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Kim Jong Il's perspective on the nuclear standoff
Kim Myong Chol, Ph.D.
This paper was presented at the 2003 Forum on Prospects in Asia organized by the Asia Foundation in Taiwan and supported by the Republic of China Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Strikingly missing from the current international debate of the Korean crisis is a proper international attention to the agonizing situation in which the DPRK and its people have lived fearfully under the nuclear sword of Damocles, kept hanging by successive US governments. This paper is prepared to provide the DPRK supreme leader Kim Jong Il's perspective on the current nuclear standoff between the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the United States.
Set forth here are the origins of the Korean nuclear standoff, the backdrop against which the supreme leader of the DPRK, came out with a nuclear strategy, and the goals he seeks to achieve in the nuclear strategy.
The picture of North Korea presented here is totally different from those portraying the tiny country as engaged in an old game of nuclear brinkmanship in a bid to seek American guarantee of regime survival and economic assistance. From the North Korean point of view, Bush and company are engaged in the old game of nuclear brinkmanship. An emerging picture is not one of a tiny North Korea blackmailing the U.S., but that of the world's sole superpower blackmailing and scaring an impoverished country.
Part One: The Origins of the Korean Nuclear Standoff
Mark Gayn noted in his famous Japan Diary(2): "We were not an army of liberation. We had come to occupy, to see that the Korean people obeyed the terms of surrender. From the first day, we've behaved as enemies of the Korean people." A least-noticed fact is that three features combine to distinguish the Korean crisis from the Iraqi, Iranian, Syrian, or Cuban crises.
In the first place, more than fifty years of the American nuclear blackmail makes the Korean crisis really unique. North Korea has constantly faced the overt American threats of nuclear strikes. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist notes(3): "Nuclear weapons and Korea have been entwined for more than 50 years. During the Korean War (1950-1953), the United States threatened several times to use nuclear weapons. After the armistice, U.S. military forces remained in South Korea.
"North Korea (the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK) was threatened with nuclear weapons during the Korean War, and that for decades afterwards U.S. weapons were deployed in the South."
The U.S. deployed up to 2,000 nuclear weapons, both strategic and tactical, in South Korea, nearly half of the American nuclear arms in the Asian and Pacific region. In 1991 the U.S. announced withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea. But there is no conclusive evidence of it. Missiles, artillery pieces and warplanes deployed in South Korea are nuclear-capable. So are most of those naval vessels and warplanes that come to South Korea on a temporary basis.
Another thing that distinguishes North Korea from the other countries that have been branded "rogue states" and "axis of evil" states is the total absence of diplomatic relations between the two enemies. Except the DPRK, the "rogue states" and "axis of evil" states were once supported, armed and financed as allies of the U.S.
Thirdly, the DPRK stands out in that only the North Koreans inflicted the Americans their first military debacle in their history. General William Clark said, "I gained the unenviable distinction of being the first U.S. Commander in history to sign an armistice without victory. " (4) Accordingly, the Americans view the North Koreans with mixed feelings, hurt pride, anger, hatred and inferiority complex.
What underlies the American nuclear blackmail is the policy of hostility the successive American governments have adopted and maintained for more than a half century. This policy of hostility is chiefly responsible for the absence of peace on the Korean Peninsula. American hostility accounts for the adamant refusal of the successive administrations in Washington, DC to replace the fragile Korean armistice with a lasting peace.
The continuing armistice finds the two enemies, the DPRK and the U.S., pitted against each other. Some two million-strong heavily armed troops confront each other within a shooting distance astride the Korean Peninsula.
This American hostility to Pyongyang is part and parcel of the perpetual policy of seeking to maintain the American status of dominant power on the world scene and expand its influence of sphere to cover the whole of the earth, namely, Pax Americana: raising the U.S. to the status of the 21st century version of the Roman Empire. (5)
The 1991 disintegration of the Soviet Union, which was the arch-enemy of the U.S., left the latter the only surviving superpower. Yet, American global influence is far from complete. This strategic end justifies the American bid to dominate the Mideast oil resources and to preemptively eliminate the present and future potential rivals which might be perceived as likely to threaten the most coveted superpower spot of the U.S.(6)
The American oil resources are fast running dry. Increased dependence on Russian oil carries the risk of leaving the U.S. vulnerable. An effective and easy way is to seize the Mideast oil resources. After Saudi Arabia, Iraq has the world's second largest oil reserves and produces the best quality oil in the world.
