The Coldest War

How a succession crisis put the U.S. and North Korea on a collision course — and why two Americans are caught in the middle

  • Share
  • Read Later
Lee Jae-Won / Reuters

South Koreans hold portraits of U.S. journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee.

(2 of 2)

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. government views the case as wholly separate from the other issues now dividing Pyongyang and Washington. But Pyongyang almost certainly does not. For a regime that acts more like a Mafia family than a government, kidnapping has been a tactic North Korea has used for decades. Relations between Japan and North Korea are inflamed precisely because of revelations that for years the North kidnapped Japanese and then used them to train North Korean spies in Japanese language, culture and history. At a moment when Washington is pledging to get tough, Pyongyang "will absolutely view the two young journalists as bargaining chips," a South Korean diplomatic source says.

Bargaining with the Kims is the last thing Obama wants to do, but the Administration probably doesn't have a choice. Judging from the testimony of defectors like Kang Chol Hwan, who spent a decade as a boy in one of North Korea's most notorious camps for political prisoners, the conditions of the journalists' imprisonment could be brutal. The Administration is considering whether sending a special envoy to Pyongyang would help. Former U.N. ambassador Bill Richardson, who has traveled to Pyongyang on special diplomatic missions, said recently, "Now is when the negotiating really begins." (Read "Your Move, China.")

The New Containment
the broader challenge for obama is to craft a policy that contains three parts: it must continue to defuse tensions between North and South Korea, stop North Korea from selling weapons of mass destruction to others, and inflict sufficient economic pain on Pyongyang through new sanctions to make it rethink its determination to be a nuclear power. The primary mission of Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg on a recent visit to Seoul was to reinforce the U.S. military commitment to its long-standing ally, at a time when the "possibility of small-scale skirmishes [between North and South] is high," says Chang Kwoun Park, a navy captain at the Korean Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul.

U.S. officials have the same apprehension: that political uncertainty in the North, coupled with a military establishment intent on maintaining its pre-eminence, is a combustible combination. The North has 13,000 artillery tubes trained on South Korea, and the two sides have had two minor naval confrontations in the past 10 years. "Anytime you have a combination of this behavior of doing provocative things in order to excite a response — plus succession questions — you have a potentially dangerous mix," said U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair in a recent speech.

The U.S. team believes it succeeded in reassuring the South Koreans. Much more difficult will be toughening the antiproliferation measures aimed at North Korea and moving toward stiffer sanctions. Even after Pyongyang's nuclear test, China remains wary of taking any steps that could destabilize the regime, says a diplomat in East Asia, particularly when it appears to be arranging a transition.

China, officials say, has made it plain to the U.S. that it is plenty angry with the North. U.S. diplomats believe China is willing to broaden the economic sanctions already in place against North Korean companies suspected of proliferation. News that the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council agreed on the terms of a resolution on North Korea bolstered the view that China is prepared to help. (Read "Spotlight: North Korea's Nuclear Test.")

But there are limits. The U.S. Administration has broached to Beijing the possibility of participating in the Proliferation Security Initiative, which aims to block suspected shipments of weapons and nuclear matériel from states such as North Korea, Iran and Syria. The program has had its successes. Last September, acting on intelligence from the U.S., India denied overflight rights to an aircraft that took off in Burma and was thought to be transporting North Korean missiles or other weaponry to Iran. The flight never made it to Tehran, U.S. intelligence officials say. But until very recently, even South Korea hesitated to embrace interdiction of North Korean boats. And no one in the region believes the Chinese will participate in such an overtly hostile policy.

Administration officials say privately, however, that if coercive diplomacy toward Pyongyang is the goal, there are other ways for Washington and Beijing to work together. In fact, it's happened before. The most effective sanctions ever levied against the North were those designed and imposed by the U.S. Treasury Department during the Bush years. Not only did Treasury manage to freeze a Macau bank account through which the North Korean regime allegedly laundered millions of dollars, but it also persuaded several large banks in China to stop doing business with North Korea. In 2006, Kim Jong Il made removal of those sanctions a precondition of returning to the so-called six-party talks, and Bush acceded.

It wasn't lost on anyone that the architect of those sanctions, Treasury official Stuart Levey, was part of the diplomatic delegation the U.S. sent to East Asia recently. A senior Administration official says it is "deeply aware" of how effective those sanctions were. Finding ways to punish Pyongyang isn't where Obama expected to be at this point in his presidency. But that wasn't his choice. It was that of Kim Jong Il and the men who surround him — determined, for reasons only they can fathom, to remain stuck in the coldest of wars.

— with reporting by Stephen Kim / Seoul And Massimo Calabresi and Mark Thompson / Washington

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. Next Page