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Korea

Why Kim Jong-il must go
By Paul Nash

In 1994 tensions between the United States and North Korea began mounting after Pyongyang started construction of plutonium-producing nuclear reactors and processing plants, from which it could harvest weapons-grade plutonium.

At that time I was in China, and one day found myself traveling by train from Beijing to Shijiazhuang, the nearby capital of Hebei province, sharing a berth with two South Korean businessmen from Seoul. They too were bound for Shijiazhuang. They had been unable to fly directly from Seoul because North Korea had restricted its airspace to overflights from the South. Instead, they flew first from Seoul to southern China, from there caught a connecting flight north to Beijing, where they joined me on the five-hour train ride back southwest to their final destination.

During the long conversation we shared, I discovered in my Korean acquaintances an astonishing lack of concern over the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) nuclear issue. They seemed convinced that calmer heads would ultimately prevail and the US row with North Korea would, in time, simply blow over. To them, it was little more than a disruption to their normal business and travel plans.

For some reason, this curious sense of complacency recalled to my mind a similar sense of complacency that I had encountered in another troubled area not long before - in Beijing during the 1989 student protest taking place in Tiananmen Square. Some observers, particularly in certain foreign quarters of Beijing, believed the protest would simply play itself out peacefully - but, of course, it did not.

Nine years later, the North Korean nuclear issue persists - it has not just blown over.

In order to understand better the gravity of this problem, I recently spoke to retired US Marine Lieutenant-Colonel James G Zumwalt.

Since 1994, Zumwalt has made 10 visits to the DPRK in an effort to help bridge the differences between the US and the DPRK. A veteran of the US-Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars, Zumwalt now acts as a private consultant to foreign and domestic clients in exploring and accessing investment opportunities in global markets, especially those in emerging economies such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and China, where he has successfully brokered infrastructure agreements. In 1991, then US president George H W Bush appointed Zumwalt senior adviser to the assistant secretary of state on human rights and humanitarian affairs. In that role, he conducted investigations into human rights violations in various countries. He received a Juris Doctorate degree from Villanova University in 1979 and the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws Honoris Causa from Mercy College in New York in 1991.

Paul Nash: Mr Zumwalt, in 1994 you were invited to participate in an international delegation to visit North Korea on the occasion of Kim Il-sung's 82nd-birthday celebration. The following year, you led the first delegation of US businesses to visit the DPRK. Looking back on your visits, do you recall any sense that the nuclear issue would not simply blow over, any early signs that a shadow loomed overhead?

James Zumwalt: Let me answer this question by first providing some background.

I think the North Koreans have perfected the process of telling you to your face what you want to hear but then demonstrating, by virtue of their subsequent words and actions, they reached a completely contrary "understanding". Thus, in dealing with the North Korean leadership, one initially is full of hope and expectation the leadership might be considering making changes that might lead to a better life for its people and world stability. This was the perception I had during my first few trips to Pyongyang. In such an environment of hope, it is difficult for an outsider to perceive that it is really "business as usual" as far as Pyongyang is concerned. The ray of hope one initially perceives to exist in North Korea ultimately gives way to the reality a shadow of darkness which will forever remain cast there for as long as the current form of leadership exists.

Pyongyang is well aware the US government serves at the whim of the American people and, therefore, can change in as few as four years or a maximum of eight. Thus, the North Koreans, who have had the advantage of continuous totalitarian rule under Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il, for more than half a century, have been able to create initial perceptions with each successive US administration that best enable them to further their sole objective. The perceptions the North Koreans create range from acts of aggression, such as the seizure of an unarmed US intelligence ship in international waters in 1968 during president Lyndon Johnson's term, to acts of illusory peace, such as the signing of a nuclear nonproliferation agreement early on in president [Bill] Clinton's term.

While North Korean tactics have changed depending on the US administration in power, their overall objective has remained constant. That objective has been the survival, at all costs, of Pyongyang's leadership through the brutal and total control of its people: an objective to be achieved regardless of the repercussions either at home, as evidenced by the deaths of 2 million North Koreans from famine, or abroad, as evidenced by the country's bellicose threats to world peace and stability. While each successive US administration during the reign of the two North Korean dictators has hoped for a diplomatic resolution, in reality none has ever been achieved. While the perception has been that such a resolution may have been achieved previously, the reality is that it was only a unilateral perception on the US side as the North Korean leadership's objective to survive made it impossible ever to achieve the necessary "meeting of the minds" for a long-term resolution.