American control of Mideast oil will most likely make Europe and China easier to control. There must be a regime change in Beijing as China under communist rule is now the largest exporter to the U.S., replacing Japan. The two are future rivals in the eyes of American policy planners. There are future risks that foreign funds, which sustain the American dollar, will shift to the Euro and remotely the Chinese Yuan. The most likely threat to the American supremacy and prosperity is a possible conversion of foreign funds into the Euro.
Here comes the need to present a scapegoat whose alleged threat to international peace may warrant this American global military strategy. Scapegoats are needed to justify perpetuate American military and technological superiority over Europe and China, namely, missile defense, and shock Europe, China, Russia and other nations into line under American leadership.
In the final analysis, North Korea is among the scapegoats, that is, fall guys politically created by American policy planners. American hostility to North Korea can be divided into two periods: the first is from the end of the Second World War through the Cold War era and the second the post-Cold War era from the disintegration of the Soviet Union to the present.
During the first period, the American policy of hostility to North Korea was part of the American global strategy of containing and rolling back Soviet communism. The Americans wanted to retain the availability of South Korea as their bridgehead on the Asian continent.
That is why the U.S. sabotaged the decision of the December 1945 Moscow Conference of Foreign Ministers of the Soviet Union, the U.S. and the UK, as it called for five-year trusteeship of Korea before Korea became an independent state. (7) The Moscow agreement, when fully implemented, would spell a sudden close to the American military presence on the Korean Peninsula.
The American global strategic considerations played a decisive role in the American decision to establish the Republic of Korea in Seoul. It is also the case with the American material breach of the Korean armistice agreement which calls for a peaceful settlement of the Korean question and withdrawal of all foreign forces from Korea. (8) The South Korean-American defense treaty, under which the Americans justify their military presence in South Korea, is in horizontal violation of the Korean truce agreement.
For the same reasons, the Clinton and Bush administrations found themselves in material breach of the 1994 Geneva nuclear accord. They threatened to launch preemptive nuclear strikes on North Korea in flagrant violation of its provision banning the Americans making such threats.
The Americans mapped out what they called USFK OpPlan 5027. OpPlan 5027 and in particular OpPlan 5026 calls for launching preemptive nuclear attacks on North Korea, toppling the DPRK government, establishing military administration. (9) They were repeatedly tested in Team Spirit war games and Foal Eagle military maneuvers in Korea. American F-15s taking off from South Carolina carried out in Florida long-range simulated nuclear strikes against North Korea. (10)
To be candid, from the beginning, the Clinton Administration had no enthusiasm for fulfilling its share of obligations under the nuclear accord. They had wishful expectations that North Korea would collapse along the way, saving them the onus of building nuclear power plants in North Korea. It is also the case with the Bush Administration which succeeded the Clinton Administration.
Part Two: Kim Jong Il's Nuclear Strategy
Very, very few in the rest of the world can imagine how scared the North Koreans have been for the past half-century since the ceasefire in the Korean War. Very few can share the dread, anger and frustration of the North Korean people, who have been singled out as an "axis of evil" state and a potential target of nuclear preemption and branded as a rogue state by the world's most powerful nation. The Bush administration's threats have only served to rally the North Koreans behind Kim Jong-il in a determined life-and-death resistance.
What Has Kept North Koreans From Going Neurotic?
Dr. Gavan McCormack at Australian National University noted, "After facing for half a century the threat of extermination, it would be surprising if North Korea did not now show signs of neurosis and instability." (11)
What has kept the North Korean population mentally sane, in face of permanent risks of their country being nuked by the Americans at any moment? They have been immune to the traumatic shell shock. They have been prescribed a large dosage of three alternative medicines: the first is a proud nationalism with a long history of successfully dealing with big powers; the second is an ideological and spiritual arming and mobilization of patriotism which is known as the personality cult or deification to the West; and the third is the building of a formidable war machine including nuclear deterrence.
