2003 July 17 Thursday
On Claims About North Korean Intentions

Currently there is a debate raging in the United States and in Great Britain about whether the Bush and Blair governments misled their publics about Saddam Hussein's intentions and activities with regard to weapons of mass destruction. Keep in mind that debate as you read arguments about what the Bush Administration should do about North Korea.

First we have the Boston Globe editorializing for negotiations with North Korea as the only realistic option available in an editorial entitled "Korea delusions".

PRESIDENT Bush's handling of the nuclear threat from North Korea has long suffered from a realism deficit. But now that Pyongyang is claiming it has processed plutonium from the 8,000 spent fuel rods that were stored until recently at the North's Yongbyon nuclear reactor site, Bush's policy of doing nothing and denying reality has become a serious threat to the nation's security.

Might it be that the Boston Globe's editors the ones who are deluded? While the Globe's language is imprecise the Globe's editors seem to be implying that North Korea has processed all 8,000 fuel rods. How do they know? Note that there have been news reports based on claims of North Korean officials that they have indeed processed all 8,000 fuel rods. But some analysts (see below) think those claims are wildly exaggerated.

The Globe's editors also do not address the issue of enforceability of any agreement with North Korea. We now know (or do we?) that North Korea was processing uranium to enrich it even while Clinton was still in office. We do not know where the North Koreans have been doing uranium processing or how much they are doing. But that is just the point: we do not have access to the vast bulk of North Korea. Even while the Framework Accord was in effect inspectors had access to only a very small area.

Aside: Suppose the CIA reported that the agency's analysts believed the claims of the North Korean regime but then suppose the North Korean regime suddenly fell and it was found that these reports were false. Would the Bush Administration's critics then claim the Bush Administration was trying to deceive the American public?

Of course, then there are the reports that the North Koreans have processed only a small number of fuel rods.

The director of the National Intelligence Service, Ko Young-koo, told a National Assembly committee yesterday that the intelligence community believes North Korea has reprocessed “a small number” of the 8,000 spent plutonium fuel rods at its nuclear facility at Yeongbyeon.

Is this South Korean report an honest assessment by South Korean intelligence of what the North Koreans have done? If it is an honest assessment is it correct? If the US accepts it and Bush Administration decisions are influenced by this report will US action have been influenced by the political machinations of the South Koreans?

We have an incredibly high stakes crisis over North Korean efforts to develop nuclear weapons and yet it is far from obvious what exactly the North Koreans are doing. We don't know the quality of the information that the South Koreans are using to form their assessment. Do the South Koreans have an agent in the Yongbyon facility? They aren't going to reveal this publically of course. But even if they did would that make their report more accurate? The South Koreans might have recruited a North Korean to provide them with intelligence. But if so that North Korean may be acting as a double agent. We just do not know.

Unofficial North Korean spokesman Kim Myong-Chol from the Centre for Korean-American Peace says North Korea already has hundreds of nuclear weapons aimed at the United States.

"American Intelligence on North Korea is very, very flawed. It's years behind facts. North Korea has hundreds of nuclear warheads, all looking upon American cities. If American ships interject our ships, North Korea will retaliate against American mainland, on New York Washington and other cities,

This is probably posturing. The North Koreans have not done the scale of either missile testing or nuclear testing required to have that capability. But while that extreme claim is easy to dismiss there is still a wide range of plausible claims about North Korea's activities and intentions that can reasonably be entertained. Has the North regime A) processed a few fuel rods, B) processed all the fuel rods, C) built a few nuclear weapons, D) built a dozen nuclear weapons, or E) something else entirely? Also, what about the nuclear fuel it removed from Yongbyon before the 1994 Framework Accord? Did it make a few nuclear weapons from them? Also, what is the state of North Korea's uranium enrichment program? Did it get a lot of uranium enrichment centrifuges from Pakistan with which it is now making bomb material and nuclear weapons? Is it sending either nuclear materials or processing equipment to Iran? For all of this we do not know.

Some observers think the North Koreans are not trying hard to make nuclear weapons and instead are just trying to bluster and bluff in order to improve their bargaining leverage.

"They apparently did some reprocessing in late April but it appears that they have not yet engaged in full-scale work," said Daniel Pinkston, senior research associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies with the Monterey Institute of International Studies.


"I think there's an incentive to misrepresent actual facts, an intention to exaggerate their resolve to increase their bargaining leverage," he said.

How does Pinkston know? Should we just relax, negotiate a deal with North Korea, rest assured they will abide by its terms? (assuming of course that the North Koreans would even come to terms - big assumption IMO)

Others think that Kim Jong-il is pursuing much more ambitious goals. Don Granberry, in a letter to Korea Web Weekly, say Kim Jong-il is close to driving a wedge between the United States and Japan over North Korea and even close to achieving a forceable reunification of the Korean peninsula under rule of the Pyongyang regime.