I began to realize my expectation of change in North Korea was illusory occurred in 1997, during my fifth (of 10) trips to North Korea. In 1994, during my second trip to Pyongyang, I had met Hwang Jong-yop, the country's philosophical guru who was the architect of Kim Il-sung's juche (self-reliance) philosophy. This was only a few months after Kim Il-sung had died. Hwang Jong-yop came across full of confidence and assurance during our discussions on foreign policy matters that North Korea would emerge a responsible player within the international community, with its juche philosophy still very much intact. When I met with him again in 1996, however, it was a changed man with whom I spoke. There was no sign of the earlier confidence; he almost seemed aloof; and, for the first time, he appeared willing to truly listen to what was being said on the other side of the table. I had high expectations this signaled a change was being considered by the leadership as it possibly embarked upon a new direction. In 1997, I was surprised to learn Hwang Jong-yop had defected to South Korea. It was then that I realized what I had interpreted in 1996 as a sign the North Korean leadership might be considering some sort of change was really a realization by Hwang Jong-yop such would never happen. For while Hwang Jong-yop had recognized the only hope for peace and stability on the peninsula lay in the regime altering course, that clearly was not an option Kim Jong-il even considered. For Hwang Jong-yop, it was a time of realization for him that a dark shadow was, in fact, firmly cast over his country-and the outside world now needed to understand this.

Nash: Short of a regime change in Pyongyang do you think that the US and North Korea can find any common ground on which to work out their differences peacefully?

Zumwalt: There will never be a peaceful resolution of issues between Pyongyang and Washington, regardless of any future agreements, while North Korea continues to be ruled as it is. Why should we believe that any leadership which has evidenced such brutality against its own people is capable of honoring its international agreements? To truly understand a leadership's intentions vis-a-vis the rest of the world community (a very difficult undertaking for a country as isolated as North Korea), one must look to how that leadership treats its own people. I believe the North Korean leadership will say or do anything to ensure its own survival, but it will continue to act in a contrary manner to preserve its power.
Nash: In your view, then, it is not so much the nature of the agreements that is impeding a peaceful resolution as the nature of the North Korean leadership itself.

Zumwalt: It is the North Korean leadership's unwavering desire to survive in its current form that is impeding a peaceful resolution to the current level of hostilities between the US and North Korea.

Nash: Do you believe that there is any hope for a peaceful resolution to the current hostilities, or has the dispute already carried too far?

Zumwalt: Sadly, I do not believe a peaceful - and, more importantly, successful - resolution of differences between the US and North Korea is possible, absent a triggering event within North Korea that brings forward an enlightened regime willing to act more responsibly domestically as well as internationally. And, due to the tight and brutal control the current regime exercises over its people, I put a very low likelihood on such a change occurring internally.

We must keep in mind this is the same regime which has been teaching its people for generations the US is its natural enemy. Such indoctrination is taught to North Korean children very early in the education process. For example, the children are given math problems along the lines of, "How many American soldiers would remain in a patrol of 10 if seven are killed by North Korean soldiers?" They are taught as well to believe the Korean War was the result of a joint US/South Korean invasion of the North. Such anti-Americanism has been fed continuously to the North Korean people, in 1967 leading to one of the best-kept secrets of the Vietnam War: Americans, unknowingly, were fighting North Korean pilots during that conflict. Former North Vietnamese combat pilots confirm that Pyongyang, believing a future war against the US was inevitable, pressured Hanoi to allow its pilots to fly missions against US forces in order to study US air-combat tactics. The North Korean air-combat participation was short-lived, however, as almost every Korean pilot who engaged an American aircraft was shot down. North Korea's assistance became costly to Hanoi as the Koreans were flying North Vietnamese planes. Unable to afford the loss of additional planes, Hanoi terminated North Korea's participation after only a few months. Today, in a cemetery just outside Hanoi, there are 14 graves with markers bearing the words "Trieu-Tien", which is the Vietnamese phrase for "North Korea". The markers further reveal that all 14 died in 1967 within a few months of each other. The grave sites attest to the brief, but costly, contribution these pilots made to Hanoi's ultimate victory. Perhaps it was this cost and a quiet perception among the North Korean military it might not be a match for the US in a future conflict that led, just a year later, to Pyongyang's decision to seize the USS Pueblo - the unarmed US intelligence ship sailing in international waters at the time of its capture.

