Koreaing off the rails

How US foreign policy made a pariah of North Korea.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

At the start of 2002, North Korea was a ‘hermit state’ – a strange communist nation in the Far East that was trying to make amends with South Korea through the ‘Sunshine’ talks.

In June 2000, the Clinton administration had lifted its 50-year-old economic sanctions against North Korea in recognition of ‘an historic summit between the leaders of North and South Korea’, and as part of ‘America’s policy of encouraging North Korea out of its isolation’ (1). It was, in the words of one journalist writing in December 2001, a ‘lonely state….tentatively reaching out to the West’ (2).

By the end of 2002, North Korea had become a ‘major threat to world peace’. It ended the year using its alleged nuclear weapons programme as a ‘bargaining chip’ against the West, and by December 2002 it had even overshadowed Iraq as the Big International Issue. According to BBC News, ‘North Korea’s unseasonable gift to the world was to unleash a new nuclear crisis, swiftly and alarmingly ratcheting up tension’ (3).

How did North Korea go from being lonely state 2001 to scary state 2002? Many commentators have looked for the answers in North Korea itself, with one warning us that ‘decoding North Korea is not easy at the best of times’ (4). That may be true – but North Korea’s rise from hermit status to world-threat status reveals more about the Bush administration’s foreign policy than it does about North Korea itself.

President Bush forced North Korea back on to the world stage at the end of January 2002, when he labelled it part of the ‘axis of evil’ in his State of the Union address. Alongside Iraq and Iran, said Bush, North Korea was a ‘threat to world peace’. ‘[It] is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens’, Bush warned the world (5).

Despite Bush’s harsh words, North Korea is incapable of posing a threat to world peace – or world anything. It is a largely isolated, poverty-stricken nation, where the infant mortality rate is 24 deaths per 1000 live births and where life expectancy is in the mid-60s. As the CIA says, ‘North [Korea] relies heavily on international food aid to feed its population’, is politically isolated, and desires to ‘communicate’ with Western nations – a desire that was reciprocated by Clinton’s lifting of economic sanctions in 2000 (6).

But North Korea was plunged back into its isolation by Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ rhetoric, which strained relations between North and South Korea. Bush’s focus on an ‘axis of evil’ was less a result of some determined policy to defeat ‘threatening states’ than a response to the flagging war on terror. As the hunt for bin Laden dried up at the end of 2001, the Bush administration sought new ways to assert its authority on the world stage in 2002. It seems that the less success America had in the Afghan War, the more it needed to expand the war further outwards.

The expedient nature of focusing on North Korea was exposed by the fact that, even as Bush and co lambasted North Korea as ‘evil’, behind the scenes they continued to push for reconciliation between North and South Korea.

In the days after Bush labelled North Korea ‘evil’ his secretary of state Colin Powell was asked if he had a message for North Korean leader Kim Jong II on his sixtieth birthday – and Powell opted for the therapeutic touch over war talk. ‘The South Koreans want to reach out and help you in your time of trouble’, he said. ‘And America has clearly said that we want to speak with North Korea at any time or place, without preconditions.’ (7)

When President Bush was told by South Korean president Kim Dae Jung on 20 February 2002 that the ‘axis of evil’ comments had damaged relations between South and North Korea, Bush was conciliatory. ‘Let me explain why I made the comments I did… I worry about a regime that is closed and not transparent. I’m deeply concerned about the people of North Korea’, said Bush, before calling on North Korean leader Kim Jong II to ‘prove to the world that he has a good heart’ (8).

The Bush administration toned down its comments further in February 2002, claiming that one of the evil states (Iraq, of course) was far more evil than the other two – but by then, the damage on the Korean peninsula had been done. When he visited South Korea in February 2002, Bush called on the South and Japan to reopen negotiations with North Korea (taken as evidence by one journalist that ‘the US administration is less antagonistic toward North Korea than the president’s words suggest’) – but as South Korean politicos pointed out, the ‘axis of evil’ talk put paid to new negotiations with the North (9).

According to one South Korean political analyst, ‘Bush’s comments, in which he castigated the North Korean leader and repeated his judgement that the regime is “evil”, have further distanced prospects of renewed cooperation by [the North Korean government]’ (10). One South Korean newspaper criticised the Bush administration for ‘pushing North Korea further away from us…. [Bush] has made North Korea into an international pariah, [but] he expects us to get on with “business as usual”’.

The newly strained relations between North and South Korea reached a peak in June 2002, with naval skirmishes between Northern and Southern ships resulting in the deaths of four navy men from the South and 30 from the North. Naval spats between the North and South are nothing new – but one journalist noted the ‘new belligerence’ of the North, after it was named ‘one of the major “states of concern” by President Bush [in January]’ (11).

North Korea next made big headlines in October 2002, when it allegedly admitted to having kickstarted its nuclear weapons programme – in direct contravention of the 1994 Agreed Framework between America and North Korea, which committed North Korea to forsaking its nuclear ambitions in return for US financing for the construction of two lightwater nuclear power reactors and increased oil shipments from the USA (12).