The first medicine administered to the North Korean population is an ample infusion of the sense of Korean pride and dignity. For the North Koreans, fighting foreign invaders and risks of being vandalized by them are routine and nothing new. They rather feel a great pride in having surviving repeated invasions from big powers by creditably repelling the invading forces.
They are reminded that those countries that had attacked Korea were all doomed. China's Sui Dynasty fell in the wake of its unsuccessful expeditions to the Korean Peninsula. Japan's Toyotomi government was dethroned after its forces were routed out of Korea. Truman and MacArthur became fallen angels as a result of American defeats in the hands of the North Koreans.
The second medicine is the appeal of traditional Korean virtues, martyr-like allegiance to Korean patriotism. Patriotism assumes a North Korea-specific and leader-specific form. Prof. R. Myers, a North Korean specialist at Korea University, Seoul, notes(12): "Kim Jong Il and his late father, Kim Il Sung, are revered, like the monarchs they more closely resemble, for their perfect embodiment of national virtues."
Far from frail is a woman who is devoted to her husband or sweetheart in a way that appears close to mad in the eyes of other people. Offer of money or promise of comfort will not win over her. The Westerners are free to write off the spiritual and moral arming as "the personality cult" or "religious cult."
The term "personality cult" is obvious sign of American and Western exasperation at their inability to wean the North Korean population from their leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Peoples in the developing world can be organized into a disciplined fighting force resilient enough to resist foreign imperial and colonial powers. The logic of "Divided we will lose and united we will win" works. The key to this logic is availability of an able leader.
The third medicine, conversion of the whole of North Korea into Fortress DPRK has served to convince the North Korean population that they will certainly survive unscathed massive nuclear bombings. Knowledge that Kim Jong Il has acquired a creditable nuclear deterrence has added to the relief and confidence of the North Korean people. The North Koreans are duly proud to realize that unlike the last Korean War, resumption of hostilities in Korea will find Japan and the U.S. mainland aflame in nuclear retaliation from the Korean People's Army.
Key Factors behind Nuclear Arming
Hostility from Japan or South Korea will never prompt North Korea to seek to acquire nuclear deterrence. The North Koreans are 100% confident of their ability to handle them.
American hostility is totally different, however. It has produced three negative effects: (1) perennial threats of nuclear attacks; (2) heavy drain on the economy of the cost of maintaining huge standing forces; (3) major stumbling block to the effort of the Korean people to reunite.
Facing the American nuclear threats poses a gigantic challenge to Kim Jong Il and his North Korean people. Chinese and Russian pledge of help will most unlikely deter the Americans.
The U.S. is the first and only country in history that ever actually used nuclear weapons in war and against civilian targets such as Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Americans dropped atomic bombings on the two cities when there was no practical military need to. Secondly, the Americans unsuccessfully made real attempts to use nuclear weapons in Korea, at least on three occasions: (1) July-August 1950 American retreat to the Pusan perimeter; (2) the winter 1950-spring 1951 American stampede from North Korea; (3) the autumn 1952-spring 1953. Thirdly, the Americans have kept a nuclear attack force in and around South Korea, which is ready to pounce upon North Korea at a moment's notice.
In a wake-up call two developments occurred to Kim Jong Il and his people. One is the strong likelihood that the Americans will launch nuclear preemptive strikes on his country when they conclude that neither of Russia and China will side with North Korea. The other is a realization that determined objection raised by both Beijing and Moscow and the UN failed to stop the Bush Administration from launching an unwarranted and illegal war against Iraq, a sovereign state, and toppling its Hussein regime.
The Iraq war served as a reminder that Russia is not good as its word. Moscow refused to side with North Korea in the last four rounds of military showdowns with the U.S. In December 1985, Moscow deceived North Korea into joining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by promising to supply four light-water reactors.(13) Moscow did not help North Korea build a long-range missile force.
