North Korea's Kim Jong Il

Great historical events can spring from small slights. Kaiser Wilhelm never forgave the French for not treating him to a parade in Paris. "The monarchs of Europe have paid no attention to what I have to say," the German emperor whined before setting the Continent aflame in 1914. By many accounts, North Korea's Kim Jong Il also suffers from a tender ego. For one thing the 5-foot-3 dictator is sensitive about his height (hence, one suspects, his bouffant hairstyle and elevator shoes). After ordering the kidnapping of a South Korean actress, Choe Eun Hee, in 1978 to help him start up a national film industry, the first thing the movie-mad Kim jokingly asked her at a welcoming dinner was: "Well, Madame, what do you think of my physique?" More painfully, he fears that in the eyes of his countrymen and allies, he can never match the achievements of his revered father, the "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung (who was close to six feet tall and who led a guerrilla army against the Japanese occupiers in the 1930s). By many accounts, the young Kim is fed up along with his top aides, who often reflect his views. "What I hear is, Big Brother is telling Little Brother, 'Don't do that'," the North Korean vice minister of Foreign Affairs, Kim Gye Gwan, complained when Beijing urged Kim Jong Il to cancel his planned missile tests in July. "But we are not boys. We are a nuclear power."

And so one can understand the reaction at the highest levels of Kim's secretive regime when he learned of George W. Bush's contemptuous comments about him at a meeting of Republican senators in 2002. In a private diatribe that left listeners stunned by its vehemence, the U.S. president called Kim a hateful "pygmy" who behaved like "a spoiled child at a dinner table." Since those remarks and other personal cracks by Bush were reported in NEWSWEEK and other Western publications, North Korean officials have regularly complained about them to Washington-based Korea scholar Selig Harrison, who visits Pyongyang often. "How can we deal with you when your leader doesn't show us even a minimum of respect?" Kim Gye Gwan asked Harrison in 2004.

History is not just about abstract forces like economics or ideology or geography. It is also shaped, often most decisively, by the aims and ambitions of deeply flawed men--men like Kim, his father and generations of North Korean soldiers, scientists and spies who have spent years trying to join the Nuclear Club. Did Kim decide to test a nuclear device last week because the leader of the world's only superpower refuses to talk directly to him? It's more complicated than that, of course, just as World War I had many more causes than Kaiser Wilhelm's Napoleon complex. But the trail of events that led to this perilous moment--making North Korea the first new declared nuclear power in eight years, and undoubtedly the most unstable of the eight (not including Israel) in the world today--had a great deal to do with years of misplaced pride and prejudice between Pyongyang and Washington, of deep misunderstanding and disastrous missed chances. In an Oct. 10 interview with a Seoul newspaper, a North Korean diplomat confirmed that Pyongyang was sending a message: "When we declared that we had weapons, the U.S. underestimated our abilities and doubted that we really had them. The nuclear test has proven [our word]."

I. Secrets of the North

No one in Washington has ever known quite how to deal with North Korea. As a lonely Stalinist regime, Kim's nation is a political toxic-waste site that has festered for 50 years amid East Asia's glittering successes. It is also a place of truly Orwellian oddity, where traffic cops in Pyongyang's empty boulevards go through the motions of directing cars when there are none, where thousands of people starve unnoticed and where Kim administers "a gulag the size of Houston," in Bush's words. Bill Clinton likewise despised Kim, and as president, Clinton came much closer than Bush ever has to attacking him. But the incumbent American president is, by many accounts, offended by Kim on a more deeply moral and personal level.

During his first trip to Seoul, soon after his Axis of Evil speech in early 2002, Karen Hughes, then Bush's counselor, told reporters that the president was fascinated by satellite pictures of the Korean Peninsula at night, showing bright lights over the South and darkness over the power-starved North. To Bush, the pictures showed "the light and opportunity that comes with freedom, and the dark that comes with a regime that is oppressive," Hughes said. Just two weeks ago, at a press conference in the Rose Garden days before Kim's test, Bush recalled a meeting he had last April with a Japanese mother who had lost her teenage daughter to a North Korean abduction 29 years ago, possibly to be turned into a prostitute. He said the session--which he has called "one of the most meaningful moments of my presidency"--broke his heart.

While the size of North Korea's new test was unimpressive--at half a kiloton or less, it was little more than a nuclear popgun--Pyongyang continues to be the world's No. 1 missile proliferator. And the regime's long, shady history of secret kidnappings, amphibious commando missions and other spooky operations make American intelligence officials as nervous as they've ever been about what Kim has and what he might do with it. While the North has not yet been caught shipping nuclear materials abroad, it is conceivable that an enraged or cash-strapped Kim Jong Il could someday permit a baseball-size lump of plutonium loaded into a terrorist bomb to make its way to America.

