The Korean Nuclear Confrontation

The Korean Nuclear Confrontation

"The Korean Nuclear Confrontation"

Robert Carlin, Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization

February 4th, 2004

The Ethics of Development in a Global Environment (EDGE)

Transcribed for Professor Bruce Lusignan by Stella Shin

Good evening. Why is this man smiling? Because I'm going to talk to you about North Korea, something I like to do. It's been a favorite topic of mine. We should be almost done in an hour, leaving lots of time for questions.

The Korean Energy Development Organization, an international consortium, comes out of the 1994 Agreed Framework signed between the DPRK and the United States. Why an international consortium? Well, to be blunt, the US Congress was not prepared to fund all of the obligations the United States undertook in the Agreed Framework. There were two main obligations: first, 500,000 tons per year of heavy fuel oil to be shipped to North Korea as compensation for the energy they said they would be losing by not pursuing their indigenous reactor program. Five hundred thousand tons of heavy fuel oil is about 70 million dollars a year more or less, and the United States wouldn't even fund all of that. We needed to go around asking other countries to get enough money. The second obligation we undertook, and this was the big one everyone is focused on, was providing two light water reactors-one thousand megawatts each at a total cost of several billion dollars, more than three, less than five. To pay for that, we got South Korea and Japan as part of the consortium, and then eventually the European Union joined as well. Now we have four what we call executive board members.

The heavy fuel oil was suspended in November 2002, because of U.S. suspicions about a clandestine program that some people think North Korea is pursuing to develop highly enriched uranium.

Although the LWR project is actually an astounding feat-a transformation of what was merely a gleam in the eyes of diplomats, into concrete and steel, real life construction in a remote site in North Korea, lots of work, an incredible amount of work both in terms of civil construction and in terms of negotiations with the North Koreans to get proper access to the area as well as a legal framework of privileges and immunities for what was to be several thousand foreign workers operating within North Korea. Although the LWR project was suspended in December 2003, as it happens, KEDO is still alive and this is a good thing, which I will attempt to explain to you throughout the course of this evening.

My role is as a senior policy adviser. I'm not a nuclear engineer. I've learned a lot about nuclear engineering; I've learned a lot about making nuclear weapons, but basically I'm no scientist, not at all. I am a political science major who fell into working with North Korea in 1974 and never got out of it.

In KEDO, I have been involved in negotiations with the North Koreans. I realize that there is an impression that there really isn't much negotiating going on with North Korea these days. There certainly isn't at the higher levels. But KEDO is in constant contact with the North Koreans, almost every single day. We are either in contact with them at the LWR site, which is on the East coast of North Korea, or we travel to Pyongyang or to other places in the North for talks. I was originally scheduled to leave from here to go to North Korea on Friday That would have been my fourth visit in four months-a lot of washing of socks and laundry. But more importantly, it meant I was preparing for two presentations at the same time, I was preparing our negotiating position for talks with the North Koreans, hard at work on that, and at the same time I was preparing this presentation for you tonight.

So, if when I finish this evening, you are all prepared to cooperate with me in suspending the LWR project, it means that I have drawn the wrong notes from my notebook.

A bigger problem is if a week from now-- when I go to North Korea--I finish my opening presentation at talks and the North Korean negotiator turns to the deputy and says, "Huh, Stanford what?" than it means I really have picked the wrong notes.

We're going to talk tonight about the Korean nuclear crisis. That is an issue drowning in polemics, and I'm going to avoid polemics this evening as you don't need to hear any more of them.

I'm going to cover four things. Our current problems on the Korean peninsula are not really about nonproliferation and weapons of mass destruction, or that's what I think. Our current nonproliferation difficulties are actually a reflection of deeper problems in dealing with North Korea. This is something that transcends administrations. So what you're going to hear tonight is a brief rendition of the lessons I think I've learned over the past 30 years in government working on North Korean issues. That's the first thing we'll cover.

The second thing is we'll look at is history-just a little bit, because we need to put all of this into some sort of context. The third thing is how to read North Korea, so you can do some of this on your own. This is what some people refer to as Pyongyangology. Finally we're going to look at where we were not so long ago, was about three years ago, and then we're going to look at where we are right now. I'm not going to look at where we are going, because I don't know. And I'll leave that to others.

Let's begin with one of life's deep mysteries. This is sort of an existential problem of perceptions and experiences. I look out at each of you and I am fairly confident that I can say that there is not a single Cyclops among you-we each have two eyes. Some of your eyes work better than others, if you're an old man like me your eyes aren't working as well as they used to, but we've got two eyes. What is that? That's called binocular vision. And it helps us deal with the fact that the world is three-dimensional. It may have a fourth dimension or a fifth dimension, but it does have at least three dimensions. And if you live in a three-dimensional world you must have senses which allow you to perceive them: height, width, and depth.

