TTBW 1223: 'North Korea: Nuclear Threat'
Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg   ·   PBS feed date: 9 Nov 2004
  Special Documentary Edition - North Korea: Nuclear Threat
BW: Hello Iím Ben Wattenberg. In 2002 President George W Bush delivered his famous 'Axis of Evil' speech, identifying Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as threats to America and to the peace of the world. Americans have focused most of their attention on Iraq and the terrorist threat from Al Qaíeda. But North Korea remains a daunting challenge. It is a nation arming itself with nuclear weapons. It is placing those weapons on missiles that could reach the United States of America. And some fear this technology could end up in the hands of terrorists. On this documentary edition of Think Tank we examine the North Korean nuclear threat.
How did we get to where we are today? And what do we do now?
This Week on Think Tank.
Host: On June 25, 1950, North Korean Dictator Kim Il Sung led his army in a surprise invasion of South Korea, an attack that sparked the long and bloody Korean War. Nearly 37,000 Americans and one million Korean and Chinese combatants were killed in the conflict. Civilian casualties were as high as three to four million. The United States has maintained a sizeable force near the Demilitarized Zone that divides the two Koreas ever since. For the last five decades, North Koreaís official policy toward the South has been war, a war they have pursued through unconventional means.
JL: In 1960s they sent assassination teams into South Korea to try to kill the president. They got caught. They dug tunnels over the DMZ for a massive invasion. Probably eighteen/nineteen tunnels. They seized the American ship, Pueblo; held it for eleven months. They shot down an EC-121 with all of our people on it. If you want a little more I can give you that, too. Rangoon bombing; 1983. Wiped out half the South Korean cabinet. 1987, November; blowing up K858. Hundred fifteen dead South Koreans. They have a very, very bad track record
Host: During the Cold War, North Korea aligned itself with the Soviet Union. Moscowís political patronage, economic aid, and military assistance provided the lifeblood of Kim Il Sungís regime. But as the Cold War wound down, North Korea found itself isolated in the world.
MN: When the Soviet Union dissolved and the eastern block collapsed, North Korea was deprived of most of its international trade...key inputs such as energy, and as a consequence the North Korean economy - the industrial economy - just imploded.
Host: Robbed of his Soviet insurance policy, Kim Il Sung looked for a way to protect his regime. He chose nuclear weapons. In 1989, the CIA detected activity at a nuclear power plant near Yongbyon, North Korea. U.S. Intelligence suspected that North Korea was secretly developing a nuclear bomb. As a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, North Korea was required to allow international inspections of its nuclear facilities. Washington pressured Pyongyang to comply, and in May of 1992 North Korea finally agreed. But the inspectors did not receive cooperation from the North Koreans, and after months of attempts the team reported that Pyongyang was not revealing the full extent of its nuclear program. North Korea responded in March of 1993 by threatening to withdraw from the treaty. President Clinton dispatched negotiator Robert Gallucci to resolve the crisis.
RG: We knew well that the regime was a threat certainly to its own people. Tremendous human rights problems. An obnoxious regime from every political, economic and ideological, moral, ethical sense. But our focus was on the nuclear weapons program.
Host: Despite Gallucciís efforts, North Korea announced in April of 1994 that it would move and then reprocess irradiated fuel from the Yongbyon reactor to make weapons grade plutonium. The prospect of a North Korea with five or six nuclear bombs compelled President Clinton to consider a military strike on the Yongbyon facility. American aircraft were capable of carrying out a precision strike, but there was the chance that the North Koreans would respond with total war, resulting in staggering losses for the United States and South Korea.
AC: We would be in a battle of attrition. Our air power would do immense damage to North Korea, but South Korea would suffer and it would literally have to suffer hundreds of thousands of casualties and lose a good part of its economy.
Host: The prospect of a war compelled the Clinton Administration to press for economic sanctions at the United Nations. North Koreaís chief negotiator threatened that Pyongyang would consider sanctions an act of war, and that they would turn Seoul, the South Korean capital, into a sea of flames.