Just as scary is what the North might pass on to other nuclear-minded regimes, especially its Axis of Evil companion, Iran. At the dawn of the Nuclear Age, during World War II, scientists worried that atomic technology could never be fully controlled--that the weapons produced to fight tyranny were demons in thin disguise. A NEWSWEEK investigation traces North Korea's nuclear demons back to their origins, and the story shows that, tragically, what was feared in the middle of the 20th century could become a commonplace of the early 21st.

Last week's half-kiloton explosion was the product of an effort spanning a half century or more. It is difficult to pinpoint the precise moment Kim Il Sung decided he needed the Bomb and a ballistic-missile program to go with it. But the ambition was in keeping with his deep insecurity going back to the dubious origins of his regime.

North Korea, after all, is an invented country, a relic of the cold-war divide. After the World War II defeat of Japan, which had occupied Korea, the regime was created by Stalin in 1945 out of the northern half of the Korean Peninsula, and Moscow propped up Kim Il Sung as a strongman. The Americans, meanwhile, built their client state in the southern half. Both sides never gave up their claims to the whole peninsula, putting them on a permanent war footing. To consolidate power, Kim created a cultlike ideology of self-reliance called juche, a curdled brew of traditional Korean xenophobia and nationalism, Confucian deference to authority and utopian Marxism-Leninism. Some experts argue that Kim decided he needed a nuclear security blanket soon after the 1950-53 Korean War, which he battled to a draw. Then came the early 1970s, when he realized he was losing the economic contest against his blood enemies in Seoul, and after that the Soviet Union disintegrated--a failure that suddenly left Pyongyang without a communist patron or a nuclear umbrella to shield it. An increasingly paranoid Kim Il Sung also sponsored many acts of terrorism against the South, including the alleged sabotaging of a Korean Airlines plane in 1987, killing all 115 passengers and crew, the year before the Seoul Olympic Games. And he taught his son well.

Driven by two men with near-absolute power, North Korea's program was produced by a staggering cast of characters. They included idealistic Korean scientists educated in Imperial Japan and repatriated after World War II, their students educated in the Soviet Union and the thousands of homegrown technicians. Japan, one of the North's hardiest enemies today, gave Pyongyang the man deemed the "first father" of North Korea's nuclear program, the late scientist and inventor Lee Sung Ki, who earned a degree in chemical engineering at Kyoto Imperial University in 1931. In fact, despite its deep isolation, the Hermit Kingdom is known or suspected to have received nuclear assistance from 14 countries: Russia, China, Austria, France, Canada, Romania, Germany, Pakistan, India, Japan, Iran, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

There were privateers, too: defectors, Chinese technology firms, Japanese trading houses and front companies scattered from Thailand to Scandinavia--all provided critical technologies, components or know-how by circumventing a global nonproliferation regime designed to thwart such commerce. Even the International Atomic Energy Agency unwittingly helped: analysts say a single North Korean diplomat, Choi Hak Gun, who was posted to IAEA headquarters in Vienna from 1974 to 1978, scoured the agency's library for nuclear know-how.

The human costs of North Korea's nuclear ambitions on the nation's best and brightest were terrible. Few paid a higher price than Kimchaek University's class of '62, according to a grad who defected from North Korea several years ago and told NEWSWEEK his story. As graduation at the elite college neared more than 40 years ago, the buzz on campus was that Kim Il Sung had ordered construction of an advanced research facility to study atomic energy, and that patriotic young scientists soon would be mobilized to work there. "Our professors really pushed the need for nuclear development," he recalls. "The rumor circulating among students was that those of us sent there wouldn't have long to live."

The defector, spared the fate of those assigned to nuclear labs, spent his adult life watching unlucky classmates grow sick, weak and despondent. On leave, one confided a Confucian desperation to marry and sire children before radiation rendered him sterile. "It was exactly what we feared," the defector says, still saddened by their sacrifice. "These guys went bald. Many of them lost their eyebrows. Some of them had constant nosebleeds. They looked so weak it was hard to even face them. The thinking was, 'If one scientist falls there will always be others to take his place'." That logic not only ravaged a generation of scientists sent like worker bees into toxic nuclear labs. It cost billions in hard currency that might have fed starving people and hobbled the national economy by imposing perpetual austerity under slogans like "Military first."

