By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The standoff with North Korea over its nuclear program moves into the decisive phase this week as U.S., Korean, Chinese, Japanese and Russian negotiators meet in Beijing for long-awaited talks. The issue is playing out like a Western showdown: North Korea says it won’t halt its nuke production until the Bush administration pledges peace. The White House says no peace until the nuclear program is halted. The bilateral pact reached between Pyongyang and Washington during the Clinton administration now lies in tatters after months of President Bush’s “axis of evil” rhetoric and North Korea’s reckless provocations.
L.A. WEEKLY: Why did North Korea take the startling move to start this secret uranium program, violating its 1994 agreement with the U.S.?
BRUCE CUMINGS: Probably to pay off hard-liners upset it wasn’t getting what the North had expected. It’s unfortunate they cheated, but not surprising. The most important thing they feel we reneged on is the commitment not to make nuclear threats. Second is failure to normalize relations and remove the embargo we’ve had on their economy forever. Clinton finally removed parts in 2000, but we’ve never established relations. Having embargoed them for 50 years, we make them into the rogue state we claim them to be.
Are you saying the U.S. backed the North Korean regime into a corner?
Certainly North Korea sees it that way. But it still has to answer for its uranium program. It can’t expect the U.S. to buy the same horse twice. Pyongyang continues to say it’ll end its programs if we sign a non-aggression pledge. If that happened, I’m convinced it’d give up uranium. Unfortunately, Bush had an early, conscious policy of reversing Clinton’s policies, especially in East Asia.
Republicans, through the ’90s, criticized the agreement for lacking proper verification procedures and accused the North of cheating. It turns out that by 1998 the North may well have been cheating. But that’s four years after we didn’t faithfully implement the pact. In 1998, North Koreans were very vociferous in saying that. However, in 1998, Clinton carried out a major policy review under [former Defense Secretary] William Perry. [After intense shuttle diplomacy] Perry had a missile deal almost worked out to buy out Kim’s missiles. Clinton also monitored North Korea’s uranium-related imports to Pakistan. Clinton officials presented Bush officials with this evidence, but said they felt Korea could be gotten off its programs if Bush followed through. Bush let that evidence sit for over a year, then last year used it to try and thwart North Korea’s reconciliation with South Korea and Japan. He not only caused Kim Jong Il to repudiate the 1994 agreement, he left that missile deal sitting on the table.
Some say the Bush administration lacks Korea experts.
It fails to listen to experts it has. There are expert State officials who were instrumental negotiating the agreement and presiding over Perry’s review. But, generally, experts aren’t heeded in Washington. Clinton didn’t listen to his when he nearly got into war with North Korea in 1994. It took forever for them to get heard until Perry took over — and he listened.
Has U.S. policy in general given short shrift to the issue of North Korea?
That seemed true of Clinton. With Bush, State Department officials say there’s too much focus by the wrong people. One told me he thinks Defense officials are nuts, that civilians there — Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, others — think they can use force to deal with North Korea.
The current flap over intelligence regarding Iraqi weapons could easily lead to doubts over U.S. allegations about the North Korean nuclear-arms program.
Hardly any journalists investigate claims Bush makes about North Korea — [The New York Times’] Michael Gordon is the only one, and he’s in Iraq. Again and again insiders leak something, which gets taken for gospel truth. Different officials and agencies see the same intelligence but interpret differently. It’s similar to Iraq, and if war did break out and North Korea were occupied, I bet we’d find it never manufactured a deliverable nuke. It may have usable chemical weapons, but it’s been deterred for 50 years from attacking outside its territory. If deterrence works, there’s no need for war. North Korea has said again and again that the U.S. got the U.N. to disarm Saddam, then violated the U.N. Charter by attacking. Anybody but a dumbo, ultrapatriotic American beating his chest can see that. It’s made the North Korea and Iran problems much harder to solve, pushing them into desperate searches for deterrents. Iraq’s aftermath at least stabilized the Korean situation by bogging the U.S. down.
What would a war with North Korea look like?
Catastrophe. The U.S. military estimates 100,000 Americans dying. Millions of civilians dead. The war would extend to Japan if not more widely, because North Korea would probably fire Rodong missiles at U.S. bases there. There’s no guarantee, really, that war would solve the problem. I have this nightmare: North Koreans enter the South quickly, in huge numbers. Soldiers all over the South, like in the Korean War, while the peninsula gets pummeled by American firepower. Just think where you were during the blackout. Imagine Seoul with 11 million people, with the lights off, an invading army and bombs.