Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis

By Weinberg, Steve | Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal, July/August 2008 | Go to article overview

Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis


Weinberg, Steve, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal


The virtues of longevity in covering a beatespecially when the beat involves a secretive, non-English speaking nation hostile to outside journalists -are demonstrated in a new book, "Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis."

Mike Chinoy, longtime CNN correspondent, covered North Korea for nearly two decades and negotiated difficult entry into the country numerous times. Now he has written a chronicle of U.S.-North Korean negotiations during the Clinton and George W. Bush White House years that lives up to its billing as a "behind-the-scenes, blow-by-blow account."

Chinoy now studies Korea as a fellow at the Pacific Council on International Policy, with financial support from the Edgerton Foundation. Like many journalists, Chinoy welcomed the opportunity to step back from daily deadlines to understand the big picture in a book. He shows that Kim Jong-il is indeed a dictator who continued the repressive policies of his father. But unlike so many other journalists and foreign policy analysts, Chinoy analyzes U.S. government leaders and South Korean policymakers just as closely as he does the North Koreans (with China, Japan and other nations figuring into the mix), thus providing welcome context for North Korea's development of a nuclear arsenal. If Kim Jong-il comes across as a villain driving an "Axis of Evil" nation (to employ the language of the Bush administration), the current President Bush is portrayed in colors just as dark. In scene after scene meticulously sourced by Chinoy (although some sources insisted on and received anonymity), Bush and his chief foreign policy advisers come across as ideologues at best, fools squandering an opportunity for nuclear disarmament at worst.

Chinoy himself does not come across as a shrill Bush administration critic so much as a journalist taking the story where the facts have led him. The irony of the situation is that the Bush administration built its foreign policy around the desire to prevent countries like North Korea from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, but failed in part because of its inability to negotiate effectively. Scenes showing the visceral personal hostility Bush developed for Kim Jong-il are especially disturbing, because Chinoy shows a U.S. president ruling via emotion instead of reason.

How did Chinoy arrive at his conclusions? By relying on an impressive range of sources. Here is a categorization, with representative examples, using Chinoy's citation headings:

North Korean Documentation

"With its bombast and overheated rhetoric, North Korea's state-run media is often dismissed as meaningless propaganda," Chinoy comments. He learned to pay attention, however. "I spent many hours poring over Pyongyang's official pronouncements. It became increasingly clear that stripped of the verbiage, they [are] a valuable tool to understanding the thinking of the North Korean regime." Chinoy's "official" Korean sources are numerous. Government communiques, newspapers and videos might be biased, but not devoid of useful content.

U.S. Government Documentation About North Korea

The documentation comes from all branches of the U.S. government. Within the executive branch, Chinoy cites communiqués, speeches and studies from the White House, State Department and Treasury Department, among others. Within the legislative branch, Senate and House committee hearings plus Congressional Research Service studies educated Chinoy. Also cited are judicial branch rulings in international disputes. …

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