So where is the mystery? Well, if the world is three-dimensional, then why is it that no article in Time magazine written on North Korea ever gets beyond a two-dimensional portrayal? And this is not just Time magazine, this is everything in American media, almost everything that emerges from the US Congress, these days almost anything out of the Executive Department. Why do people, when they think about North Korea, always think in two-dimensional terms: black, white, good, bad, yes, no?

This is a problem, an inability to see North Korea in all of its dimension. This is a big problem. And this is an American problem. Again, notice I'm not saying it's a problem for a particular administration. It's critical to understand that this has been with us for a long time. I have served under seven presidents, six directors of central intelligence, and five secretaries of state. This problem of dimensional impairment, as we might refer to it, has been with us for a very long time. And what we're going through now is just a peculiar manifestation of that.

Now, North Korea didn't always seem like such a big problem-why is that? It used to seem easier to some extent. And that's because it used to be considered strictly a security problem, not a diplomatic problem. The commander of US forces, who was a four-star general--which there are not very many of-- drove around in a big, gold, armored Mercedes with motorcycle outriders. The US ambassador had a black Oldsmobile. This spoke to the South Koreans. This told them something about American priorities and American perceptions.

But sometime in the 1980s, a new idea began to tiptoe into our perceptions-that aircraft carriers and new weapons for our infantry division, which is along the demilitarized zone, weren't enough to cope with North Korea anymore. We were actually going to have to begin to talk to them. We were actually going to have to think about diplomacy and engagement with North Koreans. This is where the rubber meets the road. If we were at a cocktail party and the North Koreans walked in one door, we couldn't flee out the other door. We were going to have to stay there and if they walked up to us, we'd have to engage in conversation. But you can't talk to people you don't know anything about, at least you can't do it very effectively. So, we had to learn something about North Korea.

That wasn't very easy, and it still isn't very easy to do. North Korea is one of those places that has an unlimited capacity to baffle and to irritate us. There are many reasons for this. One of them is that it's a very difficult place to visit, and as a result very few Americans have been there. And most of those who have visited only go there once. As a result, what you get is a lot of first time impressions. And on their first visit to a place like North Korea, people have a tendency to think that they have landed on the moon-they think they were the first humans in history to see these things. And they are overwhelmed by their impressions. They have an urge to draw out conclusions as a result of these impressions-not just little conclusions, sweeping conclusions.

Let me give you a very simple example, something very typical which stands for the totality of the problem. We used to get persistent reports from visitors that people in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, walk along the streets singly and silently, with blank expressions. Now, implicit in this, and sometimes explicit, is the conclusion that the people walk around like this either from repression or from hunger. You had this sense of an army of puppets trudging along the streets in the morning.

Alright, this is a little experiment. Pretend that you have just landed in a spaceship in any US city. Not on a college campus, but in the real world somewhere. And what do you see? You see a lot of people striding or trudging, walking by themselves, frowning, blank expressions on their faces. Sometimes you see people walking in pairs, they each have cell phones, and they're having separate conversations. That is socially dysfunctional, I would say.

Now, go back to Pyongyang and stand on the street corner. What do you see? The same thing, but look a little closer and you see young girls walking hand in hand, giggling and laughing. Alright, now get out of the city, get on the bus. Take a bus out on one of the main highways, on a snowy day in February or January as I did last month. And you'll run across work gangs of people clearing the highways with shovels. Not terribly efficient, but the work gets done. Let's say you have a gang of twenty people, maybe two or three of them will be actually doing the work and the rest are standing around chatting, laughing, having a good time. Except when you drive by, suddenly there will be silence and they'll all watch you. And then they'll go back to their interactions. So what? S-o-o-o what?

That's the point, that's exactly the point. From these things you can't tell if this is a happy place or a sad place, or a free place or a place of terrible, terrible repression. When people go to North Korea, they forget that what you see depends on where you stand, and when. A lot of the observations on which we base some of our most fundamental views of North Korea have less to do with North Korea than they do with us. Maybe what passes as cogent observations about North Korea are really observations about our own perceptions. When you read newspaper articles or when you listen to speakers, bear that in mind. Try to do a little mental adjustment. And think about this rule I'm going to give you, because it's one of the central rules I've developed over the years. And it is a rule often breached by journalists and intelligence analysts. This is the rule that applies to observations about pedestrians, and food, and traffic, and the nuclear issue. It's this: what you think you know about North Korea sometimes leads you away from what you need to learn.