Nash: Do you feel that there has been any failure on the part of US policy towards North Korea, either during the Clinton or Bush administrations, that might have obstructed an earlier resolution?

Zumwalt: The problem each new US administration faces in determining what course of action to pursue in resolving issues with North Korea is that it perceives it might be successful in negotiating such a resolution where all previous administrations have failed. As a result, each administration has played the role-some to a greater extent than others - of an "enabler". Because each administration has consistently failed to recognize the North Korean leadership for what it really is, we have unwittingly enabled Pyongyang to act irresponsibly, playing various interests against each other to maximize its security in the only way it perceives it can be preserved - ie, through the possession of weapons of mass destruction [WMD]. But despite the enabling role that various US administrations have played, such a role pales in comparison to the one being played by South Korea. Its "Sunshine Policy" has rewarded North Korea time and time again for acting irresponsibly. Pyongyang has learned it has to give up very little to gain a great deal from South Korea - most notably the US$1.5 billion secretly paid to Kim Jong-il by South Korea's former president, Kim Dae-jung, so that the former Kim would agree to participate in a summit conference with the latter Kim in June 2000. Ironically, while Kim Dae-jung was being hailed for his initiative in trying to resolve issues between the two Koreas, an effort for which he would later be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Kim Jong-il undoubtedly was enabled to continue the pursuit of his country's nuclear weapons development program with this new injection of South Korean funds.
Nash: Last year at West Point, President George W Bush said that preemptive military strikes may be necessary to defend American security and lives. Is the US preparing a preemptive strike against North Korea? If the crisis ever came to military conflict, would it be advantageous, in your assessment, for the US to launch a preemptive strike?

Zumwalt: Due to the irresponsible conduct of Pyongyang and its bellicose threats to destabilize the region, the US would be acting irresponsibly if it failed to explore all possible options in dealing with the North Korean threat-including the option to conduct a preemptive military strike. Should it be agreed that military action is the only viable option to neutralize the North Korean threat, it would be most beneficial for the US to lead with such a strike. Obviously, North Korea, similarly, is prepared - and has been for much longer than we have considered such military action-to launch a preemptive strike first against US and ROK [Republic of Korea] forces south of the DMZ [Demilitarized Zone]. This is an option Pyongyang has mapped out for decades, as evidenced by the numerous large tunnels it has dug under the DMZ. Although four have been discovered south of the DMZ, it is believed there may well be at least 20 more ready to transport thousands of North Korean troops under the DMZ and south of US/ROK forces positioned there to repel just such a strike. To add to the confusion such a surprise strike south of the DMZ might initially generate among US and ROK forces, the North Koreans also are equipping their strike forces with ROK military and police uniforms. Allegedly, at least 100,000 of these uniforms have been ordered by the North within the last year.

A preemptive strike by the US would clearly minimize the casualties North Korea, with its long-range artillery situated just north of the DMZ, might otherwise be able to impose upon both US/ROK forces guarding the DMZ and upon the ROK's civilian population. Such a strike obviously would seek to further limit allied losses by knocking out any known North Korean missile sites capable of hitting the ROK and/or Japan.

Nash: US Secretary of State Colin Powell has said that the US wants nothing less than a "permanent solution this time". What would you consider a permanent solution, and do you think it possible to find one that ensures stability on the Korean Peninsula and security for US interests in the region?

Zumwalt: I think that any sort of "permanent solution" to the North Korean nuclear problem is simply not possible with a Kim Jong-il-led government or, for that matter, with any other similarly configured government without Kim Jong-il at its head. In my opinion, there are only two conceivable ways non-military action could, arguably, provide a permanent solution on the peninsula:

(1) The four countries with the most direct interests in the region - the US, South Korea, China and Japan - agree to join together to present a united front to the North Korean leadership in an effort to prevent Pyongyang from playing one interest against another. I would add to this coalition of interests another country with which North Korea has friendly relations - Russia. But, as the likelihood the first four countries agreeing on such a united approach are slim, I see the prospects of Russia cooperating as well as virtually impossible.

(2) North Korea agrees to a truly verifiable agreement by which it commits not to develop a WMD capability. But, even with such an agreement in place, I would not feel totally comfortable a permanent solution still had been achieved. This is because I place a great deal of credibility on knowledgeable North Korean defectors, such as Hwang Jong-yop, who warn Pyongyang will do whatever is necessary to maintain this capability, regardless of what international agreements it signs to the contrary.

