“WITHOUT YOU THERE IS NO US”
ON THE EVENING OF OCTOBER 12, 2000, I STOOD IN THE vast Mayday Stadium in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, watching an impassioned crowd of more than 100,000 declare their allegiance to the world’s most bizarre and enigmatic leader, Kim Jong Il. On one side of the stadium hung the image of two giant red .owers, representing the “Kimjongilia,” a hybrid begonia created by an admiring botanist to honor the man the North Koreans called the “Dear Leader.” The stadium .oor was packed with thousands of people— marching bands featuring cheerleaders in short skirts and white calf-length boots who would not have been out of place at a Dallas Cowboys halftime show, acrobats .red from cannons, gymnasts dressed in army uniforms, and rows and rows of young men and women waving banners in what seemed like an endless North Korean version of the Mexican wave. In the stands behind them, 35,000 people were .ipping colored cards with extraordinary precision, creating images of patriotic heroism, economic achievement, and military triumph aimed at stoking the ardor of the already frenzied throng.
Moments later, with .reworks illuminating the chilly autumn sky, Kim Jong Il entered the VIP area just .fty yards from where I watched with a CNN camera crew and two North Korean government minders. Short, pudgy, wearing his traditional boilersuit, surrounded by other se nior of.cials, the Dear Leader walked con.dently with what seemed to be a satis.ed smirk on his face, waving somewhat mechanically to the masses below. Children presented him with bunches of .owers as the card .ippers spelled out “Highest Glory to the Great Leader Comrade Kim Jong Il” and a band blared out “The Song of General Kim Jong Il.” “Without you, there is no country,” the crowd sang in unison. “Without you there is no us.”
The son of Kim Il Sung, the dictator who had started the Korean War and ruled North Korea for almost .fty years until his death in 1994, the younger Kim was a .gure of mystery. Long mocked in the West for his bouffant hairdo and platform shoes, taste for fast cars and Hollywood movies (his personal .lm collection was said to number 20,000), Kim and his late father were the object of a personality cult that they had spent de cades cultivating. In many respects, they had turned North Korea into a secretive and militant quasi- religious sect, a society nominally Communist but devoted primarily to worshipping the father, known as the Great Leader, and the Dear Leader who succeeded him. Statues and giant portraits of the two men dominated the North Korean landscape, including a giant bronze replica of the elder Kim, arm outstretched, which still towers over the skyline of Pyongyang. The country’s 22 million citizens all wore small lapel pins bearing the likeness of one or both Kims. The state- run media described Kim Il Sung as a “peerless patriot” and “iron- willed commander,” and the son as a “great revolutionary, a great statesman and a great people’s father.”
This was not my .rst glimpse of the Dear Leader. I had been to similar events before; in fact, this was my twelfth trip to North Korea in eleven years. This unusual access was in large part an accident. My .rst trip had come in July 1989, when I was CNN’s bureau chief in Beijing. The government in Pyongyang invited a small group of China- based Western reporters to cover the activities of a young South Korean student who had de.ed her country’s laws to travel to the then- forbidden North. Like almost all visitors, I had been both astounded and appalled by the regimentation and brainwashing of the North Korean cult of personality. I also had the feeling that what we were allowed to see amounted to little more than a series of Potemkin villages. Pyongyang, a surprisingly attractive city with manicured parks, vast boulevards, and tall buildings, appeared almost empty. I saw virtually no shops, restaurants, or advertisements, and apart form our of.cial convoy of Mercedes- Benzes, virtually no vehicles.
Three years later, in April 1992, the North Koreans invited the Rev. Billy Graham to visit and agreed to let him bring one American news organi za tion of his choice to cover the trip. He picked CNN. We .ew into Pyongyang on a shuddery Rus sian- built Air Koryo TU- 134 that was specially sent to Beijing to fetch Graham and his party.
Since my .rst visit, the world had changed profoundly: the Berlin Wall had fallen; the Soviet Union and the rest of North Korea’s allies in the socialist world had collapsed; and Kim Il Sung’s Cold War peers, such as Erich Honecker of East Germany, and Romania’s Nicolae Ceaus¸escu, had been toppled (in Ceau s¸escu’s case, murdered, along with his wife). The Warsaw Pact no longer existed, and both Moscow and Beijing had opened diplomatic relations with North Korea’s longtime rival, South Korea. China, which had saved North Korea from defeat in the Korean War and remained its closest friend, had embraced market- style economic reforms.