The second consideration behind the decision of Kim Jong Il to acquire nuclear capability is the matter of cost performance in maintaining and reinforcing national defenses. Operating huge armed forces, which consume most of the available national resources, is too heavy a drain on the economy in terms of manpower and funding.
Given the scale of the North Korean economy, it is an economic miracle for Pyongyang to manage to build and maintain the national defenses strong enough to keep the nuclear superpower at bay. The continuing state of war with the U.S. necessitates huge defense spending. Nuclear weapons are expected to go a long way towards relieving the burden of the military on the national economy.
Third comes the supreme national task of accomplishing the long-elusive reunification of the divided country. National reunification calls for putting a long-awaited period to the nuclear-based American military interventionist role in the domestic affairs of the Korean Peninsula. In other words, the American nuclear umbrella over South Korea must be torpedoed and nullified.
As long as Korea remains divided, America will find good reason to come back even if its forces are withdrawn from South Korea. As long as the tragic Korean division continues intact, military tensions will show no signs of abating. First of all, the Korean people have no justifiable reason at all to live separated in two parts of Korea. Korea was divided against their will.
Maximum legitimacy of the DPRK government of Kim Jong Il comes not from its policy of butter and bread. The DPRK government derives its legitimacy and national credentials from its steadfast independence from big powers and unwavering commitment to the reunification of Korea and reinstatement of traditional Korean values throughout the Korean Peninsula.
There is no doubt left in the minds of the North Koran population of 22 million that their government of Kim Jong Il is authorized to do what it can for the overpowering cause of reintegration of the homeland, no matter how great sacrifices may be entailed.
This said, access to nuclear deterrence is like killing three birds with one stone. Nothing is more effective in cost performance and benefits than acquiring nuclear weapons and long-range missiles as means of delivery. There are obvious limits to conventional arms as a tool of diplomacy.
Building North Korea into an invincible citadel capable of withstanding nuclear strikes is a wise policy in that it effectively defends the homeland from foreign invaders. Yet, maintaining a huge standing army equipped with conventional arms is money-losing and will not do anything to neutralize the American nuclear-based military intervention in Korea. The U.S. can afford to disregard it like a lion can stay away from a porcupine.
Three Scenarios Attendant on Nuclear Arms Program
Before deciding to go ahead with the nuclear deterrence development program, Kim Jong Il carefully weighed three scenarios against each other. Findings would decide the future of the Korean Peninsula.
The first scenario envisages the Americans agreeing on talks with North Korea to replace the armistice with a lasting peace treaty. The second imagines that the U.S. will continue ignore the DPRK by refusing to talk. The third is a worst-case scenario in which the U.S. will respond to the North Korean nuclear arms program by unleashing surgical strikes on the Yongbyon nuclear site.
A careful study of the three scenarios produced encouraging results. The first scenario is a dream scenario involving the U.S. agreeing to leave behind the two enemies more than fifty years of hostility and to establish full diplomatic relations. For its part, the U.S. will stand to benefit most because the U.S. will have the DPRK giving up its nuclear arms program for practically nothing. In short, every party will emerge a winner.
The second scenario is the second best because lack of bilateral talks and a peace mechanism will enable the DPRK to emerge a declared nuclear power. Official membership of the elite nuclear club will discredit the American nuclear umbrella and deal a telling blow to the global regime of international nuclear non-proliferation. North Korea will become a definite winner, while the U.S. will be a loser.
The worst-case scenario sees the U.S. rejecting the North Korean offer to negotiate the peaceful resolution of the nuclear standoff. The U.S. will find it alone in the international community for nixing the peace overture from Pyongyang and starting war. New war will most likely expand into a thermonuclear war spilling over into China and Russia.
A third world war will end up leaving South Korea, Japan and the heavy metropolitan U.S. destroyed. The North Koreans are all mentally and physically prepared to take and survive massive American nuclear strikes. They believe that they are better geared for nuclear exchange than the Americans. They are confident that their small fleet of nuclear-tipped ICBMs can put the torch to the metropolitan U.S.A. Which has greater economic value to the U.S. and the world, New York or Pyongyang?