North Korea was also helped by its participation in the rogues' club of nations that have suffered U.S. sanctions for pursuing nuclear ambitions, led by Pakistan, since the end of the cold war. After Washington shut down exports of military hardware to Pakistan in 1985, none other than Harvard-educated Benazir Bhutto concluded a missile deal with the North. Pakistan's black-marketing lead scientist, AQ Khan, visited North Korea 13 times over the next seven years. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has denied he knew anything about this, but according to former senior Pakistani officials those visits occurred with the knowledge and consent of the military leadership. Pakistan agreed to provide second-rate P1 centrifuge technology to North Korea in return for missiles, enabling Pakistan to extend the reach of its nuclear weapon deep inside India, and North Korean scientists received nuclear briefings at KRL (Khan Research Laboratory), Pakistan's main nuclear facility. Even so, the imported uranium enrichment technology has barely gotten off the ground. In the end, it was juche that prevailed.

Despite all this effort, the North Korean program remained a rather ramshackle affair, demonstrating that it's not so easy after all to build nukes. In the early 1990s, after Washington and Pyongyang nearly came to blows over the program, evangelist Billy Graham and Jimmy Carter went on peacemaking visits to the North, leading to Bill Clinton's "Agreed Framework" deal with Pyongyang. Under that 1994 pact, Clinton obtained a commitment to freeze plutonium reprocessing in exchange for aid and a civilian nuclear plant. When American experts were finally allowed in to inspect Yongbyon, the center of North Korea's nuclear programs, that year, they could hardly believe their eyes. Inside, the cooling pond looked like an abandoned swimming pool. Above it, a window was broken; a bird's carcass floated on the water. Below a film of algae, underwater cameras revealed metal receptacles--they looked like milk-bottle baskets--at the bottom of the pool containing spent nuclear fuel rods that could be reprocessed to produce weapons-grade plutonium. Some rods were broken, many mired in sludge. Tree leaves and twigs littered the place. Staring at the debris, inspectors suddenly realized that frogs were living in the water.

But since the breakdown of the Agreed Framework in 2002--the Bush administration discarded it as a flawed Clinton-era policy--Yongbyon has been cleaned up and repaired, says Sig Hecker, a former director of Los Alamos who was invited to inspect it in January 2004. Hecker later said the North Koreans were now "beyond dispute competent" at the chemistry and metallurgy of plutonium reprocessing. Indeed, the history of North Korea's program is evidence that "any country on the map with a population of 20 to 25 million will have the core group of people who can [go nuclear] if they squeeze their economy hard enough," says Daniel Pinkston, a nonproliferation expert at the Monterey Institute for International Studies. And North Korea has long been, to say the least, quite open to squeezing people in pursuit of power--including many along the Potomac River half a world away.

II. Missed Signals

Oct. 17, 2000, was a beautiful moonlit night in Washington. Marshal Cho Myong Rok, second only to Kim in North Korea, stood sipping drinks with Madeleine Albright on the terrace of the State Department's opulent Benjamin Franklin Room. In a meeting earlier that day with President Clinton, Cho had declared that Pyongyang had renounced terrorism, and he delivered Kim Jong Il's personal invitation to the president to visit Pyongyang.

The two sides were tantalizingly near a deal to stop all North Korean missile exports and cease development, testing and deployment of anything other than short-range Scuds. At least so the Clinton team believed. In exchange, the North would get full diplomatic recognition, the promise of billions in aid from Washington and Tokyo, and the stamp of legitimacy and guarantee of security that a Clinton visit would bring, says Albright's former senior aide, Wendy Sherman. According to Yang Sungchul, the South Korean ambassador to Washington who was there that night, Albright and Marshal Cho conversed in one corner, she looking comfortable and the general bolt-upright as if standing at attention. "I'm sure he was overwhelmed" by the culture shock, says Yang: here was Cho, the leading general of a country whose capital features a U.S. war-crimes museum, surrounded by the enemy.

A week later Albright was in Pyongyang, meeting with what she described as a well-informed and charming Kim, who gave a sophisticated rundown of his security situation and graciously directed his waiters not to give her too much alcohol during toasts. At one point, recalls Sherman, Kim even called for U.S. troops to remain on the Korean Peninsula (to guard against China). Albright was also treated to a show involving tens of thousands of acrobats and dancers at a stadium, intended to impress her with the glorious feats of the North Korean revolution. During the spectacle, a mass of performers flipped colored placards that together depicted Kim's Taepodong I missile taking off for its first test in 1998. Kim turned to Albright at that moment and said, "That was the first launch of that missile, and it will be the last."