In addition, the U.S. military’s rapid triumph over Saddam Hussein in the .rst Gulf War highlighted America’s high- tech military prowess and the corresponding weakness of North Korea’s armed forces, with their outdated Soviet-designed weapons and equipment. More isolated than ever, the regime in Pyongyang was increasingly anxious about its ability to survive in the post–Cold War world. Kim Il Sung’s concerns were heightened by growing evidence of internal economic decline. There were reports of growing shortages of food and fuel, and of factories standing idle. The North Korean press had recently issued a call for all citizens to limit themselves to two meals a day.
A number of consequences .owed from this dramatically changed strategic situation. Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il apparently reached the conclusion that only an accommodation with the world’s sole superpower, the United States, could ensure the continued viability of the regime. But such an accommodation had to be based on a projection of strength, not weakness. The result, which became clearer in the coming years, was a dual- track strategy. Its central elements: seeking to establish a long- term strategic relationship with the United States while building up an arsenal of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, to use either as a deterrent or in self- defense, if necessary, or to trade away—if relations fundamentally improved and the price was right.
On the third day of Graham’s visit, after he had been allowed to preach at the capital’s only Protestant church (I had wondered whether the entire congregation had been assembled just for his bene.t), the evangelist received a summons to meet the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung. My cameraman and I drove with Graham to a lavish residence in the countryside outside Pyongyang, where I was allowed to shake Kim’s hand, show him pictures of my family, and have a photograph taken with him. During their meeting, Graham conveyed an oral message to Kim from President George H. W. Bush. In the presence of our cameras, Kim said, “We are having sunny spring weather today. I hope this means a spring will come in relations between my country and the U.S.” It was a theme other North Korean of.cials returned to repeatedly during my stay.
The Great Leader was an imposing .gure: stocky, broad- shouldered, with a deep voice and a pronounced potbelly. He also had an enormous lump the size of an orange on the right- hand side of his neck, reportedly a benign tumor that Kim chose not to have removed. His aides and courtiers were clearly both in awe and fear of him. Even the North Korean photographers bowed obsequiously when Kim entered the room, before they turned on their antiquated .lm cameras—a sharp contrast to the state- of- the- art Sony video camera used by my CNN shooter—to record the handshake with Graham.
Observing Kim, I struggled to understand the dynamics of the society he ruled. In an earlier book, I made the following observations, which, many years later, still make sense to me.
I came to realize it was not productive to view North Korea as merely just another, slightly more eccentric communist state. The best analogy seemed to be a religious camp grafted onto a very conservative, inward- looking society steeped in Confucian tradition, where the purpose of life was to glorify the reigning deity, namely the Great Leader.1
I also noted some “striking parallels—not with the substance but with the trappings—to primitive Christianity. Kim’s birthplace resembled the nativity scene, to the point that members of Graham’s entourage jokingly called it Bethlehem. There was a father (Kim Il Sung), a son (Kim Jong Il), and a holy ideology ( juche, or self- reliance). People displayed their faith by wearing not cruci.xes, but the ubiquitous Kim Il Sung buttons. And, as in medieval societies, heretics were condemned to terrible punishments.”2
Kim’s persona as an all- powerful leader, the often in.ammatory rhetoric in North Korean propaganda, and the regime’s state of permanent po liti cal and military mobilization produced the overwhelming sensation of a society and leadership that felt under perpetual siege, struggling to survive in an increasingly inhospitable world. From the outside, North Korea appeared menacing and bellicose. Inside, its truculent posture appeared defensive rather than offensive in nature.
Two years after Graham’s visit, on April 16, 1994, I met Kim Il Sung again. Since my last encounter, tensions had risen dramatically because of North Korea’s nuclear program. The shadow of nuclear weapons had hung over the Korean peninsula since the Korean War, when the United States threatened to use its nuclear arsenal to bring the con.ict to a rapid and victorious conclusion. Kim Il Sung’s interest in acquiring his own bomb is widely believed to date from this time. In the late 1950s, a nuclear research complex was established at Yongbyon north of Pyongyang, and by the mid- 1980s, a .ve- megawatt reactor was in full operation. Although Pyongyang signed the Non- Proliferation Treaty
(NPT) in 1985, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1992 had uncovered discrepancies in data provided by the North Koreans. The questionable data raised suspicions that the North had produced, and was concealing, weapons- grade plutonium from fuel previously extracted from the reactor at Yongbyon. The IAEA demanded special inspections.
In response, in early 1993, the North announced plans to withdraw from the NPT. Following this threat, Pyongyang had test- .red a Rodong- 1 missile, potentially capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, into the Sea of Japan; limited the access of IAEA inspectors; and threatened to remove more spent fuel rods from Yongbyon and repro cess them into weapons- grade plutonium. The Clinton administration, fearing that the North was on the brink of expanding its nuclear capability, threatened to bring a sanctions resolution to the United Nations. Pyongyang declared that it would regard such a step as an “act of war.”