How can he do this? Simple. He tests a nuclear warhead somewhere in the Sea of Japan and then announces that he has a weapon of the same exact type as the one just tested somewhere in Japan. Finding a concealed nuclear weapon is no mean feat. The Japanese would not cooperate with the US in a conflict with the DPRK until the warhead was found--and may not ever cooperate in such a conflict at all in the future. The Japanese are very much inclined to settle things through negotiation as we all know very well. Despite the outrageous claims being made by KCNA, the Japanese are about as likely to start a war as my three year old grandson. They are going to be even less inclined to fight if they are confronted with the possibility of being nuked again.

This would buy Kim the time and leverage he needs to negotiate the unification treaty he wants with President Roh. It also gives him enormous leverage over the Japanese and he would likely get the Reparations Settlement he wants from the Japanese. The US would have no choice but to sit on its hands throughout this entire ordeal.

Is Granberry correct? Would Kim Jong-il use the threat of a nuclear attack to force the reunification of the Korean peninsula under his rule? Or would he simply use the nukes to extort several percent of South Korea's GDP as aid payments to North Korea every year while perhaps also earning extra income by selling extra nukes to Iran or Libya?

Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman argues we should give in to North Korean blackmail.

It's a sound principle to refuse to give in to blackmail. But if someone were holding a gun to your child's head, you'd probably be willing to pay a ransom rather than see her killed. Sometimes the stakes are so high that submitting to extortion is the least horrible option.

I admire his frankness even as I disagree with his position. By contrast, you won't hear William Perry or the President Roh of South Korea explicitly acknowledge that they are basically arguing that the US should give in to North Korean blackmail.

What we know about North Korea is pretty limited and some of it is wrong. There are lots of people with lots of opinions on the subject. But who is correct? Certainly someone out there will be able to look back and say at some future date "I was right". But if you asked a lot of people what the high and low temperatures were going to be in your town a year from now you'd be guaranteed to get at least one right answer if you just asked enough people. Yet guess work is still guess work. You'd have no way to know a year ahead of time which of the thousands of people you asked would end up being right. This is the problem we face with North Korea.

When we consider everything we don't know we need to keep in mind some basics. If the word "evil" has any meaning at all then the regime that rules North Korea is evil. It maintains an enormous Gulag prison system that Stalin would recognize and understand. It maintains a very vigorous and brutal system of repression and ideological indoctrination and lets in little information about the true picture of what the rest of the world is like. It allowed somewhere between several hundred thousand and 2 million of its people to starve to death rather that introduce economc reforms. Hundreds of thousands of its people have fled into China looking for food and work. Many more would flee if the regime didn't hunt for and severely punish those trying to get out and if the Chinese didn't try to find them and deport them back into North Korea.

North Korea seems somehow nutty as compared to Stalinist Russia. South Korean and other diplomats report that North Korea's top diplomats are known for suddenly getting hysterical as a group in meetings. The reasons for these bouts of hysteria are rarely obvious to those sitting on the other side of the negotiating table. The North Koreans make claims and demands that are extremely unrealistic. They frequently come across as sounding crazy. Not a few visitors to Pyongyang describe the place as Kafkaesque with loudspeakers coming on early in the morning to tell people they are living in a socialist worker's paradise.

What else do we know? Nuclear bombs have a destructive capacity so enormous that it is hard for the human mind to grasp. What would a brutal nutty regime do with nuclear weapons? Would it sell them? Would it use them to blackmail other countries? My bottom line is that we can not afford to risk finding out.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 July 17 10:51 AM  Korea

The Marmot said at July 17, 2003 8:22 PM:

More great stuff. As always, thanks for providing us with some really thought-provoking material.

A couple of points - as far as the Kim Myong-chol article and Don Granberry articles are concerned, you can discount both of them. Kim is an absolute loon whose so far out there (and talkative) that Kim Jong-il wouldn't trust him with his laundry, let alone state secrets. Granberry's piece is beyond laughable; no surprise it ended up on Kimsoft, who seem to specialize in that sort of crap.

The Japanese are very much inclined to settle things through negotiation as we all know very well. Despite the outrageous claims being made by KCNA, the Japanese are about as likely to start a war as my three year old grandson.

That's a good one. No Korean would ever make a statement like that, being well aquainted with Japan's martial history.