President Clinton asked the Pentagon to draw up plans to reinforce American troops defending South Korea. In Seoul, civil defense exercises were staged in anticipation of an attack. In June of 1994, former President Jimmy Carter undertook a personal mission to Pyongyang. After extensive meetings with Kim Il Sung, they agreed on a blueprint to resolve the crisis. On the day that negotiations resumed between the United States and North Korea, Kim Il Sung died suddenly of a heart attack.
VC: Kim Il Sung in many ways was the embodiment of North Korea. I mean he was a guerilla fighter during the Japanese occupation. Was handpicked by the Soviets at the end of the Second World War to run the country in North Korea and was then seen until his death in 1994 to be everything that North Korea embodied.
Host: Kim Il Sungís death left the fate of President Carterís agreement in question. With the Great Leader dead, power passed to his son, Kim Jong Il. Known as the Dear Leader, the younger Kim was in charge of the Yongbyon facility. Negotiations continued under the Dear Leaderís new regime, and by October of 1994, Ambassador Gallucci concluded a deal with the North Koreans called the Agreed Framework. Under the Agreed Framework, the North Koreans committed to halt their nuclear weapons program in exchange for food aid, heavy fuel oil, and two civilian, light-water nuclear power plants. It is harder to produce nuclear weapons using spent fuel from light-water reactors, but not impossible.
HS: In the first fifteen months of their normal operation - just one of these plants would produce three hundred and thirty kilograms or approximately seventy-five bombs-worth - crude bombs-worth - of near-weapons grade plutonium. So you wouldnít really ever want to complete these plants unless you could thoroughly trust North Korea that it was out of the bomb-making business.
Host: The deal was instantly controversial in Washington. Some members of Congress expressed outrage, accusing the Administration of appeasement.
JM: 'Well, Iíve said in the past that itís talk softly and carry a bunch of carrots. A policy of appeasement, when rebuffed, is but followed by appeasement.'
HS: The agreed framework was an effort to buy time, literally. Some people call it bribery; some people call it bargaining. But nobody denies that it wasnít an effort to buy time.
RG: ... clearly the most important point is this deal with did in í94 was well worth the candle. It prevented North Korea from proceeding with the plutonium program that would have yielded - and there are many estimates of this, but a conservative one is enough plutonium for about a hundred nuclear weapons. That is a hundred nuclear weapons that North Koreans do not have.
Host: Although the US and others provided large amounts of aid to Pyongyang, North Koreaís stagnant economy continued its downward slide. In 1998, the total collapse of the regimeís food rationing system, sparked a massive famine.
NE: The best research that has been done to date suggests that a good guess for the starting number - people died in that famine - would be about a million. Could be more than a million; might be less than a million, but this is a country of about twenty million people, remember. This would be roughly five percent of the population.
Host: Journalist Kang Cheol Hwan was imprisoned at the age of 9. One of the few to escape from North Korea, he describes the desperate conditions during the famine.
KH: [translated from Korean] To survive, people were forced to eat grass like goats. They ate whatever they could find: rats, earthworms, frogs, snakes. Without these food sources, everyone would have starved to death.
Host: Some Korea watchers predicted that Kim Jong Ilís regime would collapse as a result of this desperate situation, but even in the face of starvation, the regime retained control of its people. In North Korea, any sign of dissent is snuffed out. Recent satellite photos of the many documented prison camps reveal their staggering size, some are three times as large as Washington DC. Over the last three decades, more than 400,000 people are believed to have died in the camps...victims of torture, forced labor, and even medical experimentation.
KH: [translated from Korean] In the Nazi concentration camps, they used gas to commit mass murder. In North Korean prison camps they used starvation coupled with hard forced manual labor to kill people. Itís a much more painful way to die.
Host: Anyone in North Korea can be targeted by the regime. Soon Ok Lee, a former senior official in the North Korean government, was responsible for furnishing the senior members of the party with their many western comforts. When the flow of luxury goods dried up, she was targeted as a scapegoat.
SL: [translated from Korean] I had been knocked unconscious, and when I woke up I wasnít sure how much time had passed. The only thing I could remember was the pain as countless pairs of hard shoes kicked me brutally. As I opened my eyes I found myself in a puddle of blood on the concrete floor of a prison cell. My mouth, the bottom part of my jaw, was disconnected and twisted. Because they stepped on the left side of my face my jaw was broken as were all of the teeth on the left side of my face. They also kicked my head near my eye so brutally that my eyeball popped out.
