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North Korea Reveals Nuclear Information

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David C. Kang
Professor of Government, Dartmouth College
Friday, June 27, 2008; 12:00 PM

On Thursday, North Korea provided information about its nuclear activities to Chinese officials in Beijing. The U.S. responded to the disclosure by lifting certain trade sanctions and moving toward taking North Korea off the list of nations that sponsor terrorism.

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David C. Kang, professor of government at Dartmouth College, was online Friday, June 27 at noon ET to discuss the latest developments in North Korea and what they may mean for U.S. policy and for residents of the isolated country. Kang's books include "China Rising: Peace, Power, and Order in East Asia" and "Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies."

The transcript follows.

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David Kang: Hi everybody. I'm glad to be here, and I look forward to answering your questions. My main research has been on international relations in Asia, with a focus on Korea, and the North Korean issue has been one of my main areas of study over the years. I'll be answering questions for about an hour, so I'll get right to it.

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Washington: How does blowing up a nuclear reactor constitute the dismantling of an entire nuclear program? Chernobyl demonstrated that nuclear reactors have long-term environmental and health impacts if destruction is handled improperly. How can we be sure that North Korea took appropriate and adequate steps to ensure that this nuclear reactor does not have a long-term impact?

David Kang: Blowing up the cooling tower at the Yongbyon reactor -- which will happen Friday in North Korea -- is largely symbolic. The North Koreans are dismantling the reactor as we speak, with IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspectors on the ground to provide assistance and oversee the work. So the reactor is already unable to make more plutonium. One point often overlooked -- which this question makes obliquely -- is that this is a very long process, and faces many environmental and technical problems. To safely dismantle a reactor can take a decade; in North Korea -- where they lack basic infrastructure and knowledge -- this can take even longer, because much of the equipment and technical knowledge needs to be brought in from outside. So the process is going slowly, although the blowing up the cooling tower certainly has symbolic import.

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Philadelphia: The American media has portrayed North Korea as a country with a lunatic leader, but doesn't their government operate more rationally that the public is led to believe? I ask because I believe there is hope that we can focus negotiations on rational choices and discussions, as we see a first step recently was reached.

David Kang: The view of North Koreans (and leader Kim Jong-il in particular) as being crazy or irrational is a common one, but few policy analysts or academics believe this to be true. We have a fair amount of evidence that Kim is quite rational -- after all, he has held power for 14 years in an environment that requires great skill to manage all the palace politics and external pressures.

I would make the point that North Korean negotiating behavior is fairly predictable: they meet pressure with pressure of their own; and increasing pressure rarely makes the North Koreans back down, but instead they ratchet up their own pressure. We have made real progress in the past year or two by realizing that both sides distrust each other intensely, and that only small steps by both sides can move us in the right direction.

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Washington: How did the administration manage to achieve this breakthrough without engaging North Korea in discussions or negotiations? Could this be a model for future success without communication with our enemies? Could we use this as a model for productive non-talks in the Middle East?

David Kang: The U.S. has actually been engaged quite directly in negotiations and discussions with the North since January 2007. Before that time, there was a decision by the U.S. to work exclusively through the six-party talks (China, Russia, the U.S., Japan, and the two Koreas). In December 2006, as relations were spiraling even farther out of control, the U.S. and North Korea agreed to meet bilaterally and secretly. They did this in January 2007 in Berlin, with only two officials from both sides. That was a real breakthrough, where the outlines of the current agreement were set. Since that time the U.S. has worked mainly through the six-party process, but U.S. chief negotiator Christopher Hill (and others) have also met numerous times with their North Korean counterparts in a number of venues, in order to work out differences and keep the process moving.

In this way, negotiation and diplomacy is actually a central component to solving this type of an issue. We go back and forth with North Korea and figure out how best to solve certain issues that arise.

