Under a Mushroom Cloud

Why North Korea ranks as one of the great failures of the Bush Administration.

A charter member of George W.Bush’s infamous “axis of evil” on account of its nuclear-weapons program, arms sales and brutal human-rights record, North Korea was unsurprisingly targeted by Bush for regime change from the start. That Kim Jong Il-a man the American President once called a “pygmy”-has not only survived, but emerged in the twilight of the Bush era with an agreement eerily similar to the one he signed with Bill Clinton over a decade earlier, makes for a remarkable tale.

A fellow on Korean security at the Pacific Council on International Policy and a former CNN correspondent, Mike Chinoy has, in Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis, written a riveting account of one of the most important diplomatic sagas of the Bush years. His is an impressively researched tale of how the Administration’s take-no-prisoners idealism gave way to the reality of what could be done with a North Korea that refused to buckle. Ultimately Bush’s approach, says Chinoy, led to “six years of needless brinksmanship, missed opportunities, and the disastrous elevation of North Korea and Kim Jong Il to the club of nuclear powers.”

The issue of North Korea gave Bush an early opportunity to show off his foreign policy mettle and break from his predecessor’s strategy. The neocons had long suspected Pyongyang of cheating on a landmark 1994 deal to freeze its nuclear program. Yet Clinton had sent Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang in October 2000 and considered making his own visit. Vice President Dick Cheney summed up the Bush Administration’s more muscular approach: “We don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it.”

Tough talk was no substitute for policy, however. As Washington ratcheted up the pressure, so did Pyongyang, a longtime master at playing a weak hand brilliantly. North Korea threw out international inspectors and restarted its weapons program, once again reprocessing plutonium from spent fuel rods. Pyongyang even upped the ante by hinting that it had a
uranium-enrichment program paralleling its plutonium one. And it chose to end eight years of a self-imposed moratorium on missile testing on July 4, 2006-American Independence Day.

Three months later it exploded a nuclear device,joining the elite club of seven other known nuclear states. Years of “warnings, threats, sanctions, muscle-flexing and half-hearted diplomacy” had made North Korea more, not less, dangerous. Chinoy quotes one U.S. policymaker comparing Washington’s policy toward Pyongyang to “a six-year old playing checkers,” with no ability to look beyond the next move.

With the U.S.bogged down in Iraq, and both China and South Korea adamantly opposed to military action by Washington, the U.S.eventually found itself with little
choice but to talk seriously to Pyongyang. The appointment of Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State in the second Bush term and Christopher Hill as the chief U.S. negotiator brought in a team that was intent on a deal and willing and able to push the neocons to the side to get an agreement.

But for all its insights into Washington’s dance with Pyongyang, Chinoy’s impressive effort ultimately falls short. The book was written even as events continued to unfold at a rapid speed, giving the final section a jumbled feel that is at odds with the more measured bulk of the text. More serious, though, are the flaws in Chinoy’s analysis. Chinoy has visited North Korea more than a dozen times in the past two decades and is clearly engrossed by the country. Indeed, it is revealing that the first photo in the book is of Chinoy meeting Kim II Sung in 1994 and looking extremely pleased with himself.

North Korea is run by a dynastic regime that has extinguished the human spirit so ruthlessly that Mao’sCultural Revolution, by contrast, looks like a dinner party. Yet the country’s appalling record on missile and weapons proliferation, its illegal-drug sales and counterfeiting and its abysmal human-rights record here are implicitly just the antics of a misunderstood regime. Pyongyang’s extortionate tactics with Kim Dae Jung, the South Korean leader who tried to coax it out of isolation, are also glossed over. In Chinoy’s zeal to castigate the neocons, there is a subtle subtext that the North is a more or less normal country being prevented by silly U.S.policies from coming out of its shell. But while Bush’s initial policies toward the North may have been wrongheaded, there is nothing to suggest that it is a benign dictatorship-and Chinoy, unfortunately, comes perilously
close to saying that it is.

The above is a review of Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis, by Mike Chinoy, and was originally published in Time.