Amid continuing tension with North Korea- underscored by the firing on August 29 of a ballistic missile that flew over Japan before plunging into the Pacific Ocean- public understanding and discussion of this complex and increasingly dangerous situation is hampered by a one-dimensional narrative that has shaped much of the American press coverage of the crisis.
The conventional wisdom is that North Korea is a serial cheater whose broken promises have for years sabotaged good-faith American efforts to end Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile program, with the string of missile launches in recent months only the latest sign of the North’s perfidy.
The regime of Kim Jong-un unquestionably bears much responsibility for the ongoing crisis. But Pyongyang’s behavior has, to a significant degree, been influenced by the attitudes and actions of successive American administrations – especially the efforts of hardliners in the administration of George W. Bush to torpedo efforts to forge a meaningful rapprochement with North Korea.
This vastly more complex background and context is often lost in the brief references to the history of U.S.-North Korea diplomacy contained in many press reports.
One example is Russell Goldman’s Aug. 17, 2017 piece in the New York Times, “How Trump’s Predecessors Dealt with the North Korean Threat.” Goldman’s description of the collapse of the 1994 Agreed Framework in 2002 – a deal which froze a then-nascent North Korean nuclear program—is attributed largely to alleged North Korean cheating. He writes, “the United States spent millions in aid and only briefly delayed the North’s weapons program. President George W. Bush [then] confronted the North for secretly building a bomb and violating the terms of the agreement.”
The actual history—which I researched at length for my book Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis—is considerably different. Just days after the Clinton administration signed the Agreed Framework, the Republicans took control of Congress. Promised aid was delayed, in some cases for years. Proliferation-resistant light water nuclear reactors, which the North had been promised as part of the deal, were never built. Nonetheless, Pyongyang froze activity at its Yongbyon reactor, which remained shut until early 2003. Had that not happened, the North would likely have had enough fissile material for more than 100 plutonium-based nuclear bombs – a fact critics of the Agreed Framework often ignore.
It was against this backdrop – Pyongyang’s growing conviction the U.S. was not living up to its commitments – that the North in 1998 began to explore the option of developing a uranium-based nuclear capability.
When George W. Bush took office, he declined to reaffirm a communique the Clinton administration had signed with Pyongyang in late 2000 pledging “no hostile intent” towards North Korea. Bush then included the North in his famous “Axis of Evil,” and, as the U.S. prepared to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein, senior administration officials openly talked of regime change in North Korea.
When U.S. intelligence confirmed in mid-2002 that Pyongyang was in the early stages of developing a uranium capability, the Bush administration spurned North Korean offers to negotiate the issue, and instead used it as pretext to pull out of the agreed framework. Then—and only then—did the North restart the frozen reactor at Yongbyon.
Yet little of this background—crucial to understanding North Korean thinking and behavior – was noted in the Times story.
Similar omissions can be found in the media portrayal of another watershed moment – the agreement reached between the U.S. and North Korea on Sept. 19, 2005 at the Six Party Talks in Beijing, consisting of representatives from China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, North Korea, and the United States.
On Aug. 25, 2017, for example, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, in a piece called “Making Kim Sweat,” referred to the deal as follows:
“It [North Korea] committed in 2005 ‘to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.’ That was a year before it detonated its first nuke.”
Cohen’s implication was that Pyongyang never intended to live up to its commitments.
Russell Goldman had a similarly sceptical description: “The North Koreans successfully gamed the United States.”
But both journalists ignored a crucial fact. The same week as the signing of the deal, which set out principles for the eventual denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and included a pledge from both Pyongyang AND Washington “to respect each other’s sovereignty, exist peacefully together, and take steps to normalize their relations,” Washington hardliners imposed sweeping sanctions on a Macau bank where the North had dozens of accounts.
The sanctions, which were opposed by the chief U.S. negotiator at the Six Party Talks, are often referred to as a success story—the one time the U.S. got really tough. Last year, for example, Emily Rauhala of the Washington Post, in a piece on U.S. efforts to push China to take stronger action against Pyongyang, wrote, “this approach has worked before. Nearly a decade ago, by sanctioning Banco Delta Asia, a Macau-based institution that handled North Korean money, the United States cut off Pyongyang’s cash supply — and brought North Korea back to nuclear negotiations.”
In fact, the evidence from the interviews I conducted for my book with key players in Washington, Seoul, and Beijing, as well as conversations I had with people who were in contact with the North Koreans, indicates the exact opposite. The move against BDA – which Pyongyang saw as contrary to the just-signed U.S. commitment to have better relations – prompted the North to boycott the Six Party Talks and make clear it would not return until the sanctions were lifted. Throughout the winter and spring of 2006, Pyongyang sent signal after signal that it was willing to negotiate on the BDA issue, and if the U.S. would agree to hold a bilateral meeting, the Six Party Talks could resume. The Bush administration rebuffed all of Pyongyang’s overtures.
After more than a year with no movement on the diplomatic front, the North finally staged its first nuclear test in October 2006. This behavior fit Pyongyang’s longstanding “tit for tat” pattern of engaging when Washington was prepared to talk, and ratcheting up the pressure when the U.S. tried to get tough. It is a dynamic that is often ignored in much of the press coverage.
Yet this same “tit for tat” pattern has been evident in the current crisis. When President Trump threatened “fire and fury” in early August, Pyongyang responded by threatened to launch missiles towards the waters near Guam. But when the U.S. did not deploy B-1 or B-52 bombers during this month’s joint military exercises with South Korea, the North backed off the threat to Guam.
Pyongyang’s latest missile launch is unquestionably provocative, sending a signal that Japan would be a likely target in the event of military conflict between the U.S. and North Korea, while also seeking to exacerbate tensions between the U.S., South, Korea, and Japan on the one hand and China and Russia on the other. But the move seems carefully designed to achieve those goals without goading the U.S. into the more forceful U.S. response that targeting Guam would probably have required. Indeed, by his own rhetorical standards, President Trump’s immediate reaction – simply repeating the mantra that “all options are on the table”—appeared relatively restrained.
Moreover, despite the provocative nature of the continuing missile tests, Kim Jong-un has so far held off taking the most provocative step—going ahead with a sixth nuclear test. This may well still happen. But it is reasonable to conclude that Kim is waiting for further clarity in the still-mixed signals from the Trump administration – to see if the support for resolving the crisis diplomatically articulated by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis mean the administration is seriously open to talks. For journalists covering the story, the absence of a nuclear test so far – despite the missile tests – is like the dog that did not bark in the night in the famous Sherlock Holmes story – a crucial clue to North Korea’s thinking and possible future behavior.
The broader point here is that North Korea’s leadership is not operating in a vacuum. While Kim Jong-un appears determined to bolster his nuclear and missile capability to deter the U.S. and ensure the survival of his regime, his decisions, like those of his father, are influenced by Washington’s behavior. Unfortunately, too many journalists – and therefore media consumers as well – are unfamiliar with, or ignore, the crucially important details of the actual historical record. Instead, all too often, this complex dynamic is reduced to the brief and often inaccurate summaries contained in so many media reports. It is a pattern that does not contribute to the more nuanced understanding we urgently need of this complex and dangerous situation.