In a meeting at the Demilitarized Zone in March 1994, a North Korean of.cial warned that if con.ict broke out, the North would turn Seoul into “a sea of .re.”
With my coverage of Billy Graham’s visit having apparently impressed the North Koreans with CNN’s global reach, I was invited to bring a CNN team to Pyongyang to cover a visit by a small group of foreign dignitaries participating in celebrations to mark Kim Il Sung’s eighty- second birthday on April 15. The following morning, we spent two and a half hours with the Great Leader at the lavish marble-clad Kumsusan Palace on the outskirts of the capital. Kim appeared con.dent, relaxed, and in robust health. Over a lunch of roast goose and quail egg soup, he went out of his way to emphasize his desire for a peaceful resolution of the nuclear crisis.
“The world is now calling on our country to show nuclear weapons we don’t have,” Kim said emphatically. “I have had just about enough. What’s the use to have them? We don’t want war . . . We have done a lot of construction in our country and we don’t want to destroy it. Those who want war are out of their minds.”
I interpreted Kim’s statement as a signal that he wanted to negotiate a way out of the looming crisis. Yet, for reasons of national pride and negotiating leverage, Pyongyang followed Kim’s statement with another signature act of brinksmanship, unloading nearly 8,000 spent fuel rods from the reactor at Yongbyon. During the pro cess, according to nuclear proliferation experts, the North refused “to allow the IAEA to record the location of the individual fuel rods in the core, thus destroying one of the key technical means for mea sur ing the operational history of the reactor and determining total plutonium production.”3 The result was to make the task of determining whether Pyongyang had already produced more weapons- grade plutonium much more dif.cult, if not impossible. Moreover, if the fuel rods were pro cessed, experts said North Korea would be able to build .ve or six new nuclear weapons.
The prospect that North Korea—impoverished, isolated, anxious about its own survival, and with a long track record of selling missiles and military technology to nations hostile to the United States—might soon possess a half- dozen nuclear weapons set off alarm bells in Washington. As spring moved toward summer in 1994, the Clinton administration began serious preparations for a military option. Plans were drawn up for the evacuation of American civilians from South Korea and for a preemptive air strike to destroy the Yongbyon nuclear facility with precision- guided bombs. U.S. commanders were convinced that North Korea would respond to such a strike by attacking South Korea. In a country long victimized by its larger, more powerful neighbors, now organized under a system whose guiding ideology, devised by Kim Il Sung, juche—loosely translated as “self- reliance”—there was no way that Kim would bow to external pressure, especially from the hated Americans. The U.S. military calculated that a full- scale war would kill as many as one million people, including nearly 100,000 Americans residing in South Korea.4
Alarmed at what seemed to be an inexorable slide toward disaster, former
U.S. president Jimmy Carter decided to intervene, traveling to Pyongyang in mid- June for talks with Kim Il Sung. The report I had broadcast on CNN of my meeting with Kim in April had impressed North Korean authorities with the network’s global reach. At the last minute, I received permission to travel with Carter, and was the only journalist allowed by the North Koreans to accompany him. In an atmosphere of extreme tension, I followed the former president on the almost deserted four- lane highway from the DMZ to Pyongyang and watched as he met Kim Il Sung at the palace, where I’d enjoyed lunch with the Great Leader two months before. At Kim’s side was Deputy Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju, a tough, plain- spoken veteran of earlier diplomatic encounters with the United States. Given North Korea’s preoccupation with “dignity,” the presence of such a distinguished foreign visitor provided an opportunity for Kim Il Sung to compromise without appearing to lose face. On June 16, Carter brokered the outlines of a deal, under which the North Korean leader agreed to freeze his nuclear program in return for an end to the U.S. push for sanctions and the resumption of talks with Washington. The former president announced the breakthrough in a live interview on CNN as senior Clinton administration of.cials were .nalizing their war plans; they halted their meeting to gather around a TV set in the White House to hear Carter’s news.
A dangerous confrontation had been averted. North Korean of.cials were so relieved they took Carter for a cruise on Kim Il Sung’s luxurious yacht and gave me and my CNN colleagues the most precious possible gift—our very own Kim Il Sung buttons.
Four months later, in Geneva on October 21, 1994, after intensive and dif.cult negotiations, Assistant Secretary of State Robert Gallucci and Kang Sok Ju signed a three- page document called the Agreed Framework. The talks had been complicated by Kim Il Sung’s sudden death from a heart attack in July and uncertainties surrounding the succession of Kim Jong Il. But the North appeared po liti cally stable, and Kim was apparently eager to build on the commitments his father made to Jimmy Carter.