At the risk of going on for too long, one major difference between the U.S.-North Korean nuclear problem and some of those in the Middle East (U.S.-Iran, for example), is that the US and North Korea actually agreed on many of the most important points. Since 1994, in writing and in rhetoric, the US and North Korea have agreed that the problem was North Korean nuclear programs and U.S. "hostile policy" toward North Korea. The two sides also agreed on the solution: nuclear weapons in exchange for some type of normalization. The disagreement was on who would go first: we wanted the North to disarm before we normalized, the North said "how about you promise us peace before we disarm?" It was this issue of timing that was the main sticking point. We have begun to solve this by making small steps by both sides, almost simultaneously.

In contrast, with Iran (and I know very little about the Middle East), it appears to me that neither the US or Iran agree on anything: whether there is a problem, what the problem or solution is, or how to interact with each other. So we actually have far more possibility of solving the North Korean issue than it appears we do in the Middle East.

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Evanston, Ill.: David, do you think that this will lead to a real opening of North Korea? I have read that the food crisis is take a very harsh toll in North Korea; is that prompting their cooperation?

David Kang: The food and economic problems that North Korea faces are real, and even this year there is the possibility that the summer harvest will not be sufficient to feed the population. The regime has engaged in limited economic reforms, such as abandoning the public rationing system and allowing limited private markets to come into existence.

The current step, which involves the U.S. removing North Korea from the list of "state sponsors of terror" and the "trading with the enemy act" is largely symbolic. It will allow the U.S. to support international organizations such as the World Bank that may wish to engage with North Korea, but in reality North Korea will remain one of the most heavily sanctioned countries in the world.

However, the symbolic nature of this is quite important, and also is just one more small step in a process that is hopefully nudging North Korea into more economic openness and more integration with the outside world.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: What are China's feelings toward having an ally -- yet still an independent nation -- in North Korea as it builds nuclear weapons? How well does the Chinese government trust the North Korean government, and especially the future succession of North Korean governments?

David Kang: China has very mixed feelings about North Korea. While they remain North Korea's closest "ally," relations between the two countries have never been that close. North Koreans tend to feel that China pushes them around and views North Korea as a vassal; China feels North Korea is a troublesome neighbor that is potentially a real problem. However, their relations are fairly close, and Kim Jong-il has traveled numerous times to China, most recently in 2006. China is nudging North Korea to follow the Chinese path of economic reform and opening, which they believe is the best path for North Korea to follow. There is also the problem of refugees and economic relations -- the Chinese are vigorously supporting economic relations across their border, which has led to some South Korean suspicion that China has designs on North Korea or its territory.

China, and South Korea, are quite concerned about the negative effect that an economic or political collapse in North Korea could have on their own countries. China has no desire for hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees flooding over the border into China, so they view North Korean reform as in their own interests.

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Northwest Washington: How aware do you think the average North Korean citizen is of these latest developments? How will they affect the people?

David Kang: We have very little knowledge of how the average North Korean citizen lives his/her life, or how they view the world. Even today, where there are more foreigners in North Korea than ever before, we have very limited access to "real" North Koreans. But we have some knowledge from defectors and from discussions, and it appears that most North Koreans have some idea about the outside world, although this is heavily influenced by the extraordinary propaganda from the North Korean regime.

My own sense is that the average North Korean is more concerned with finding enough food and money to survive the next day, and these events, as important as they are, do not have an immediate impact on them.

The real effect may come slowly and over time, as the regime opens up and allows more foreign economic and cultural interaction in North Korea. But this will most likely be a slow process.

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Freising, Germany: How important has the cooperation between China and the U.S. been in North Korea's decision to give up its nuclear program? Is there anything in this cooperation that could be used to convince Iran to give up its enrichment activities?

David Kang: This builds off my previous answer. One real benefit of the six party process has been the development of a cooperative working relationship between China and the U.S. to solve a real and important problem in the region. Although China and the U.S. have not always agreed on their policies, they have been quite successful at keeping this process going, which has led to the modest successes we see today. One follow-on aspect of the February 13, 2007 agreement was the creation of a working group among the six countries aimed at using the six-party process as a building block for designing a regional security mechanism of some type. While clearly such a security mechanism would fall far short of a NATO, any institutionalized security regime in Northeast Asia would be a huge step forward in stabilizing the region. Whether this can happen in the short run remains to be seen.