But there is much uncertainty about whether North Korea is building nuclear weapons or just trying to generate nuclear energy. America’s hard evidence that North Korea is constructing The Bomb comes from 5 October 2002, when US assistant secretary of state James Kelly put it to North Korean leaders that they have a nuclear weapons programme. According to a Bush official, one of the North Koreans responded by saying ‘something to the effect of, “Your president called us a member of the axis of evil….Your troops are deployed on the Korean peninsula….Of course, we have a nuclear programme”’ (13).

Yet according to North Korean officials, the North only defended its right to make nuclear weapons, rather than admitting that a weapons programme was up and running. As BBC News reports, ‘Confusion clouds a statement by North Korea in which it initially appears to acknowledge having nuclear weapons. A key Korean phrase understood to mean the North does have nuclear weapons could have been mistaken for the phrase “entitled to have”.’ (14)

What seems most likely to have pushed North Korea back to its ‘nuclear programme’ is America’s failure to provide the lightwater nuclear reactors promised in the 1994 Agreed Framework. Bush officials admit that it has been a ‘slow process’ getting the reactors finished – and now North Korea seems to be turning back to its pre-1994 nuclear programme, and making a big issue out of it to boot, in an attempt to pressurise the US into fulfilling its part of the 1994 bargain.

In response to its political isolation from January 2002 onwards and its frustration with not getting the lightwater reactors, North Korea seems to have adopted an increasingly defensive stance – invoking the nuclear weapons threat in a cynical attempt to win concessions from the USA. The Bush administration’s decision to stop oil shipments to North Korea at the end of 2002, as punishment for its nuclear ‘admission’, only seems likely to isolate North Korea further and up the stakes in its stand-off with America.

North Korea made the front pages again in mid-December 2002 – and again, this was courtesy of America’s foreign policy. On 10 December 2002, US forces detained a North Korean ship on its way to Yemen because it contained 15 Scud-type missiles. According to one Bush official, the North Korean ‘Scud ship’ was evidence that weapons of mass destruction are being sold around the world and that America ‘must stand up to this trade’.

But days later, the Americans were forced to free the ship because, as White House spokesman Ari Fleischer put it, ‘There is no provision under international law prohibiting Yemen from accepting delivery of missiles from North Korea’ (15). The UK Guardian reported that ‘America’s doctrine of pre-emptive strikes misfired at its first outing yesterday when the US navy was humiliatingly forced to release a seized shipment of North Korean missiles and allow its passage to Yemen’ (16).

In the Scud ship incident, America’s focus on the ‘threat of North Korea’ was prompted by its own foreign policy needs. As US forces let the ship go, Frank Gaffney of the Washington-based Centre for Security Policy said: ‘It is unfortunate that this [incident] coincides with the day that a new strategy on weapons of mass destruction has been unveiled.’ Unfortunate – or convenient? Could the Bush administration have been trying to make a point about weapons of mass destruction by picking on North Korea yet again – only to have the incident backfire?

Now, at the start of 2003, Bush officials bemoan North Korea’s cockiness, worry about whether they can deal with both Iraq and North Korea, and claim that North Korea poses a ‘nuclear threat’ to the world. But it was America’s foreign policy that put North Korea where it is today – and that looks certain to ensure that it stays there.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on terror

(1) US lifts sanctions on North Korea, BBC News, 19 June 2000

(2) US lifts sanctions on North Korea, BBC News, 19 June 2000

(3) What is North Korea’s game?, Aidan Foster-Carter, BBC News, 2 January 2003

(4) What is North Korea’s game?, Aidan Foster-Carter, BBC News, 2 January 2003

(5) State of the Union address, George W Bush, BBC News, 30 January 2002

(6) See The World Factbook, CIA

(7) ‘US softens tone on two ‘axis’ nations’, Brian Knowlton, International Herald Tribune, 18 February 2002

(8) ‘North Korea safe from US attack, Bush says in Seoul’, Elisabeth Bumiller, New York Times, 20 February 2002

(9) Cleaning up in Bush’s wake, Doug Struck, Washington Post, 26 February 2002

(10) Cleaning up in Bush’s wake, Doug Struck, Washington Post, 26 February 2002

(11) South, North Korea clash at sea, CNN, 29 June 2002

(12) See Timeline: North Korea nuclear crisis, BBC News, 31 December 2002

(13) US: North Korea admits nuke program, CNN, 17 October 2002

(14) See Timeline: North Korea nuclear crisis, BBC News, 31 December 2002

(15) Sailing on, the ship with a hold full of Scud missiles, Suzanne Goldenberg, John Gittings and Brian Whitaker, Guardian, 12 December 2002

(16) Sailing on, the ship with a hold full of Scud missiles, Suzanne Goldenberg, John Gittings and Brian Whitaker, Guardian, 12 December 2002

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Topics Politics


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