The Agreed Framework was for all practical purposes a treaty, but given the likelihood of resis tance in Washington from Republicans who were opposed to any deal bene.ting the Kim regime, the Clinton administration preferred to structure the accord so that no formal congressional rati.cation was required. Under the Agreed Framework, Pyongyang pledged to freeze its one operating reactor, the .ve- megawatt facility at Yongbyon that had produced the weapons-grade plutonium at the heart of the crisis. Construction on two other reactors would be halted, and North Korean nuclear facilities would be opened to international inspection.
For its part, the United States promised to back the creation of an international consortium to build, by 2003, two light- water reactors, which were considered “proliferation- resistant” because they produced less material that could be used to make bombs. Washington also agreed to help meet North Korea’s energy needs in the interim by supplying 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil annually, and to move toward a broader diplomatic engagement, including, eventually, the full normalization of relations. Before the completion of the light- water reactors, the North would come into full compliance with the IAEA, including allowing intrusive “special inspections,” and would eventually dismantle altogether both its existing .ve- megawatt reactor and two others under construction.
Soon after the agreement was signed, the North Koreans shut down the reactor and permitted inspectors, including some Americans, to return to Yongbyon. Pyongyang worked with teams of U.S. government experts to safely store in cooling ponds the 8,000 spent fuel rods that had been unloaded from the .ve- megawatt reactor, thus ensuring continuous international monitoring of plutonium which could otherwise have been turned into nuclear bombs. In March 1995, the United States, Japan, and South Korea established a consortium to oversee the construction of the light- water reactors. Despite haggling over who would pay the estimated $5 billion cost, and who would build the reactors (South Korea wanted its own .rms to supply them while Pyongyang initially insisted on a non–South Korean company), agreement was reached on the fundamentals, and the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Association, or KEDO, came into full operation.
From the moment the Agreed Framework was signed, however, it received a skeptical reaction in the United States. Instead of focusing on stopping the North’s production of plutonium for nuclear weapons, the headline in the New York Times read: “Clinton Approves Plan to Give Aid to North Korea.” The Washington Post headline was: “North Korea Pact Contains U.S. Concessions: Agreement Would Allow Presence of Key Plutonium- Making Facilities for Seven Years.” Clinton’s critics in the Republican Party were even harsher, denouncing the administration for giving too much to North Korea and not getting enough in return. Words like “appeasement” and “surrender” .lled the airwaves.
Just seventeen days after the accord was signed, the Republicans took control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives in midterm elections. In the following years, besieged by the Republicans on many fronts, the administration struggled to secure Congressional authorization for even the modest amounts of money needed to cover the shipments of heavy fuel oil promised by the Agreed Framework. Funding for KEDO became equally contentious, with the result that fuel shipments were frequently delayed. In addition, construction of the light- water reactors was slow to start, making the target date of 2003 an increasingly distant prospect. Washington did little to ease sanctions against North Korea. Neither Washington nor Pyongyang moved to abrogate the accord, but the prospect of a broader thaw in the long- running con.ict on the Korean peninsula faded.
With the Congress against him and his standing undermined by the Monica Lewinsky scandal, President Clinton had little po liti cal capital to expend to sell the idea of engaging with a regime as unsavory as North Korea’s. Meanwhile, for its part, North Korea’s frustration at what it saw as the Clinton administration’s failure to deliver on its promises continued to mount. On my visits to Pyongyang in 1995 and 1996, North Korean of.cials hinted at differences between “moderates” in the Foreign Ministry who supported the deal and wanted to improve ties with Washington, and “hard- liners” in the military who were skeptical that the North was gaining anything from the accord. The state- run media began making periodic threats that North Korea might withdraw from the Agreed Framework and restart the nuclear program if the United States didn’t live up to its obligations.