It is important too for us to decide the exact parameters upon which such a "permanent solution" is to rest. What I have outlined so far is strictly a permanent solution based on the inner parameters, ie, the WMD issue. But a decision must be made as to whether a permanent solution is to include the outer parameters, ie, should it address as well the brutal treatment of the North Korean people by its leadership? This is strictly a moral determination we must make. We know Pyongyang has already allowed 2 million of its citizens to die of famine, choosing to dedicate its limited financial assets to the development of its WMD program rather than agricultural reform. We know in North Korea, where rugged mountains leave only 20 percent of the land available for agriculture, some farmers are ordered to replace food crops, so critical in a country where nine percent of its population has died of famine, with poppies, so critical in a country where drug trafficking is a growing business to generate cash for military purposes. In Pyongyang we have a government with a long-established track record of total irresponsibility in caring for its citizenry. Do we have any moral obligation to help an enslaved people cast off their yoke of suppression or do we turn a blind eye, allowing millions more North Koreans to die quietly from their government's acts of omission and commission - all at the price of hoping to resolve the WMD threat posed at the outside world? More than six decades ago, England's prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, decided to negotiate with [Adolf] Hitler - a dictator of the same ilk as Kim Jong-il. Chamberlain returned to England, heralding he had achieved "peace in our time". History proved him wrong and the peace short-lived. Do we now buy peace in our time by accepting similar false promises from Kim Jong-il, knowing we are dooming the North Korean people to a life of continued hardship and suffering?

For this reason, before we embark upon any effort to achieve a permanent solution on the peninsula, we must first decide upon the parameters to be met.

Nash: All along, China has been urging the US and North Korea to meet in Beijing for a second round of trilateral discussions, which apparently will take place shortly. In agreeing to these discussions, the White House has held firmly to the condition that Japan also be invited to participate. Why is Japan's involvement so important to the US and so strongly resisted by North Korea?

Zumwalt: The US sees Japan's participation in the next round of talks as critical for a number of reasons. First, Japan is clearly an economic superpower in the region whose participation financially or otherwise in any resolution of hostilities will be critical. Second, Pyongyang sent a strong message to Japan when it fired its Taepodong missile over the Sea of Japan in August of 1998. That message was clear: North Korea viewed Japan, in spite of Japan's being stripped of its military might in the aftermath of World War II, as a viable target for Pyongyang's animosity - an animosity which still rages half a century after Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula had occurred. Third, despite generous Japanese humanitarian aid to North Korea, Japanese citizens were targeted over the years for kidnappings, many for whom a full accounting has yet to be provided by Pyongyang. Fourth, Japan, more so than any other country in the region, has now accepted the fact that North Korea's leadership cannot be trusted or reasoned with logically, prompting Tokyo to support US initiatives and to explore the possibility of removing constitutionally mandated restrictions on expanding its own military forces. North Korea's strong resistance to Japanese participation is deeply entrenched, tied to Tokyo's efforts to wipe out Korean culture during its occupancy of the peninsula prior to and during World War II.

Nash: China's vice foreign minister characterized his recent visit to Pyongyang as youyide or "helpful". How crucial is China in the process of finding a peaceful solution?

Zumwalt: China's active participation in resolving the North Korean issue is absolutely critical if any non-military option is to have viability. Obviously, the last thing China wants is to see the US exercise its military option in China's very own back yard. Thus, Beijing has a keen interest in reigning in Pyongyang's leadership. Almost a decade ago, realizing its own economic interests were more closely aligned with South rather than North Korea, China recognized the ROK. For Pyongyang, it was a devastating loss of face to see its closest ally recognize its familial enemy. But China fully realizes North Korea poses a far greater liability to Beijing than it does an asset. Hopefully, that realization will guide Beijing to embark upon a foreign policy course that will make Pyongyang understand its continued belligerent attitude will only serve to totally isolate it from the rest of the world - including its closest ally. But the question would still remain as to whether even losing its closest ally would impact positively on North Korea's conduct. The Chinese are already seeing signs that even their own ability to exercise some sort of control over this rogue state may be on the wane.

Nash: South and North Korean troops recently exchanged a short bout of machine-gun fire across the Demilitarized Zone. How precipitous are such actions?

