Talking to the enemy

<strong>North Korea on the Brink: Struggle for Survival</strong>

Glyn Ford and Soyoung Kwon <em>P

Even before the Bush presidency ends, a consensus has emerged - on both sides of the Atlantic - that a combination of ideology, error, isolationism and sheer stupidity led the US administration into a series of foreign policy disasters. Iraq was set up by the neocons as an Aunt Sally, and its weapons of mass destruction were as much a figment of the imaginations of Messrs Bush and Cheney as they were a figment of Saddam Hussein's. Seemingly next in line, Iran, with its "secret nuclear programme", was also shown to have nothing of the sort, but this time it fell to the US military Establishment to pull the rug from under the Bush administration. It was a very American coup.

It falls to the veteran MEP Glyn Ford to blow the whistle on a third example of Bush administration mendacity, so foolhardy that he argues it hastened North Korea's membership of the nuclear club, and could have led to major hostilities. All at a time when there was a real opportunity to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula and nudge Kim Jong-il and his cohorts down the Chinese road of reform.

Ford has led European Union delegations to North Korea and has been instrumental in helping develop the carrot-and-stick approach that has defined EU policy towards the country. His unsung shuttle diplomacy has made him a familiar sight in the corridors of power in Pyong yang, Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing. Now, at the risk of being blacklisted by the more paranoid elements of the Pyongyang regime, he has published North Korea on the Brink: Struggle for Survival. East Asia specialists, those with more than a passing interest in the idiosyncrasies of the "hermit state" and historians of the Bush era need turn no further. North Korea on the Brink not only shines a torch into the Orwellian world that grew out of a country shattered by Japanese occupation, war and division, it explains the motivations of a political leadership determined to maintain power.

The collapse of the Soviet bloc and China's flight from Marxism-Leninism to market Leninism led many to believe that isolated North Korea would be next. But, as the author explains, the country's hybrid of self-reliance, emperor worship and Marxism allowed it to weather that storm. But at what a price! Ford records the collapse of North Korea's heavy industrial economy, the ending of barter trade and cyclical natural disasters, so that by 2002 the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated that 13.2 million North Koreans were malnourished, and so that between 1995 and 1999, some three million died.

North Korea has never signed a peace agreement with the United States, and Ford presents evidence to show that its historic enemies, Japan and the US, have found it convenient to exaggerate its menace, Japan under right-wing governments keen to abandon its pacifist constitution, the US needing an enemy with rudimentary nuclear capability in order to justify the vast expense of Star Wars. And, as Ford points out, North Korea has invariably acted as its own worst enemy, exporting its only valuable commodities - missiles - and test-firing them at times guaranteed to isolate the regime even further.

There have also been occasions when both sides have tentatively tried to reach agreement, such as when, during the early 1990s, the world came the closest to a nuclear stand-off since the Bay of Pigs. Then, the Clinton administration seemed poised to strike the North's main nuclear power plant at Yongbyon. The subsequent pact, brokered after Jimmy Carter broke the logjam to Pyongyang and Madeleine Albright followed in his wake, promised fuel aid in return for decommissioning. The coup de grâce to this faltering understanding came in 2001 when Bush labelled North Korea part of "an axis of evil"; the US repeated the gesture a year later by claiming that the country had a secret nuclear programme.

Kim Jong-il subsequently banished the UN's nuclear inspectors, unfroze the nuclear plant, reprocessed the fuel rods, and eventually conducted a partly successful test. North Korea continues to deny that it has a heavily enriched uranium nuclear weapons programme, and Ford argues convincingly, drawing on admissions by senior defence and political figures in Washington, that Pyongyang never had a secret nuclear programme, just some of the component parts that could one day make a bomb.

North Korea on the Brink will offend the neocons as much as it will some of the ageing hard-liners in Pyongyang who regard each crisis as an opportunity for retrenchment. Yet as Ford ultimately argues, when one considers the consequences of chaos in Korea, "changing regime" trumps "regime change" every time.

Mark Seddon is diplomatic correspondent for al-Jazeera English

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Art is the new activism