Still, the immediate crisis over the North’s nuclear ambitions that had led Washington and Pyongyang to the brink of war in 1994 had eased. And what ever its .aws, the Agreed Framework had unquestionably halted a rapidly expanding nuclear program in its tracks. As the nuclear specialist David Al-bright noted in 2002, “If the Agreed Framework had not ‘frozen’ North Korea’s nuclear program . . . in total, by about 2000, North Korea could have accumulated 300–400 kilograms of weapons- grade plutonium. Assuming that .ve kilograms is enough for a nuclear weapon, this amount of plutonium is enough for about 60–80 nuclear weapons.”5
In the mid- 1990s, however, North Korea faced a new crisis. Devastating .oods, a catastrophic harvest, and the inef.ciency of the country’s centrally planned socialist economy triggered massive food shortages. Crippled by a lack of fuel and electrical power, the country’s industry and transport ground to a halt, and the economy virtually imploded. By early 1997, North Korea was in the grip of a brutal famine, forcing the regime, for the .rst time—in stark contrast to the juche ideology of self- reliance—to appeal for international help. As the UN and other aid agencies gained access to parts of the country previously off- limits to foreigners, they brought back horrifying reports of starving citizens struggling to survive on grass and tree bark, corpses lying in the streets, even instances of cannibalism. Estimates of the death toll ranged as high as two million people—nearly 10 percent of the population. The situation appeared so grim that in 1997, the CIA predicted that North Korea would collapse within .ve years. “The current situation in North Korea appears beyond corrective actions that do not fundamentally threaten the regime’s viability,” the agency reported in a secret analysis declassi.ed in 2006.6
At the height of the famine, I had my .rst glimpse of Kim Jong Il. In April 1997, I was invited with my crew to Pyongyang to cover the anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army. As the food crisis intensi.ed, the power of the military had grown: Kim, as the commander in chief and still consolidating his authority three years after his father’s death, had made it the cornerstone of his power. On a sparkling spring day, we were taken to Kim Il Sung Square in the heart of Pyongyang for a calculated display of military might. Tens of thousands of goose- stepping troops with razor-sharp bayonets marched in perfect formation past Soviet- style buildings emblazoned with .ags and enormous portraits of Kim Il Sung, followed by lines of civilians, each carrying a red or pink paper .ower—one, the Kimjongilia, the other, the Kimilsungia, a hybrid orchid also specially developed by scientists as a gesture of po liti cal loyalty to the elder Kim.
Suddenly, Kim Jong Il appeared on the rostrum, waving to the marching masses below. It was the .rst time he had ever been seen and photographed by Western journalists. The reaction of the crowd astonished me—cheering, weeping, frantically waving the paper .owers. It was a display of loyalty bordering on mass hysteria. His face expressionless, Kim calmly walked the length of the rostrum as the band played “The Song of General Kim Jong Il.” The muscle .exing, and the invitation to CNN to cover it, had a clear purpose. The North Koreans wanted to dispel the impression, which the CIA was not alone in holding, that the food shortages and economic crisis had left them militarily weakened, on the brink of collapse, and therefore vulnerable to outside pressure.
In private conversations, senior North Korean of.cials reinforced this point, acknowledging the seriousness of the food crisis while also telling me that Pyongyang was increasingly convinced that the major concessions it had made in the Agreed Framework were producing few tangible bene.ts.
In the late 1990s, with relations between the United States and North Korea still chilly, Pyongyang remained convinced the U.S. goal was to see the collapse of Kim Jong Il’s regime, while in the United States, not only Clinton administration of.cials but their critics in the Republican Party continued to worry that Pyongyang had not abandoned its long- term nuclear ambitions. In July 1998, a Republican- dominated commission headed by Donald Rumsfeld, the once and future secretary of defense, issued a report claiming that the ballistic missile threat from North Korea had been underestimated by U.S. intelligence and that Pyongyang could .re a missile that could hit the United States “with little or no warning.”
The commission had been created under pressure from right- wing Republicans in Congress who were ideologically committed to building a missile defense system to protect the United States from attacks by rogue states. This idea, originally raised by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and dubbed Star Wars after the hit movie series, was one of the main planks of the right- wing revival that would become so in.uential after George W. Bush was elected in 2000. Convinced that arms- control agreements were a sign of weakness, deeply opposed to seeking engagement with American adversaries such as North Korea, and concerned that the United States was not confronting threats aggressively enough, the neoconservatives and their allies spent the 1990s developing their ideas and strengthening their in.uence in the Republican Party. Among the Rumsfeld commission’s members were several .gures who would go on to hold key government positions after George W. Bush became president, including Paul Wolfowitz, who became Rumsfeld’s deputy at the Pentagon.
As the debate over Korea policy raged in Washington, concerns about North Korea were heightened when a leak to the New York Times on August 17, 1998, claimed that U.S. spy satellites had discovered an underground complex at Kumchangri, not far from the Yongbyon nuclear facility. Some experts believed the tunnels were suspected of being the site of a secret nuclear reactor or repro cessing facility. As the shock waves from this revelation reverberated across Washington, some members of Congress demanded the abrogation of the Agreed Framework and others, including Senator John McCain, called for military action.
Excerpted from Meltdown by Mike Chinoy.
Copyright © 2009 by Mike Chinoy.
Published in 2009 by St. Martin's Press.
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