North Korea: A Nuclear Threat; Is Kim Jong Il Ready to Provoke a Regional Crisis? an Exclusive Account of What Pyongyang Really Wants

Newsweek International, October 16, 2006 | Go to article overview

North Korea: A Nuclear Threat; Is Kim Jong Il Ready to Provoke a Regional Crisis? an Exclusive Account of What Pyongyang Really Wants


Byline: Selig S. Harrison (Selig S. Harrison, who just returned from his 10th visit to North Korea, is director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy in Washington.)

On Sept. 19, 2005, North Korea signed a widely heralded denuclearization agreement with the United States, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea. Pyongyang pledged to "abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs." In return, Washington agreed that the United States and North Korea would "respect each other's sovereignty, exist peacefully together and take steps to normalize their relations."

Four days later, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sweeping financial sanctions against North Korea designed to cut off the country's access to the international banking system, branding it a "criminal state" guilty of counterfeiting, money laundering and trafficking in weapons of mass destruction.

The Bush administration says that this sequence of events was a coincidence. Whatever the truth, I found on a recent trip to Pyongyang that North Korean leaders view the financial sanctions as the cutting edge of a calculated effort by dominant elements in the administration to undercut the Sept. 19 accord, squeeze the Kim Jong Il regime and eventually force its collapse. My conversations made clear that North Korea's missile tests in July and its threat last week to conduct a nuclear test explosion at an unspecified date "in the future" were directly provoked by the U.S. sanctions. In North Korean eyes, pressure must be met with pressure to maintain national honor and, hopefully, to jump-start new bilateral negotiations with Washington that could ease the financial squeeze. When I warned against a nuclear test, saying that it would only strengthen opponents of negotiations in Washington, several top officials replied that "soft" tactics had not worked and they had nothing to lose.

It was no secret to journalists covering the September 2005 negotiations, or to the North Koreans, that the agreement was bitterly controversial within the administration and represented a victory for State Department advocates of a conciliatory approach to North Korea over proponents of "regime change" in Pyongyang. The chief U.S. negotiator, Christopher Hill, faced strong opposition from key members of his own delegation at every step of the way.

It was particularly galling to Victor Cha, director for Asian Affairs in the National Security Council and to Richard Lawless, assistant secretary of Defense, that Hill agreed to conduct intensive bilateral negotiations with North Korea in Beijing prior to the six-party talks. In their eyes, bilateral talks amount to implicit diplomatic recognition, and the "steps to normalize relations" envisaged in the agreement would legitimize a rogue regime. When Hill hosted a dinner in Beijing for the chief North Korean negotiator, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan, Cha and Lawless refused to attend. When a draft agreement was finalized, they held up final agreement for three days, unsuccessfully attempting to get the White House to insist on tougher terms. The issue was finally resolved only when China insisted on sticking to the draft agreement.

During six hours of intensive give-and-take with Kim Gye Gwan, both in his office and in two one-on-one dinners with only an interpreter present, he said over and over to me, "How can you expect us to return to negotiations when it's clear your administration is paralyzed by divisions between those who hate us and those who want to negotiate seriously? At the very time when we were engaged in such a long dialogue last year, your side was planning for sanctions. Cheney did this to prevent further dialogue that would lead to peaceful coexistence. So many of your leaders, even the president, have talked about regime change. We have concluded that your administration is dysfunctional."

At one point in our farewell dinner on Sept.

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