In retrospect, that evening was the high point of U.S.-North Korean relations. Since then, GOP hard-liners have gleefully criticized Albright for the visit, and dismissed the North Koreans as blackmailers. But had a lasting settlement been reached, many Asian and U.S. diplomats believe North Korea would likely not have tested a nuclear device, and would not have developed an intercontinental missile, the Taepodong II, with a range that can reach Alaska or Hawaii (though its first test failed).

In the end, Clinton was absorbed by Mideast peace talks, which the White House thought more important than a risky deal many aides doubted. But the incoming secretary of State, Colin Powell, was so impressed with the deal's terms that, when Albright and her aides briefed him and the then national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice, he praised it to the press. On March 6, 2001, Powell declared that the new administration "plan[s] to engage with North Korea, to pick up where President Clinton left off. Some promising elements were left on the table." South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, full of messianic fervor about his new Sunshine Policy of détente with the North, rushed to Washington to make his case as well.

That's when the hammer dropped. Powell, it turned out, had forgotten to check with his boss before spouting off about North Korea. And Kim Dae Jung was stunned when he stepped out for a joint news conference after meeting Bush in March 2001. "He didn't talk about what we had agreed upon but began to criticize North Korea by saying that a regime that couldn't even feed its people was making nuclear weapons," Kim Dae Jung told NEWSWEEK last week. "From that time on, things began to go wrong. I am confident that if President Bush had [pursued] the agreement sought by President Clinton the North Korean issue would have been resolved, and I am very sorry about that."

The Bush team says both Powell and Kim Dae Jung got ahead of themselves, imposing policy on the new president when he'd barely been in office. There was, at the time, a hostile "anything but Clinton" tone in the White House, and Kim Jong Il was also a handy villain to have around to justify the centerpiece of Bush's foreign policy, the expensive missile defense program.

The attacks of September 11 cemented Bush's attitude toward Kim, and shifted him toward regime change. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, especially, was obsessed by the possibility that terrorists might get their hands on a nuclear weapon. He asked his team to review which nations had the capability to produce a nuclear weapon and which had links to terrorist groups. The review came up with a list of a dozen or so nations, including countries like Syria and Libya that might be coerced into abandoning their ambitions, but it concluded that a hard-core trio--Iran, Iraq and North Korea--were probably immune to any peaceful pressures. That, more than any other review by the administration, was what led to Bush's "Axis of Evil" State of the Union speech in January 2002.

While Clinton came very close to traveling to Pyongyang, Bush maintains that he has a much more realistic approach to Kim's perfidies. In fact, Bush himself approved a plan to cut off Kim and the North Korean elite's illegal financing, only days after America, China and other countries announced a new round of talks with North Korea a year ago. Bush's former senior director for Asia, Michael Green, told NEWSWEEK last week: "The president said, 'We apply the law'." Not surprisingly, the talks broke down.

There is some evidence that the Bush administration was seeking to manipulate intelligence on North Korea. During a visit to Pyongyang by lead negotiator James Kelly in October 2002, he presented what U.S. officials described as "proof" that the North had a secret uranium-enrichment program, undercutting Clintonite claims that Kim was adhering to a pledge not to advance his nuclear program. Bush officials later said the North Koreans had confessed. But diplomats now say that was a translation error. (Kelly could not be reached for comment.) While Kim was clearly violating the spirit of his '94 agreement by secretly importing centrifuge equipment, U.S. intelligence sources tell NEWSWEEK that their monitors in the region have never detected telltale emissions from any centrifuges. Earlier in 2002, the then Pacific commander Adm. Dennis Blair told a Pentagon meeting chaired by Under Secretary of Defense Stephen Cambone that Blair's surveillance and monitoring teams had still detected nothing. According to a participant who would speak only if he was not identified, that led Cambone to stalk over to Blair after the meeting, jab his finger into his chest and declare that he expected more out of him.

Things grew so icy between the two countries in recent years that, in what is perhaps one of the more bizarre episodes in the long history of diplomacy, the North Koreans turned to one of their few American friends, the Hackensack, N.J., restaurateur Robert (Bobby) Egan, who heads a trade group promoting business with Pyongyang. For years Egan used to joke that North Korean diplomats at the United Nations frequented his Hackensack restaurant, Cubby's, because they liked feeling "naughty": his place pushed the limit beyond which the foreign diplomats were forbidden to travel without U.S. government permission. As Egan tells it, the North Koreans were once again offering to "sell" their nuclear and missile programs to the U.S. government. "They were willing to accept a price, spread over a number of years," Egan says. There were no takers.

South Korean diplomats point out that even Ronald Reagan negotiated with the Soviet Union after calling it an "evil empire." "Having dialogue is not to make friends," Kim Dae Jung says. "You can have dialogue even with the Devil if it is necessary."