Host: While the government both starves and brutalizes the North Korean people, it has dedicated vast resources to its military machine. One of Kim Jong Ilís most important military goals is developing long-range missiles.
In August of 1998 North Korea test launched the Taepodong One missile, flying it over northern Japan. The Taepodong was the first nuclear-capable North Korean missile with a range of more than 1,200 miles. The Japanese were horrified. In the face of North Koreaís continued belligerence, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung launched an initiative of his own called the Sunshine Policy. President Kim believed that open relations with North Korea would help the North modernize its economy, making it a less aggressive neighbor.
The high point of the Sunshine Policy came in 2000, when Kim Dae Jung traveled to Pyongyang for the first-ever summit between the leaders of the two Koreas. On the surface, the situation had improved, and the United States followed up on the summit with a visit by Secretary of State Madeline Albright. But while the United States continued to provide aid to North Korea, Kim Jong Il was not cooperating. Secretary Albright was unable to convince the Dear Leader to allow the weapons inspections provided under the Agreed Framework.
JL: But what it did is to create a mentality of the North Koreans that A: we donít have to change our system. These guys are gonna give us what we need to survive and we can be just as belligerent as we want because theyíll rationalize for us.
Host: In 2001, when George W Bush came to office, he initially seemed to indicate that Clintonís engagement policy would continue. But a subsequent review of U.S. policy made it clear that the Bush Administration would seek another path.
JP: They had a more hard-line approach to North Korea. They were concerned about human rights. They were concerned about political prisoners. They were concerned about conventional posture of the North Korean vast military in addition to the nuclear question.
Host: The September 11th terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon changed the calculus for President Bush. In the new age of global terror, a North Korea with nuclear weapons, long-range missiles that can deliver them, and a willingness to sell both on the open market was the nightmare scenario. In his next State of the Union speech, the President included North Korea, along with Iraq and Iran, in what he called an Axis of Evil.
GB: North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens. States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an Axis of Evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.
MN: The fundamental issue here is that once the North Koreans get enough nuclear weapons to in some sense, satisfy their own use, they may sell. And those nuclear weapons could turn up in the hands of Al-Qaeda or some other non-state actor and could turn up in an American city. That is the basic security threat.
RG: The reason Iran has a medium-range ballistic missile capable of reaching Israel right now, which they call the Shahab-3 is because they got assistance from North Korea. It is really the Shahab-3, a knockoff of the Nodung North Korean medium-range ballistic missile. The reason Pakistan has a medium range ballistic missile for its nuclear weapons is because they received assistance from North Korea. Their Ghauri missile is a knockoff of the Nodung missile from North Korea. So North Korea has demonstrated a willingness to destabilize two regions - South Asia and the Middle East. It has done that not only because Iím sure they donít care very much about that, but beyond that because they donít have very much else to transfer and sell.
Host: Some experts believe that 25 percent of North Koreaís GDP comes from the sale of missile technology, and Pyongyang is developing even more dangerous missiles than the one seen in 1998. The Taepodong 2 could reach targets in Alaska, Guam, and the West Coast of the United States.
NE: Because North Korea can best be understood in American terms through the Godfather movies. Think of Don Corleone and think of what he wants to do to your family. The way he gets results is by putting the horseís head in your bed. And the horsesí head is a nuclear weapon that can land in the United States.
Host: In 2002, U.S. Intelligence concluded that North Korea had launched yet another secret program to develop a nuclear bomb. In October 2002, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly went to Pyongyang armed with evidence and confronted the North Koreans.
NE: The North Korean angry response was, 'Yes, weíve violated our agreements. What are you going to do about it?'
Host: By December, North Korea had turned off the international monitoring equipment at Yongbyon. In January, Pyongyang pulled out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The Agreed Framework was scrapped and the U.S. and its partners suspended fuel oil shipments to the North. President Bush insisted that any future negotiations with Pyongyang would involve the U.S. and those nations with a direct stake in a nuclear North Korea.
