Two factors define the North Korea we see today. The first is the dreadful bombing unleashed upon it by the United States and its allies during the 1950-53 Korean War — a war that in many Korean eyes was a far from illegitimate attempt to unite a nation arbitrarily divided into north and south in 1945 after liberation from Japanese control. As one Australian pilot put it to me after that war, “we bombed all the farmhouses, then we bombed the cows, and when we ran out of cows we bombed the haystacks.” The bitterness of anti-U.S. feeling that comes from those years cannot be underestimated.

The second factor was the 1994 Agreed Framework with the U.S. So as never again to be powerless before overwhelming U.S. air power, North Korea in the ’90s had set out to build a plutonium reactor to produce its own nuclear weapon. But the U.S. intervened.

Literally hours before a planned U.S. air attack on the reactor former U.S. President Jimmy Carter negotiated on behalf of the Clinton administration an Agreed Framework under which the U.S. and its allies would assist in building a light-water reactor to replace the offending plutonium reactor (the KEDO project). Promises of economic aid and diplomatic recognition were included.

Sadly, the neocons in the subsequent Bush regime were able to dismantle all this with claims that Pyongyang still had the materials or the intention to create an atomic bomb. The Bush regime condemned North Korea, together with Iran and Iraq, as part of the axis of evil and subject to pre-emptive attack if holding weapons of mass destruction. Stories of starvation convinced many in Washington that North Korea would in any case soon collapse of its own accord. All suggestions for improved relations were rejected with the fatuous claim that bad behavior should not be rewarded.

Equally bizarre was the later move under U.S. President Barack Obama to offer North Korea a guarantee that it would not be attacked if it dismantled its nuclear capacity. Pyongyang had a short answer to that one: You made the same promises to Iraq and Libya and what happened to them later? You promised Moscow you would not put NATO closer to its borders, but you did.

Pyongyang set out to create its own nuclear defense, which brought us to where we are today

A glimmer of reality emerged at a press conference at Foreign Correspondents Club in Tokyo last month given by Robert Carlin from Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation at the height of the fuss over Pyongyang’s claimed detonation of a hydrogen bomb. A former CIA analyst, Carlin has been involved with North Korea in and out of government since 1974. He was executive director 2003-2006 of the abortive KEDO project and has visited North Korea more than 30 times. If anyone knows North Korea and can talk about U.S. policy, it is he.

Carlin was strongly critical of U.S. policies. He blamed the breakdown in relations squarely on the Bush rejection of the agreed framework. He confirmed that sanctions have not hurt North Korea greatly; that if anything conditions, both in town and country, have improved greatly and that this can be confirmed by glance at the burgeoning Pyongyang skyline. I asked him if the North Korean officials he dealt with went along with the bluff and bluster of the regime. Some did, he said, but he confirmed what others say: that a new generation is emerging which is much more realistic and surprisingly well-informed. The standard Western image of the regime as a collection of clownist oafs was far from the mark.

From Carlin’s and other reports it is clear that it is the refusal of the diplomatic contacts promised in the Agreed Framework that rankles most. Attempts to imitate China’s ping-pong diplomacy with people-to-people contacts through celebrity visits do not get far. (As someone involved in the ping-pong opening, I would advise doing everything on a much larger scale and allowing reporters free movement.)

But the regime is far from isolated. North Korea has 53 embassies and consulates abroad. It is recognized by 72 nations with 34, including Britain, having embassies in Pyongyang. The others maintain liasion offices in nearby countries. So why don’t the U.S. (and Japan) do likewise? Because it would be rewarding bad behavior is the standard answer. The idea that the bad behavior, if it in fact exists, could be due to the lack of diplomatic recognition, never seems to occur. But then again small children, too, have problems with separating causes and results

Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat involved in Asia. Read this article in Japanese at www.gregoryclark.net.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.