III. A Spreading Global Danger

Dealing with the devil is exactly how many u.s. officials would view a pact with Kim Jong Il, now that the work of two dictators, generations of scientists, black marketeers and military officers has apparently catapulted North Korea into the ranks of the nuclear. The administration does have a war plan for Korea. OPPLAN 5027 has long been part of the U.S. Pacific Command's inventory--initially as a plan only for the defense of the South, but since the early 1990s also laying out a follow-up invasion of the North and the toppling of the regime. Washington also has a contingency plan for taking out all known North Korean nuclear facilities--also worked up during the Clinton administration during the 1992-93 crisis. But military officials say the casualties on both sides would be enormous, even in the best case. One reason Bill Clinton decided to cut a deal, in fact, is that on May 19, 1994, Defense Secretary Bill Perry briefed the president on the likely costs of invasion: 52,000 U.S. military and 490,000 South Korean soldiers killed or wounded, and untold numbers of civilian casualties, all in the first 90 days. Perry ultimately was the one who went to Pyongyang to negotiate.

No surprise, then, that Bush has made clear he has no intention of attacking Kim. But there appears to be no easy diplomatic way out, either. Last Saturday the U.N. Security Council unanimously passed a resolution imposing sanctions, but China and Russia are still balking at anything too severe. In an interview with NEWSWEEK, the Treasury Department under secretary in charge of antiterrorism operations, Stuart Levey, said that Bush's decision to sanction the Macau-based bank that laundered money for Kim has had a ripple effect by warning other banks and businesses not to do business with North Korea or companies or financial entities linked to North Korea. The North Koreans are "looking for other access points" to the world financial system, but "they are having trouble finding new ones," he said.

The problem with Bush's approach, say his critics--who include Kim Dae Jung and many Asian diplomats--is that while he waits for regime collapse, bad things can happen. North Korea could be even more dangerous, since the removal of legitimate bank funds means Kim must resort to illicit funds instead--the kind that can come from WMD sales. And in the past six years Bush has permitted the North Korean leader to cross more U.S. "red lines"--by reprocessing spent fuel into plutonium, kicking out inspectors and declaring he has nuclear weapons--than Clinton did.

The gravest danger going forward is proliferation to like-minded regimes, especially to Iran. Despite the lack of any common goal--one regime would like to see the world turn Islamic green, the other wants things juche red--the two countries are closer to being an actual "axis" than they were when Bush launched the phrase in January 2002. And if Pyongyang is seen as getting away with its nuclear test, some Iranian officials indicate they may raise their own demands for a nuclear program. That's partly why Rice is traveling to Asia and Russia in a new diplomatic offensive this week: she will link North Korea and Iran together once again, arguing that as nuclear offenders they should be made outcasts, the new slavers of the 21st century.

For Washington, the greatest hope against Kim lies with China, which controls some 70 percent of the North's fuel supplies. U.S. officials hope that Chinese President Hu Jintao will decide he's finally had enough of his out-of-control former junior partner. Officials close to Vice President Dick Cheney are warning their Chinese counterparts that Japan could be forced to join the Nuclear Club. They are also warning that North Korea may threaten the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The fear? That Kim might resort to terror to make a point. As precedent, they cite the 1987 Korean Air disaster.

Last week, even as North Korea's apparatchiks threatened to fire off another test, its diplomats privately sent wistful messages to American counterparts imploring them to come back and talk. North Korean envoy Han Song Ryol, who was winding up a posting at his country's U.N. Mission in New York, sounded plaintive as he bid goodbye to U.S. friends. Han asked an American acquaintance who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter: "What can we do to get the Americans to talk with us?" Back came the answer: nothing. Still, Rice will tell her counterparts this week that, even after the test, Bush is open to letting the North back into negotiations.

In Bush's Oval Office sits a bronze bust of Winston Churchill, who served both in the government and at the front in the war Kaiser Wilhelm started partly out of pride in 1914. Churchill's was a long life: a veteran of the trenches, in 1955 he spoke to the House of Commons about the hydrogen bomb and arms control. He was worried, he said, about what might happen "if God wearied of mankind," but he would not give in. "Never flinch, never weary, never despair," Churchill said, and took his leave. The Nuclear Age is bleak, but an old man's words might help us see our way forward as we struggle to tame the demons.

CORRECTON: In " 'We Are a Nuclear Power' " (Oct. 23), we described a contentious encounter between Under Secretary of Defense Stephen Cambone and the then Pacific commander Adm. Dennis Blair. According to both men, the encounter described in the article did not take place.