JP: One of the criticisms of the í94 agreed framework was it was done unilaterally by the United States without the active involvement of our allies. I believe the president rightly wanted to include the allies from the outset.
Host: A multilateral framework involves the U.S. and four regional nations: South Korea, Russia, Japan, and perhaps most importantly, China.
NE: A nuclear declared nuclear threatening North Koreaíd be a nightmare for China as the Chinese government seems unwillingly to be recognizing. For one thing North Korea as a nuclear power immediately raises the question of nuclearization of South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. For another thing nuclear North Korea raises the question of missile defense in South Korean, Japan and Taiwan and missile defense cooperation with the United States in these three states. Not to put too fine a point on it - a huge setback for Chinese strategic interests.
Host: China is key in this crisis, but it is South Korea that could pay the highest price for Kim Jong Ilís nuclear ambitions. For many younger South Koreans who have no memory of the Korean War, the United States is seen as the larger threat to peace.
MN: While the United States public and government regards North Korea as a growing threat, the South Koreans have lived under the North Korean artillery for decades now and they regard North Korea as a poor, broken country that really does not pose much of a threat.
Host: President Noh Moo Hyun and leaders on the left in South Korea still favor unconditional openness with Kim Jong Il, and one of President Bushís great challenges will be inching the South toward Americaís tougher approach. Diplomats met for the first round of multilateral talks in August of 2003 and reached no agreement. By October the North Koreans announced that they had finished reprocessing 8,000 spent fuel rods, providing enough plutonium for as many as six nuclear bombs
RG: With each passing day the North Koreans I believe, are likely to be separating more plutonium, being capable of producing more nuclear weapons...increasing the problem.
Host: In January 2004, a private group of American citizens went to Pyongyang to conduct an unofficial inspection. Jack Pritchard was one of the inspectors.
JP: The most important thing that we saw or didnít see was the absence of the 8,017 spent fuel rods. They were gone. Up to that point, most intelligence agencies believed that they had not been reprocessed. While we donít know conclusively what theyíve done with it, it seems prudent to believe that they probably have reprocessed the spent fuel rods and extracted the plutonium that would enable them to create another six nuclear weapons. They could have in the neighborhood of eight nuclear weapons now.
Host: Talks continued in Beijing in June of 2004, and the Bush Administration issued a proposal to Pyongyang. It uses incentives to convince North Korea to disarm, but the nuclear reactors are off the table. And there are other differences.
JP: The Bush administration offered the North Koreans what the North Koreans would term compensation for freeze. If they were to freeze their total program as an initial step, the administration would provide a limited security guarantee that they would not attack or invade North Korea and that others would provide heavy fuel oil or alternative energy to the North Koreans during this period. Once the dismantlement was complete, a more formal security guarantee would be provided. This new proposal is a step in the right direction, but its come almost fifteen to twenty months late in the process.
Host: As the diplomatic process continues, North Korea has not halted its nuclear weapons program, leaving the future very much uncertain.
AC: But what we have to remember here is this is a truly alien regime. Itís not that this crisis should rationally escalate into a war. The history of the last century is not one of nations which made intelligent calculations and who knew when to be deterred or indeed knew when not to escalate. What frightens me most about this regime is it lives essentially in its own isolated fantasy world and that is a very angry, hostile fantasy indeed.
NE: This is a fundamentally unstable equilibrium. It canít last and itís going to end in one of a number of ways. And some of those ways look pretty unpleasant.
VC: We cannot simply kick the can down the road and hope for short-term measures in dealing with this problem. This North Korean nuclear problem has to be dealt with [stutters] in a very final - in a very final way.
James Lilley
Nicholas Eberstadt
Victor Cha
Anthony Cordesman
Marcus Noland
Jack Pritchard
Henry Sokolski
Robert Gallucci
BW: Thank you for joining us for this special documentary edition of Think Tank. Please, remember to send us your comments via email, itís what makes our show better.
  For Think Tank, I'm Ben Wattenberg. This is PBS   ·   Think Tank Archive   ·   (FMC)