Even when North Korea was rebuilt into an impregnable fortress, the U.S. did not care at all. No diplomatic channel was opened between the two enemies.
As the North Korean leader predicts, nuclear activity has turned out to be far more effective in drawing American attention and inducing the U.S. into asking for direct talks with North Korea. Once the U.S. detected signs of nuclear activity in North Korea as far back as the early 80s, the Americans ceased to ignore Pyongyang.(14) On October 31, 1988, the Reagan Administration opened a direct Beijing channel of diplomatic dialogue with the DPRK. (15)
The Bush Administration, which scored a much-publicized victory in the 1991 Gulf War, offered to withdraw tactical nuclear arms from South Korea and agreed to suspend the Team Spirit series. On September 27, 1991, Bush announced the withdrawal of tactical nuclear arms from South Korea. The Bush Administration also moved to cancel the Team Spirit exercises for 1992.
There were two significant aspects of the policy behavior of the Bush Administration. One was a relatively low-profile approach to the nuclear issue. Bush Senior refrained from doing any thing to offend the DPRK. The other was the fact that the U.S. moved first to encourage the North Koreans to respond in kind. Bush Senior did not insist that North Korea move first. Had h4 been returned in the 1992 presidential election, Bush Senior might have become a Nobel Laureate, showered with international accolade for ending the Cold War in Germany and Korea. The Korean Peninsula would be now a nuclear-free reunified land with full diplomatic relations with the U.S., Japan, Russia and China.
Contrary to the North Korean expectations, a tough-talking Clinton won the presidential race and swept away what the predecessor Bush did. Clinton ordered the Team Spirit war games resumed for 1993 and demanded that North Korea disarm itself by accepting intrusive inspections from the IAEA. Kim Jong Il reacted by ordering the Korean armed forces into war alert.
Kim Jong Il and policy planners in Pyongyang characterized the 1993-94 nuclear standoff as the fourth conflict between a de facto nuclear power, DPRK David, and the sole nuclear superpower, the U.S.A. Goliath. In the previous three showdowns, a conventional-armed North Korea gallantly stood up to the nuclear-armed U.S. Kim Jong Il also ordered war games simulating full-scale onslaughts on the American forces in South Korea.
Kim Jong Il also ordered two long-range ballistic missiles test-fired into the Pacific. Two missiles, blasted off from North Korea on May 29, 1993, flew over Japan, one splashing down off Hawaii and the other off Guam, traveling nearly 6,000 km and 4,000 km respectively. The Clinton Administration refused to announce the flight of North Korean missiles over Japan and simply said that one missile fell on the East Sea. Five years later, in 1998 the Clinton Administration notified the then Hashimoto Government of the fact.
Ambassador Foley informed the then Japanese Premier Hashimoto of the flight over Japan of North Korean missiles. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Kirt Campbell made the same revelation to Self-Defense Forces officials that Rep. Kirk Mark, speaking at a forum at Capital Hill on April 27, 2001, gave a vivid eye-witness account of the North Korean missile flying over Japan. (16) He recalled that he and his colleagues were drenched in tears, scared by the incoming North Korean missile.
Contrary to the common belief, the North Koreans outfoxed the Clinton Administration into backing down from its initial effort to strong-arm North Korea. Clinton faced two options, war and talks. Before the Clinton Administration realized, the Americans entered into talks with North Korea. A marathon series of bilateral talks culminated in the Americans signing the October 21, 1994 Agreed Framework.
In the Geneva accord the Clinton Administration made four critical pledges: (1) supply of two light-water reactors to North Korea by 2003, (2) supply to North Korea of 500,000 tons of fuel oil a year, (3) upgrading of bilateral relations to the ambassadorial level, (4) formal assurances to the DPRK against the threat or use of nuclear weapons.
At long last, the Kim Jong Il government came within easy range of the once-elusive national goal of reunification. Well familiar with deceptive American policy behavior, Kim Jong Il took it for granted that the American government would fail to default on their four pledges.