The Steve Chapman piece is a little better, but he runs into the same problem as a lot of the "negotiate NOW" people have run into - he's freaking out when there is no need to do so. And in so doing, he overlooks a couple of things. For example:

Kim Jong Il, after all, has no sentimental attachment to Chicago or New York. He does, however, have a big monetary incentive to not only manufacture nuclear weapons but peddle them on the black market, as he has done with missiles and other arms. So if he proceeds to assemble a stockpile of weapons and weapons material, we may not be able to deter him from selling them to any willing buyer. Once out of North Korea, they could easily end up in the hands of terrorists intent on killing Americans on a mass scale.

First off, while Kim has no sentimental attachment to Chicago or New York, he DOES have a rather profound sentimental attachment to his own ass, an attachment which would seem to proscribe his selling of nuclear devices to suspect folk. Yes, the North Koreans sell almost everything they have so anyone with the hard currency to pay for it, but then again, so do nuclear powers Russia and China. The threat of massive nuclear retaliation does tend to restrict state behavior somewhat, and while the North Korean leadership is cruel and enigmatic, it's NOT suicidal. And let's not go overboard with the threat analysis - for North Korea to develop a credible nuclear threat, it needs money and materials - just the sort of stuff policies of appeasement tend to provide. A good sign is that there is a fair amount of public anger in South Korea concerning recent relevations that, surprise surprise, the Kim Dae-jung Administration may have unwittingly financed the DPRK's nuclear program. Don't be completely surprised to see Seoul shut off the cash flow (but don't bet on it, either - we are dealing with Noh Mu-hyeon, after all). One can make a convincing argument that allowing the North Koreans to build nuclear weapons will lead to regime change in Pyongyang faster than any other method available - as Kim Jong-il will soon learn, having just a few nuclear weapons actually makes you LESS secure, and he's likely to bankrupt the country just trying to keep his baby arsenal safe from an American first strike, let alone in the effort to attain some sort of credible deterrent force to balance the Americans (and possible the Japanese).

But if someone were holding a gun to your child's head, you'd probably be willing to pay a ransom rather than see her killed.

True enough, but the analogy ignores two things - a) you also just happened to have a gun pointed at the other guy's kid; and b) generally speaking, people who dabble in that sort of business choose unarmed targets, which in this case does not include the United States. By the same logic Chapman is arguing, the Soviets would have taken us to the cleaners long ago. Sounds like Steve is a former "Better Red than Dead"er. Still, you do right to admire his frankness - at least he admits that his suggestions amount to paying blackmail, which is more than we can say for others.

There are a lot of options out there, and to the best of my judgement, most of them do NOT lead to the Korean War Part II. I think airstrikes can be launched against North Korean nuclear facilities, and unless Kim Jong-il wants to launch a suicidal war, he's going to have to eat a big shitburger. He won't be happy about it, but then again, neither will we if we're forced to play blackmail just to be blackmailed again five years down the road. Moreover, I think allowing North Korea to build a "deterrent" is not entirely irresponsible - again, unless Kim Jong-il wants to experience the business end of an American Trident (and I'm convinced he doesn't), the chances are he won't do something incredibly stupid. I know that hardly sounds reassuring, but then again, airstrikes aren't 100% either - even if they are successful, the DPRK may lash-out in unpredictable ways - so it's six of one, a half dozen of the other. Personally, I'd love to see the US shift its diplomatic focus from the DPRK to China. I'm sure you've heard the new Chinese proposal - "multilateral talks with bilateral US-DPRK talks on the sidelines." I wish the President only had the balls to answer the proposal with the following:

Gee, that seems like an excellent idea. While we have bilateral talks with the North Koreans, YOU can have talks with the Taiwanese and the Japanese concerning their nuclear weapons programs.

For some reason, I doubt that Beijing would see the humor in my counter-proposal; quite unlike the standards they apparently set for themselves, the Chinese leadership seems to expect the Americans to keep their allies in line. Still, perhaps it might be worth a go. I highly destabilizing move, I admit. But hey, the geopolitical system in Northeast Asia is in need of massive change, anyway.

John Moore (Useful Fools) said at July 17, 2003 10:09 PM:

I agree with much of what you and The Marmot say.

We cannot afford to led NK get nukes because we cannot be assured that they won't sell them to Islamofascists.

Imagine the potential for destruction if the Chechnyans bought one and detonated in near the Kremlin? Would the Russian command and control system spasm and launch in all directions? Given the state of the Russian detection and communications system, and their persistent paranoia, I wouldn't want to find out the hard way!

Osama and crew would of course try to set one off in Washington, D.C. They have this habit of restriking targets they failed to get the first time (WTC 1993, 2001). White House 2001 failed.

