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Stopping North Korea going nuclear

by Jeff Kingston

THE PENINSULA QUESTION: A Chronicle of the Second Korean Nuclear Crisis, by Yoichi Funabashi. Washington: Brookings Institution, 2007, 592 pp., $36.95 (cloth)

NORTH KOREA ON THE BRINK: Struggle for Survival, by Glyn Ford with Soyoung Kwon. London: Pluto Press, 2008, 249 pp., £18.99 (cloth)

The election of Lee Myung Bak as president of South Korea has led to heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula because he links further humanitarian aid and investment in North Korea with progress on human rights and denuclearization. President Lee’s shift away from the “sunshine policy” of his two predecessors — emphasizing constructive engagement/appeasement depending on one’s perspective — was greeted with missile tests from the North.

South of the border, this provocative gesture is widely interpreted as an effort to “educate” the new president in the realities of leadership on the Peninsula.

The Bush administration never warmed to the sunshine policy and bilateral relations grew especially frosty under President Roh Moo Hyun (2003-08), who was seen as “soft” on the North and favored improved relations with China at the expense of U.S. ties. Ironically, now with the Bush administration desperate to seal a deal with Pyongyang, Washington has termed Lee’s relatively hardline stand “unhelpful.”

Both books under review here agree that the Bush administration’s policies toward North Korea featured bungling, contradictions and missed opportunities that severely handicapped the six-party talks and facilitated North Korea’s emergence as a nuclear power.

Yoichi Funabashi, editor of the Asahi, is more polite, but like Glyn Ford, an elected member of the European Parliament, he argues that an inept Bush administration took a bad situation and made it worse. Internal battles in Washington between those who favored engagement and neocons bent on regime change fostered a dysfunctional Korea policy.

“The Peninsula Question” is a tour de force, drawing on interviews with 160 officials and experts from China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States. This is a wonk’s treasure trove, providing minute and fascinating details about who said and wrote what and with what impact, weaving together the perspectives of different participants. Privileged with incredible access to all the key players, except those from North Korea, Funabashi provides a compelling recapitulation and analysis of the varied responses to the “discovery” in 2002 that North Korea may have had a secret Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) program. Here we have ringside seats to the events and negotiations between 2002-2006.

Funabashi opens with former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to Pyongyang on Sept. 7, 2002, the fateful meeting in which Kim Jong Il apologized unexpectedly for the kidnapping of Japanese citizens. During the secret preparations for the trip, the U.S. was deliberately kept out of the loop until just before Koizumi’s departure, a rare assertion of independence.

A few weeks after Koizumi’s visit, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly briefed the Japanese government on North Korea’s surprise admission to him of its enriched uranium program. Whether North Korea’s representative actually made this admission remains disputed. Suspicions linger that Kelly’s bombshell was timed to derail Koizumi’s normalization initiative.

Funabashi, having debriefed the interpreters and James Kelly along with other key U.S. players, does not believe this to be the case while Ford disagrees.

Lawrence Wilkerson, an assistant to Secretary of State Colin Powell, told Funabashi: “This administration is too incompetent to do such a big job. It is so disorganized that it can’t accomplish anything.” This is a recurring theme throughout “The Peninsula Question.” In Funabashi’s opinion, the U.S. badly misplayed its hand by having Kelly raise the HEU issue in October 2002.

At the beginning of 2003 North Korea announced its intention to withdraw from the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty, thus triggering the second nuclear crisis. The first had erupted in 1993 when Pyongyang refused the International Atomic Energy Agency’s request to inspect the Russian-built nuclear reactor in Yongbyon. Former President Jimmy Carter facilitated negotiations that led to what is known as the Agreed Framework. This 1994 agreement froze the Yongbyon program in exchange for deliveries of heavy fuel oil and promises of proliferation-resistant, light-water nuclear reactors. The Agreed Framework unraveled with the advent of the Bush administration and a rising crescendo of mutual recriminations.

Funabashi concludes that the biggest difference between the Bush and Clinton administrations was Team Bush’s decision to pursue a multilateral approach, mostly “because it disliked Clinton, who had pursued a bilateral approach.” Multilateralism was generally rejected by Team Bush, but because Washington’s plate was full with Iraq and Afghanistan, it made sense to involve China as a way to make it a stakeholder/scapegoat that would bear responsibility if the six-party talks fail.

Hu Jintao is portrayed as an accomplished statesman. Funabashi suggests that China has shown the world an effective and new style in its diplomacy. He analyzes China’s goals of denuclearization and preserving stability in North Korea and its concerns about a regional nuclear-arms race should the six-party process fail.

Angered by Vice President Dick Cheney’s warning to China that Japan might go nuclear if it didn’t rein in Pyongyang, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State responded, “God damn it, f***ing idiot.”

Toward the end of this excellent account, Funabashi writes that the Bush administration’s Korean diplomacy lacked pragmatism, imagination and political flexibility. Glyn Ford’s assessment is even harsher, accusing Washington of malign intentions, hypocrisy and a Cold War mind-set.

“North Korea on the Brink” provides glimpses into the bleak living conditions and gulag culture of North Korea while arguing against the fear mongering and hysteria that dominate public discourse about this reclusive nation.

Unlike Funabashi, who thinks North Korea now fully understands how important nuclear weapons are for prestige, leverage and survival, Ford believes that as a rational actor Pyongyang would, under the right conditions, agree to denuclearize.

He says the European Union can play a greater role in trying to resolve tensions on the Peninsula and should not just help pay the fuel bills. Rather than regime change, he sees prospects for changing the regime, asserting that Kim Jong Il is an advocate of reform.

For the sake of the long-suffering North Koreans, one hopes that Ford’s optimism is not excessive.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian studies at Temple University, Japan campus.