Zumwalt: With the buildup of North Korean forces on the DMZ, with tensions mounting over the nuclear issue, with Seoul starting to show some signs it may be rethinking its disastrous Sunshine Policy, with the US talking about withdrawing forces from the DMZ to reorganize them more centrally in the ROK - possibly creating the perception on either side of the DMZ that Washington is unwilling to have its forces serve as a tripwire, many factors are at play which leave the peninsula a tinderbox, capable of being ignited by a simple spark. A misinterpretation of an act by one side or a miscalculation by the other could easily provide that spark.

Nash: Your father, the late Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, led a very distinguished naval career. At age 44, he became the youngest officer ever promoted to rear admiral, and at age 49 the youngest four-star admiral in US history. He served as navigator of the USS Wisconsin in the Korean theater from 1951-52, and later as the commander of US Naval Forces in Vietnam from 1968-70. If your father were still a member of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff today, how do you think he would have approached this present conflict?

Zumwalt: My father was one of those in the forefront of the charge during the Cold War to warn the American people about another country described then by the US president of another era, president Ronald Reagan, as the "evil empire" - the Soviet Union. It was only in the aftermath of the collapse of that evil empire we truly learned how appropriate Reagan's description had been. There are clearly evil elements at work in our world, both in the past as well as the present, that have not hesitated to impose human suffering on others while in pursuit of their own selfish ambitions. My father loved Edmund Burke's quote that all that is needed for the forces of evil to prevail in this world is for enough good men to do nothing. He took that statement to heart, spending most of his life fighting the Cold War, both on battlefields of war as well as those of public opinion, to slay the forces of evil, then threatening world peace in the form of the Soviet Union. A large part of the latter battle consisted of making the American public understand the exact nature of the threat. While the Soviet Union is no more, a new threat to world peace, one that lay somewhat dormant during the Cold War, has now replaced it. I am sure were he alive today, my father would again be in the forefront of the charge to ensure Americans fully understood the threat posed by this member state of what a new president now describes as the axis of evil. He would be challenging his fellow Americans to not allow the seeds of evil to take root by simply doing nothing.

Nash: What can the US expect if it does become engaged in military conflict with North Korea?

Zumwalt: The answer to this question turns on who takes military action first. As I have pointed out, both sides are prepared to launch a preemptive strike. This is an option North Korea already demonstrated more than half a century ago it was willing to exercise when it launched its surprise invasion of South Korea. Depending on who attacks first, I would envision a scenario unfolding along the following lines:

A military strike by Pyongyang would take place in the form of the covert insertion of large number of its troops south of the DMZ, via tunnels as well as waterborne routes. These troops, many dressed in ROK military and police uniforms to confuse US, ROK and South Korean civilians, have been trained to conduct operations similar to those for which the former Soviet Union's spetsnaz (special) forces were tasked to perform. As such, they will seek to disrupt lines of communication and transportation. Wearing ROK uniforms, they will confuse US and South Korean soldiers as to who exactly is friend and who is foe. (There are already reports a large order of ROK uniforms was placed by an unknown source.) Japan will be targeted with WMD. North Korean artillery positioned north of the DMZ will start to rain fire down on allied forces as well as upon civilians in Seoul. In the initial hours of the conflict, the advantage could go to the North Koreans as they inflict significant casualties on the battlefield. However, immediate counterattacks by allied forces will cause the situation on the peninsula to tilt quickly in their favor. As US/ROK forces gain momentum, they will ferret out North Korean infiltrators. Many will be found to have been sheltered by pro-North sympathizers and spies pre-positioned in the South. As allied advances in the North disrupt enemy supply and transportation lines, North Korean casualties will mount. The North Koreans will be soundly defeated within 30-60 days.

A first strike by the US military would take the form of simultaneous hits against a series of tactical targets, along the DMZ and scattered elsewhere around the country. These targets will include military headquarters that have been dug deep underground in Pyongyang and elsewhere. Their destruction will disrupt all North Korean command, control and communications. As was Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-il too will become a target of opportunity. The back of the North Korean military will be broken in a matter of weeks, if not days, as the army becomes totally disorganized and nonfunctional. It will be very difficult, if not impossible, for it to launch an effective counterattack. Many North Korean soldiers will seek escape routes into the mountains and China. The country will totally collapse in less time than did Iraq.

(Copyright 2003 Paul Nash)
 
Aug 23, 2003



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