I'll give you an example. In October 2000, Secretary of State Albright visited North Korea. This was a very, very important event, not just because it was the first such visit. It was substantive, she had hours and hours and hours of conversations with Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader. We got a lot accomplished. And what did the accompanying press corps do? Well, they went out to a North Korean department store, and they discovered that among the children's toys were toy tanks and toy fighter planes. Shocking! Amazing! Have they ever been to Toys R Us? Did this really tell us anything about North Korea? But it was on the front page of the New York Times.

North Korea has become a playground for the media. Pick up any newspaper article on North Korea, and you will run into two awful tendencies by reporters. First, if you lack understanding of the place, fall back on ridicule. One thing very easy to ridicule, of course, is Kim Jong Il, and his appearance-you can spend paragraphs on that. And if you lack facts, substitute adjectives; it works every time.

Two months ago, I ran across a newspaper article that referred to "the desolate, wind-whipped coast where KEDO is building the LWRs." Well, I have been to the LWR site several times, and there may be windy days, usually on a sea coast there are windy days. But, actually the stretch of the coastline where we're building the reactors is quite pretty. And the landscape is really very pastoral. Had this reporter ever been there? But I just let it pass; I mean it's just sort of a minor journalistic hiccup. Then, when I was on the airplane yesterday, I ran across an article in the New York Times. Also on North Korea, and the first paragraph read like this: "On North Korea's desolate-desolate-Eastern coast, six hundred miles across the Sea of Japan from here, soldiers stand guard on an abandoned site where two nuclear reactors were to be built."

Well, desolate-we already took care of that. Abandoned? We still have about 250 workers at the site. We're going in and out all the time. There's activity, there's no actual construction actively, but ***(TAPE BLANKED OUT)*** Guarded by soldiers? I don't think so. So in this first paragraph of three basic ideas, all three of them are wrong, and it's just the first paragraph. I didn't even want to go through the whole article. This is the New York Times!

What do we have here? We have a problem which is rooted in the concept that I call the "black hole" approach to North Korea. At a presentation or a newspaper article, you're often going to run across this assertion: North Korea is a black hole when it comes to information. When you hear that, sit very still, raise your defensive shields. Count your silverware. You know why? Because even coming from a normally intelligent person, that is either a dodge or a trap. Implicitly, what's the message? The message is: Nobody knows anything about North Korea, therefore my conclusions are equally as valid as the next guy's. That is emphatically false. It's absolutely not true that North Korea is unknowable and therefore his conclusions (POINTS TO ONE SIDE OF ROOM) are equally as valid as his conclusions (POINTS TO OTHER SIDE). That is fertile ground for bogus logic, intellectual sloth and rampant moralizing. It's phony, and it's very dangerous.

So, if knowing about North Korea isn't easy, and ignorance is what we have in abundance, what's the remedy? Many of the experts, so-called, don't know what they're talking about because they don't do their homework. Homework. Painful word, homework. But that's the remedy. And how do you do it? Well, you take advantage of one excellent free resource, the US government's Foreign Broadcast Information Service, which monitors North Korean radio, television, newspapers, and press services 365 days a year. FBIS is the single best source that exists on a day-by-day basis to give you insights into North Korea insights and plans. But you have to read it meticulously, and systematically, and rigorously. And by that I don't mean you move your lips when you read it. I mean to read and use it correctly, you have to be prepared to do a lot of research.

Let's say the North Koreans issued a statement today on subject X-let's say it had something to do with Japan. You can't draw any conclusion on the basis of reading that just by itself-it's meaningless. You have to do some comparisons. You have to see what they said last year on the same subject. Then you have to go back five years, you may have to go back ten years, to see whether there have been any changes in their formulations over time. When you've done the research, you're going to have to ask yourself some critical questions. What are the differences over time? Are they significant or not? If the changes are significant, when was the last time there was a similar shift in formulations, and were there any policy implications? And, this is the most difficult thing-not only what did they say, but what didn't they say? If something was omitted, why was it omitted this time? What if they didn't say anything this time at all, how are you going to know that that's significant? How do you record a zero? Very, very, very tough to do. You'll have to get into the habit of reading North Korean media, and get past the agony of the novice who says, "Oh God, they say the same thing over and over again," which happens to be the beauty of reading and analyzing North Korean media, because if they say the same thing over and over again, when they make a change, you can assume that it's deliberate. The analysis you'll be doing is a type of reverse engineering, trying to figure out whether the regime changed what it said, and then working to discover the reason it made those changes.