinese and Japanese, have a greater stake in the outcome of the nuclear issue and the future of Korea than do Americans. It is not lost on Tokyo that, of North Korea’s July 2006 ballistic missile tests, the sole weapon that could threaten America failed, but the six Rodong missiles, well suited to attack Japan, all performed flawlessly.
Especially significant is Funabashi’s extensive treatment of China’s role and its reading of the Korean situation. Given the opacity normally associated with Chinese internal and diplomatic processes, even the most experienced reader will learn much here. Although many individual Chinese views seem to contradict one another, the account as a whole succeeds as a rare, accurate portrayal of how Chinese leaders make policy. Funabashi emphasizes, for example, that China’s President Jiang Zemin believed for several months at the end of 2002 and early 2003 that there was a real chance of a U.S. military attack on North Korea. This stimulated an unusually energetic diplomacy that helped bring about the Six-Party Talks, and it helped to shape a far more active Chinese role than that undertaken in the earlier North Korea nuclear crisis. The Iraq war subsequently led China to discount the prospect of U.S. military action against North Korea, but by then China saw other potential benefits in continuing its leading role in the talks.
Funabashi’s coverage of the North Korean side is necessarily spare, but it is clear that internal pressures, usually poorly understood outside Korea, are extremely important drivers of Kim Jong-il’s decisions. We can see more clearly now that Kim made many significant decisions in 2002 that fell apart in short order. In July, his economic reforms included a drastic currency revaluation and suspension of the country’s dysfunctional food distribution system. The effect was rampant inflation, as cheapened money chased scarce goods. At the same time, his government declared a so-called Special Economic Zone (SEZ) located in the town of Sinuiju, hard on to the Chinese border, and gave a Chinese businessman who had impressed Kim extraordinary powers over the territory. But the regime did all this without consulting China. After an initial pained silence Chinese authorities jailed the businessman for a lengthy sentence on corruption charges. The Sinuiju SEZ never came into being. All this was going on amid negotiations for the Koizumi visit, which Kim hoped would end with a pledge of at least $10 billion worth of “economic cooperation.” That hope fell flat over the abduction issue.
At about the same time, North Korea finally accepted a proposal of talks with the United States, which Washington had sought quietly since June 2001. (As noted, these talks were held on October 3–5, 2002.) The DPRK had hoped for a process that might be to its advantage, and Washington had hoped for a broader dialogue; both were disappointed as a discordant element intervened. In the summer of 2002, the U.S. intelligence community obtained information, still not fully released but highly convincing to U.S. officials of all backgrounds, that North Korea was pursuing a secret uranium enrichment program. There had been prior indications of a modest research effort, presumably as a budding alternative to its diplomatically frozen plutonium program, but the new data indicated something much larger afoot.
Funabashi describes in detail the October 2002 meetings in Pyongyang that launched the second nuclear crisis, and in the main he does so accurately. The talks, which I led, sought to convince North Korea that its core interests would be served by an agreed process of denuclearization, which would bring Pyongyang an entirely new relationship with Washington. But the crucial meeting between the U.S. delegation and North Korean Vice Minister Kang Sokju hit an impasse. As a result, the fuel shipments to North Korea mandated under the 1994 Agreed Framework ended in December 2002, in part because the Administration could not in good faith certify to Congress, as mandated by law, that North Korea was in compliance with its obligations—a detail that Funabashi neglects to mention. Pyongyang then expelled international inspectors and began reprocessing spent fuel rods to produce new plutonium supplies.
In some ways, The Peninsula Question is like the old story of the blind men and the elephant. Funabashi’s interviews with Chinese, South Korean, Russian, Japanese and American participants about what North Korea is up to, and why it acts as it does, offer many examples of the same observers coming away with wildly different assessments. This is one reason why the problem is still not solved after so many years, as Funabashi understands—and as he enables his readers to understand.
For all its merits, The Peninsula Question has its limitations. It treats the forty-year history of North Korea’s quest for nuclear weapons too briefly, and it is uncertain about how to weigh the possible reasons it has tried so hard to acquire such weapons. In this light, more background on how the 1992–94 crisis evolved would have been helpful. Funabashi reports, with details supplied by former South Korean President Kim Yong Sam, on how close to hostilities the United States and DPRK may have been during the 1994 crisis, and on what Kim did to save the peninsula from war. But while contingency preparations were indeed underway, such a momentous decision was not that imminent. (Most American participants also credit Kim with less vigorous heroics than he has claimed in recent years.)
Funabashi also gives rather short shrift to South Korea’s Sunshine Policy and President Kim Dae Jung’s June 2000 visit to Pyongyang. I have never questioned President Kim’s sincerity, but Funabashi might have paid more attention to the real meaning of the hundreds of millions of dollars tendered by the Sunshine South to the North in what looks to have been a quid pro quo: lots of money in return for less scary behavior.
Beyond these modest sins of omission, The Peninsula Question is awkwardly structured. Instead of weaving an integrated chronological narrative of the second Korean nuclear crisis, Funabashi arrays his account by chapters focused on each of the Six-Party participants in turn. This is logical in a way, but it forces the reader to integrate interrelated events unfolding over time in several countries. Also, while Funabashi is remarkably thorough, he misses some important details. For example, the Bush-Koizumi meeting in Crawford, Texas in May 2003 was critical to setting a joint U.S.-Japanese agenda of “dialogue and pressure” toward North Korea. The Peninsula Question does not mention this meeting at all.
Perhaps its greatest limitation is that The Peninsula Question is descriptive much more than it is analytical. Funabashi devotes a few pages near the end to each party’s “lost opportunities”, but here the author loses the sure footing evident in his descriptive narrative. He seems unable to assess the relative importance or even the validity of these “lost opportunities.”
I certainly agree that U.S. tactics could have been shrewder; blustering public messages confused the process and often had counterproductive effects. But did these tactical shortcomings make a serious strategic difference in the result? Only if one starts with optimistic assumptions about North Korea and its leaders’ goals, but the evidence Funabashi himself has proffered calls such assumptions into question. North Korea’s songun, or “military first”, policy appeared in about 1998 and has essentially replaced juche as the crucial ideology by which Kim Jong-il rules. Funabashi provides only a brief discussion of this dogma and its negative implications for successful economic reform. He sheds little light, too, on how, if an alleged U.S. threat drives so much of North Korean activity and mandates first call on all resources for the army, Kim Jong-il could ever even consider negoiating away the military’s premier weapon without first changing the official view of the threat and reversing the “military first” policy. This remains an internal North Korean step of practical necessity for implementation of the February 2007 agreement, and there is still no sign of it.
On the “lost opportunity” of October 2002 in the U.S. mission to Pyongyang, Funabashi states that “the administration could have refrained from having Kelly read the talking points on the highly enriched uranium . . . [and] lured North Korea into diplomatic negotiations toward dismantling ‘all the nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs’ which would have included HEU.” Perhaps, but not likely. The uranium enrichment problem could not have been so easily finessed. It is too important to sweep under a diplomatic carpet, and to this day it represents a major obstacle to resolution.
The Peninsula Question is perhaps the perfect book for those intent on understanding how things work in and around the Korean dilemma. For those more interested in why they do or do not work, a reader will have to look elsewhere. In the Korean case, moreover, they will have to be very patient. Perhaps North Korea will accept the deal it has been offered and to which it has formally signed on. Or perhaps it will experience drastic internal change before it makes up its mind, for any system so rigid cannot flex, only shatter. But when might it decide, and when might it shatter? No book can answer that question.
North Korea for some years (mostly in the 1970s) had randomly kidnapped Japanese, including children, often through coastal raids from small armed boats.