Perhaps we have a policy that if we are nuked, we will automatically blow away North Korea. That would be a good deterrent, but is not a good long term policy. If nuclear weapons proliferate more (and they certainly will if nuclear blackmail pays of *again* for NK), then we don't know who to retaliate against. Do we nuke them all? Iran, Pakistan, Korea, etc? That's putting an awful lot of innocent people in our gunsight - not a terribly moral policy. Furthermore, if the Norks go through a power struggle or their structure deteriorates, whatever nukes they have may leak out... like some suspect may have happened with Russia.

We simply cannot let that happen. The best way to avoid it is to stop them from making the nuclear material in the first place. And the only way we can do with much assurance is airstrikes, although even then there is the question of what the heck are they doing in all those big tunnels they built in the '90s?

I agree with The Marmot that we can bomb their facilities without triggering Korean War II - after all, Kim Jung Il more closely resembles the son of a mafia boss than he does an ideologue. He does not seem to be the martyr type, and his style of rule by bribery is not likely to bring martyrs into positions of power [the same was true of the USSR and is true of China today]. Check out the following threat, customized for some one like KJ Il, as something to precede the attack.

For those interested in technical issues about nuclear proliferation, destructiveness of weapons, etc, I have a page with interesting and not well known factoids.

Randall Parker said at July 18, 2003 12:21 AM:

Robert, I think it is unwise to bet on Kim Jong-il not selling nukes or nuclear technology. After all, Pakistan was already willing to sell nuke tech to North Korea and Russia has been willing to sell too much nuke tech to Iran. Now there are reports (I'm sure you are aware) that Iran and North Korea are trading tech to speed their respective nuclear weapons programs. Well, it is not without reason that the CIA has been warning for years about "secondary proliferators". If Iran becomes a nuclear power it may become a secondary proliferator as well. Or at that point perhaps it would be more accurate to call it a tertiary proliferator.

The greater the number of unfriendly countries that get nukes and nuke-building technology the greater the chances that nukes will spread into the hands of non-government actors. Also, the more governments that get nukes, bomb materials, and other parts of the puzzle the harder it will be to trace any terrorist bomb back to its origins. Deterrence only works if A) your enemy is afraid to die and B) you can identify which enemy launched an attack.

Kim Myong-chol: yes, he's not a credible source. But I'm guessing that Kim Jong-il likes having him out there making North Korea sound more formidable. I trotted him out there as an example of the range of the statements being made about what North Korea is up to.

Don Granberry: He undermines his arguments by saying naive things. But we do not know what the Pyongyang regime will be willing to do once it has nukes.

Steve Chapman: His thinking is in line with that of the South Korean government since Kim Dae-jung was first elected. If it is foolish then, well, so is the national government of South Korea for many years running (not that they'd ever be so blunt to state their position as clearly as Chapman has done).

Kim Jong-il's rationality: history is full of massive government miscalculations. Japan on Dec. 7, 1941 comss to mind. Or how about Saddam Hussein in August 1990? Heck, what about the massive miscalculation of the Kim Dae-jung government as it paid the North Koreans the money they needed to run their nuclear weapons program? The thing about other people to keep in mind: they do not think like you do. The range of differences in how people think is really quite large. What is a reasonable risk to Kim Jong-il?

Russia's nuclear tech sales to Iran: A great example that suggests it is more likely that North Korea will sell either nuclear materials, nuclear tech, or nuclear bombs.

Air strikes: I hold them out more as something to brandish in front of the South Koreans and the Chinese to get them to stop being enablers of North Korean nuclear weapons development. The US needs to make it much clearer to both the South Koreans and the Chinese that the US sees them both as feeding the development of a problem that is creating a growing threat to US national security.

BTW, our real problem with paying North Korea blackmail money is not that he'd come back in 5 years wanting more. Our real problem is that we'd pay the money and he'd continue to development nuclear weapons in spite of the payment.

AMac said at July 18, 2003 9:40 AM:

The range of opinions expressed about Korean issues on ParaPundit and in most of the comments here--e.g., those immediately preceding--pass the test of common-sense. They follow logically from the linked source material. They are consistent with what an interested observer reads about Korean history and current events.

This is not, as you note, to suggest that every insight will be seen in retrospect to have been correct. Rather unlikely.

It is stunning and a little depressing to reflect on how far ParaPundit's views are from those expressed in the mainstream American and European press (and ROK and Japanese papers as well, I would assume).

Opinion pieces that urge the US to be "reasonable" and "negotiate in good faith" with the Kim Family Regime would be spiked before making it to the presses, except for the ignorance and naivete of editors and the Academy. That they are not general objects of scorn by the public is a testament to how widespread this sort of ignorance is. Westerners are just too willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the KFR's Stalinists. Perhaps our policies will evolve in a more honest and moral direction as the intentions and actions of the KFR become more widely known. They are, as you remark, evil (if that quaint word has any meaning any more).

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