Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis

Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis

by Mike Chinoy

Hardcover(First Edition)

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Advance Praise for Meltdown

"It's easy to demonize the North Koreans, not quite as easy to dismiss them; although the Bush administration has tried to do both. Mike Chinoy brilliantly and painstakingly reconstructs the faltering and dangerous dynamic by which Washington and Pyonyang misread one another's intentions. It's a path that could well lead to nuclear catastrophe and a story that's been told here with unblinking clarity."—Ted Koppel

“Mike Chinoy’s superbly written book tells the tragic story of how Washington’s unwillingness to engage in serious diplomacy with Pyongyang contributed to a new nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula, alienating our South Korean allies in the process. He goes on to document the dramatic reversal of course that has seen the Bush administration drop its failed policy aimed at isolating and confronting North Korea, adopting instead a creative approach that, if North Korea acts wisely and rationally, could finally end the nuclear crisis, bring North Korea into the community of nations, and improve the lives of the North Korean people. This book, and the blunt, no-holds-barred comments it contains from many of the key protagonists of this period, is not to be missed.”—Evans Revere, president, The Korea Society

“The explosion of a nuclear warhead by North Korea in October 2006 was the single greatest failure in a decades-long effort to contain the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Mike Chinoy's Meltdown tells the tale of the tortured path that led to that failure, and the ongoing attempt to contain the fallout, with an authority and a wealth of insider detail that is unmatched. Meltdown is a diplomatic history that reads like a spy novel. It takes us inside the Washington wars that crippled the Bush administration's North Korea policy, and offers fresh insights into the view from Pyongyang, as well as from Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo. Meltdown will be the gold standard for reporting on the North Korean nuclear crisis for years to come."—Daniel Sneider, Associate Director for Research, Shorenstein Asia–Pacific Research Center, Stanford University

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312371531
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 08/05/2008
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 432
Product dimensions: 6.60(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Mike Chinoy is the Edgerton Senior Fellow on Asia at the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles. Until 2006, he was a foreign correspondent for CNN, largely in Asia, and made numerous visits to North Korea over the course of nearly two decades.

Read an Excerpt


The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis

By Mike Chinoy

St. Martin's Griffin

Copyright © 2009 Mike Chinoy
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-3023-9



On the evening of October 12, 2000, I stood in the vast Mayday Stadium in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, watching an impassioned crowd of more than 100,000 declare their allegiance to the world's most bizarre and enigmatic leader, Kim Jong Il. On one side of the stadium hung the image of two giant red flowers, representing the "Kimjongilia," a hybrid begonia created by an admiring botanist to honor the man the North Koreans called the "Dear Leader." The stadium floor was packed with thousands of people—marching bands featuring cheerleaders in short skirts and white calf-length boots who would not have been out of place at a Dallas Cowboys halftime show, acrobats fired from cannons, gymnasts dressed in army uniforms, and rows and rows of young men and women waving banners in what seemed like an endless North Korean version of the Mexican wave. In the stands behind them, 35,000 people were flipping colored cards with extraordinary precision, creating images of patriotic heroism, economic achievement, and military triumph aimed at stoking the ardor of the already frenzied throng.

Moments later, with fireworks illuminating the chilly autumn sky, Kim Jong Il entered the VIP area just fifty yards from where I watched with a CNN camera crew and two North Korean government minders. Short, pudgy, wearing his traditional boilersuit, surrounded by other senior officials, the Dear Leader walked confidently with what seemed to be a satisfied smirk on his face, waving somewhat mechanically to the masses below. Children presented him with bunches of flowers as the card flippers spelled out "Highest Glory to the Great Leader Comrade Kim Jong Il" and a band blared out "The Song of General Kim Jong Il." "Without you, there is no country," the crowd sang in unison. "Without you there is no us."

The son of Kim Il Sung, the dictator who had started the Korean War and ruled North Korea for almost fifty years until his death in 1994, the younger Kim was a figure of mystery. Long mocked in the West for his bouffant hairdo and platform shoes, taste for fast cars and Hollywood movies (his personal film collection was said to number 20,000), Kim and his late father were the object of a personality cult that they had spent decades cultivating. In many respects, they had turned North Korea into a secretive and militant quasi-religious sect, a society nominally Communist but devoted primarily to worshipping the father, known as the Great Leader, and the Dear Leader who succeeded him. Statues and giant portraits of the two men dominated the North Korean landscape, including a giant bronze replica of the elder Kim, arm outstretched, which still towers over the skyline of Pyongyang. The country's 22 million citizens all wore small lapel pins bearing the likeness of one or both Kims. The state-run media described Kim Il Sung as a "peerless patriot" and "iron-willed commander," and the son as a "great revolutionary, a great statesman and a great people's father."

This was not my first glimpse of the Dear Leader. I had been to similar events before; in fact, this was my twelfth trip to North Korea in eleven years. This unusual access was in large part an accident. My first trip had come in July 1989, when I was CNN's bureau chief in Beijing. The government in Pyongyang invited a small group of China-based Western reporters to cover the activities of a young South Korean student who had defied her country's laws to travel to the then-forbidden North. Like almost all visitors, I had been both astounded and appalled by the regimentation and brainwashing of the North Korean cult of personality. I also had the feeling that what we were allowed to see amounted to little more than a series of Potemkin villages. Pyongyang, a surprisingly attractive city with manicured parks, vast boulevards, and tall buildings, appeared almost empty. I saw virtually no shops, restaurants, or advertisements, and apart form our official convoy of Mercedes-Benzes, virtually no vehicles.