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Washington: Given the problematic historical relationships between the U.S. and several of the other countries involved in the six-party talks, has the U.S. decision to engage in separate direct talks with North Korea raised concerns with the other countries engaged in this process?

David Kang: The U.S. has strongly supported the Six-party talks, and continues to do so. Many of the elements of the agreement are simply impossible to fulfill without the active cooperation of the other countries involved. However, it is true that the U.S. and North Korea have also met bilaterally numerous times. On the whole, the other countries do not mind this, because the main disagreement and issues lie between those two countries. There is some concern, however, that the U.S. may "abandon" its allies in the process. Japan, for example, is very concerned about North Korean kidnapping of its citizens, and is wary that this agreement, and the U.S. decision to de-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terror, will make it more difficult for the Japanese to get resolution on the abduction issue. The U.S. has reassured Japan that this is not the case, and that the abduction issue remains very important. On the whole, as long as the process is moving forward, most countries are content to see the U.S. and North Korea talking to each other.

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How exactly does one become un-evil?: Do moral judgments such as the label "Axis of Evil" have a real effect on U.S. relations with countries like North Korea, or do these countries ignore them as political posturing and focus instead on what is said in less-public settings?

David Kang: Rhetoric is one element of international relations, and what you say does have an effect. While most countries parse leaders' rhetoric and realize that much of what is said is aimed at domestic constituencies, they also tend to read into leaders' words for intentions and goals. In the case of "axis of evil," my own belief is that the North Koreans saw this is one of many statements that reflected a hostile U.S. approach to the North, one that might even involve a U.S. attack on North Korea. Part of the disagreement among U.S. analysts over North Korean intentions was whether the North faced a security threat from the U.S. Those who think North Korea did not face a security threat from the U.S. believed that North Korea was attempting to blackmail the U.S. into providing it economic rewards by making nuclear weapons. Those who believed that North Korea did face a security threat from the U.S. argued that only be resolving those North Korean fears could we convince the North to disarm. Ultimately, then, rhetoric is one aspect of how nations decide what are another nation's intentions and attitudes.

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Anonymous: What is the difference between the official U.S. views of North Korea and Cuba? Do we see North Korea as less of a threat and/or less authoritarian than Cuba? Is the difference just because of Cuban-American voters? Cuba is closer, but has not been a direct threat for a long time.

David Kang: I would say the big difference has been that North Korea has a nuclear weapons program and Cuba does not. The U.S. does not like either authoritarian communist regime, and wants both to change their ways or disappear. The voters are certainly one aspect to U.S. policy, but it's hard to see any U.S. president, regardless of electoral interests, welcoming an authoritarian communist regime.

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Cologne, Germany: Mr. Kang, right now I am studying your essay "Getting Asia Wrong," in which you provide the reader with some insights into "Asian hierarchy." As far as I am informed by the South Korean news, my impression is that your thesis might (unfortunately) be right, considering the vast anti-American protests -- from my point of view absolutely irrational -- in South Korea that have been held for such a long time now. I was wondering whether you might see Korean reunification as possible -- under Communist ("Confucianist" and anti-liberal) rule. Thank you, and greetings from Germany!

David Kang: Glad to see you're reading my stuff! :)

To answer your question, I'll just make two points. The first is I think the protests in South Korea had as much to do with South Korean president Lee's governing style (some South Koreans see it to be somewhat imperious), as much as they had to do with US beef imports. South Korea is a vibrant democracy, and the people are quite willing to let their leaders know what they think.

As to unification under Communist rule, I can't see that happening. South Korea is too rich and too integrated into the world, and so far more powerful than North Korea. I think most of us see unification as an eventuality, even if it is far into the future. But that unification will almost certainly be on South Korean terms -- capitalist, democratic -- and will come when the North Korean regime implodes. Everyone's hope is that this transition can be peaceful (as in Germany two decades ago), and that is what the South Korean government is working toward and planning for.

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David Kang: Thanks everybody! I'd love to answer more questions, and I've had a great time, but our hour is up. Thanks for taking part in this, I hope I've been somewhat helpful.

Dave Kang

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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