In the analysis of the North Korean leader, another round of a major showdown would come up in 2003 as an endgame of the DPRK-US confrontation which has lasted for more than half a century. Its outcome would decide the future of the relations between the DPRK and the U.S. and that of the Korean Peninsula. Outcome will carry far-reaching implications for the future peace and security structure of East Asia. All he had to do was to make well-considered preparations for the final showdown with the American government and wait for it to come.
Part Three: Kim Jong Il's Perspective on Nuclear Endgame
The extent of resolve which marks the supreme leader's way of handling the endgame of the nuclear standoff with the superpower is manifest in the binding resolution the DPRK's Supreme People's Assembly unanimously adopted on September 3, 2003.(17) The resolution is now a law binding the behavior of the DPRK Government and the military vis-à-vis the Bush Administration. The law means that the hawks in the DPRK will never allow the Foreign Ministry to yield to the American pressure.
The law endorses the DPRK Foreign Ministry in seeing no further point in multilateral talks in the absence of American intent to peacefully co-exist with the DPRK. The resolution added that the DPRK Government decided to take relevant measures to keep and enhance its nuclear deterrent.
The game plan Kim Jong Il has laid down for the final showdown with the Bush Administration is so crafted that he will emerge triumphant, whatever the outcome of the nuclear standoff may be. The Washington Times writes(18): "In the short term, they win in both cases," one administration official said. "If we negotiate and give them security guarantees, they win. If we don't negotiate, they will probably develop nuclear weapons in the next six to eight months."
His immediate strategic goal is to make irrelevant the American nuclear umbrella and neutralize the American nuclear-based military intervention in Korean affairs. It will decisively help create an environment where he can achieve his ultimate strategic goal of bringing together the North and South Korean people within a bi-system reunification framework.
The North Korean game plan is double-tiered. Its first stage is to make the Bush Administration look stupid and an odd man out in the international community. Its purpose is to isolate and alienate the Bush Administration from the mainstream society in the U.S. and from its allies. To this end, steps are taken to cast the Bush Administration as opposed to the fair, workable peaceful resolution of the nuclear standoff for all the parties to see. So far the first stage has worked well.
Defense Joseph Nye, Arnold Kantor, Brent Scowcroft and others agree that "time is not on the side of Bush" and "Bush must swallow his pride." (19) Ralph Cossa, President of Pacific Forum/CSIS noted in his article that Bush, while touring Asia, found that Asian allies, including South Korea, were cool to his plan to squeeze the DPRK. (20)
The second phase, currently under way, is to reduce the U.S. seeking to find an exit strategy. A key to success in this stage is indicating the Bush Administration how to find an exit in way that helps them keep their face while narrowing the space where they can maneuver.
The DPRK Foreign Ministry, in its October 25 statement, stated its readiness to consider a non-treaty form of non-aggression pledge offered by Bush on October 20. The DPRK Foreign Ministry statement prescribed rules for a peaceful resolution of the crisis: peaceful coexistence and simultaneous action.(22) This means that the DPRK is encouraging Bush to come up with such specifics as may satisfy the DPRK. In short, the point of the DPRK statement is that Pyongyang prefers living together for love to get married without love.
Absence of diplomatic relations and the continuing state of war will leave North Korea with no other option than to maintain and strengthen its nuclear deterrence. Adamant US refusal to put to rest the state of war and the policy of hostility will force the hand of the North Koreans by convincing the hardliners in the Pyongyang leadership that the US policy aim is to gain time and strike the country after denuclearizing it.
Once it has become unmistakably clear to the Kim Jong-il government that the Bush administration will not agree to co-exist with the DPRK by refusing to terminate the state of war with North Korea and establish full diplomatic relations, North Korea will have no alternative but to detonate thermonuclear devices in a series of nuclear tests. Once North
Korea tests nuclear devices, there will be no turning back the clock.
Alternatively, if Bush has what it takes to be a global leader, he will take a wise course of action to lead North Korea to see little sense in keeping a nuclear arsenal.
By Kim Myong Chol, Ph.D., is Executive Director for the Center for Korean-American Peace. His article was featured on Korea WebWeekly.
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