Though it is rarely reported in that way, the story of North Korea’s bomb provides another case study of how the US and the US media report claims about US adversaries that are simply wrong.
The US has in the past simultaneously exaggerated the threat from North Korea whilst underestimating North Korean capabilities. If that sounds contradictory, the answer is that it is, but it is what the historical record shows the US has done.
Rumours in the US of a North Korean nuclear weapons programme extend far back into the 1960s. By the 1980s they were being reported in the US as a fact. In fact already at that time reports would sometimes appear in the US and Western media claiming that North Korea was actually already in possession of nuclear bombs.
These reports were simply untrue. North Korea did not have nuclear bombs before its first nuclear test in 2006. It did ask the USSR and China for help to develop nuclear weapons in the 1960s after the US deployed nuclear weapons to South Korea.
Both the USSR and China however refused, with the USSR however agreeing to help North Korea develop a civilian nuclear programme and offering North Korea a Soviet security guarantee, which North Korea accepted.
North Korea had no option but to accept the Soviet offers, which led to Soviet help in setting up the now infamous Yongbyon nuclear research facility, which was originally created with Soviet help in 1962. Yongbyon’s first reactor – a Soviet IRT2000 research reactor – was supplied at around this time.
Not only did North Korea lack the capability in the 1960s to develop a nuclear weapons programme of its own, but until 1991 in was in all essentials a Soviet satellite state.
The extent to which behind the facade of Kim Il-sung’s juche ideology North Korea was dependent on Soviet support only became fully clear in the 1990s when that Soviet support was withdrawn. Quite simply, despite its odd displays of independence, before 1989 North Korea was tightly integrated into the Soviet economy and was heavily dependent upon the USSR for supplies of military goods, advanced technology and machinery, fertilisers for its farmlands, and above all for political support. Soviet economic planners during this period apparently even set targets for specific North Korean factories.
Before 1989 North Korea could not have pursued its own nuclear weapons programme because Moscow would not have allowed it to.
The North Korean nuclear programme in fact began in 1989 in response to the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, which understandably enough caused the North Korean leadership to lose faith in the USSR’s security guarantee.
An important secondary factor in getting the North Korean nuclear weapons programme going after 1989 was however almost certainly and paradoxically the rumours in the West that it already possessed such weapons.
As the North Koreans were increasingly pressed by the US and Western diplomats after 1989 to give up a nuclear weapons capability which at that point they didn’t have, it would not have escaped their notice that US and NATO behaviour showed that by acquiring such weapons North Korea would not only increase its security but would acquire an importance and a status – and a degree of diplomatic leverage – which up to then it didn’t have.
In other words one effect of the false stories before 1989 of North Korea having the bomb was that it put into the North Koreans’ heads the idea of acquiring it.
In the 1990s the North Korean nuclear programme was however a fitful affair. In the first few years following the collapse of the USSR the North Korean leadership had no option but to focus nearly all its energies on crisis management, as it struggled to cope with the massive disruption to its economy caused by the loss of Soviet economic support. This left little time or resources for an ambitious nuclear weapons programme, and there is little evidence of anything very much being achieved at this time.
In 1994, at a time when the economic crisis was at its peak, with tens of thousands of North Koreans dying every year of malnutrition, the North Koreans agreed to put their nuclear weapons programme – such it was – on ice as part of the so-called Agreed Framework agreement it agreed with the US. This was in return for a US promise to provide North Korea with two modern pressurised water reactors.
This was a rational trade-off from the North Korean point of view: freezing a nuclear weapons programme which at the time North Korea lacked the resources to see through for a promise of economic support and normalisation of its relations with the West.
The US reactors were never delivered and the Agreed Framework agreement collapsed amidst mutual recriminations in 2003, with North Korea openly targeted for regime change by the Bush II administration at the time of the invasion of Iraq as part of the “axis of evil”. The North Korean nuclear weapons programme appears to have been restarted in earnest from around this time, which not coincidentally is around the time when North Korea appears to have finally got on top of its post-Soviet economic crisis.
If North Korea did not have a nuclear weapons programme before 1989, and did not – contrary to numerous claims – have nuclear weapons before or indeed for some time after its first nuclear test in 2006, it is quite clear that the US was taken completely by surprise by the speed with which North Korea developed nuclear weapons after the nuclear weapons programme resumed in 2003.
Within three years of the nuclear programme resuming in 2003 the North Koreans carried out their first test. A succession of tests have followed, with the largest now suggesting that they not only have a serviceable bomb, but that they are close to developing warheads that can be placed on ballistic missiles.
Whilst the nuclear weapons programme has proceeded apace, North Korea’s ballistic missile programme has also moved forward rapidly. Rocket technology is complicated and many ballistic missile tests have ended in failure, but North Korea has now demonstrated that it has the capability to place objects in space and to launch missiles from submarines.
Obviously we are not talking here of a capability that remotely approaches that of the great nuclear powers – the US and Russia – but it is an impressive capability nonetheless and one which is developing rapidly.
The North Koreans apparently obtained some of their nuclear weapons technology from Pakistan, which in turn seems to have originally sourced technology and equipment from the Netherlands, and they allegedly have used certain medium range Soviet ballistic missiles in their possession as a starting point in their own ballistic missile programme.
The fact nonetheless remains that the North Koreans could not have developed a nuclear weapons and ballistics missile capability of the sort they now have without a technological and industrial base of their own, and one which given the speed of both programmes is clearly bigger and more sophisticated than the US suspected.
This illustrates a further problem in the US’s whole approach to North Korea. Since the US refuses to engage with North Korea it is profoundly ignorant about it. It has little knowledge of the extent of North Korea’s industrial and technological capabilities, and no understanding of the thinking of its leadership. North Korean leaders like Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un are treated in the US as comic strip villains. Not only is remarkably little known about them, but there is almost no understanding of what sort of institutions or administrative structures they work within or who the important people they have around them and consult are.
In place of proper information obtained through regular contacts with North Korea and its leadership, far too much credence is given to stories which regularly circulate in the South Korean media, which look at times to be little more than ill-informed gossip.
Thus Kim Jong-il during his lifetime was regularly and it seems inaccurately portrayed as an alcoholic sybarite, whilst lurid accounts which regularly appear in the South Korean media of murders and executions supposedly taking place in North Korea are not only unverified but on occasion demonstrably untrue. A good recent example is the case of General Ri Yong Gil who the South Korean media claimed had been executed only for him to turn up alive and well and occupying an important post at the recent North Korean party congress.
The result of all this ignorance is that the US has consistently underestimated North Korean determination and capabilities, repeatedly getting North Korea wrong, and now finds itself in a nuclear arms race in the eastern Pacific against a country it knows almost nothing about.
This is a disastrous record by any measure, and it is time it was brought to an end. The time is long overdue for the US to engage properly with the North Koreans and to open an embassy in Pyongyang.