Three years later, in April 1992, the North Koreans invited the Rev. Billy Graham to visit and agreed to let him bring one American news organization of his choice to cover the trip. He picked CNN. We flew into Pyongyang on a shuddery Russian-built Air Koryo TU-134 that was specially sent to Beijing to fetch Graham and his party.

Since my first visit, the world had changed profoundly: the Berlin Wall had fallen; the Soviet Union and the rest of North Korea's allies in the socialist worldhad collapsed; and Kim Il Sung's Cold War peers, such as Erich Honecker of East Germany, and Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu, had been toppled (in Ceausescu's case, murdered, along with his wife). The Warsaw Pact no longer existed, and both Moscow and Beijing had opened diplomatic relations with North Korea's longtime rival, South Korea. China, which had saved North Korea from defeat in the Korean War and remained its closest friend, had embraced market-style economic reforms.

In addition, the U.S. military's rapid triumph over Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War highlighted America's high-tech military prowess and the corresponding weakness of North Korea's armed forces, with their outdated Soviet-designed weapons and equipment. More isolated than ever, the regime in Pyongyang was increasingly anxious about its ability to survive in the post–Cold War world. Kim Il Sung's concerns were heightened by growing evidence of internal economic decline. There were reports of growing shortages of food and fuel, and of factories standing idle. The North Korean press had recently issued a call for all citizens to limit themselves to two meals a day.

A number of consequences flowed from this dramatically changed strategic situation. Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il apparently reached the conclusion that only an accommodation with the world's sole superpower, the United States, could ensure the continued viability of the regime. But such an accommodation had to be based on a projection of strength, not weakness. The result, which became clearer in the coming years, was a dual-track strategy. Its central elements: seeking to establish a long-term strategic relationship with the United States while building up an arsenal of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, to use either as a deterrent or in self-defense, if necessary, or to trade away—if relations fundamentally improved and the price was right.

On the third day of Graham's visit, after he had been allowed to preach at the capital's only Protestant church (I had wondered whether the entire congregation had been assembled just for his benefit), the evangelist received a summons to meet the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung. My cameraman and I drove with Graham to a lavish residence in the countryside outside Pyongyang, where I was allowed to shake Kim's hand, show him pictures of my family, and have a photograph taken with him. During their meeting, Graham conveyed an oral message to Kim from President George H. W. Bush. In the presence of our cameras, Kim said, "We are having sunny spring weather today. I hope this means a spring will come in relations between my country and the U.S." It was a theme other North Korean officials returned to repeatedly during my stay.

The Great Leader was an imposing figure: stocky, broad-shouldered, with a deep voice and a pronounced potbelly. He also had an enormous lump the size of an orange on the right-hand side of his neck, reportedly a benign tumor that Kim chose not to have removed. His aides and courtiers were clearly both in awe and fear of him. Even the North Korean photographers bowed obsequiously when Kim entered the room, before they turned on their antiquated film cameras—a sharp contrast to the state-of-the-art Sony video camera used by my CNN shooter—to record the handshake with Graham.

Observing Kim, I struggled to understand the dynamics of the society he ruled. In an earlier book, I made the following observations, which, many years later, still make sense to me.

I came to realize it was not productive to view North Korea as merely just another, slightly more eccentric communist state. The best analogy seemed to be a religious camp grafted onto a very conservative, inward-looking society steeped in Confucian tradition, where the purpose of life was to glorify the reigning deity, namely the Great Leader.

I also noted some "striking parallels—not with the substance but with the trappings—to primitive Christianity. Kim's birthplace resembled the nativity scene, to the point that members of Graham's entourage jokingly called it Bethlehem. There was a father (Kim Il Sung), a son (Kim Jong Il), and a holy ideology (juche, or self-reliance). People displayed their faith by wearing not crucifixes, but the ubiquitous Kim Il Sung buttons. And, as in medieval societies, heretics were condemned to terrible punishments."

Kim's persona as an all-powerful leader, the often inflammatory rhetoric in North Korean propaganda, and the regime's state of permanent political and military mobilization produced the overwhelming sensation of a society and leadership that felt under perpetual siege, struggling to survive in an increasingly inhospitable world. From the outside, North Korea appeared menacing and bellicose. Inside, its truculent posture appeared defensive rather than offensive in nature.

Two years after Graham's visit, on April 16, 1994, I met Kim Il Sung again. Since my last encounter, tensions had risen dramatically because of North Korea's nuclear program. The shadow of nuclear weapons had hung over the Korean peninsula since the Korean War, when the United States threatened to use its nuclear arsenal to bring the conflict to a rapid and victorious conclusion. Kim Il Sung's interest in acquiring his own bomb is widely believed to date from this time. In the late 1950s, a nuclear research complex was established at Yongbyon north of Pyongyang, and by the mid-1980s, a five-megawatt reactor was in full operation. Although Pyongyang signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1992 had uncovered discrepancies in data provided by the North Koreans. The questionable data raised suspicions that the North had produced, and was concealing, weapons-grade plutonium from fuel previously extracted from the reactor at Yongbyon. The IAEA demanded special inspections.

In response, in early 1993, the North announced plans to withdraw from the NPT. Following this threat, Pyongyang had test-fired a Rodong-1 missile, potentially capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, into the Sea of Japan; limited the access of IAEA inspectors; and threatened to remove more spent fuel rods from Yongbyon and reprocess them into weapons-grade plutonium. The Clinton administration, fearing that the North was on the brink of expanding its nuclear capability, threatened to bring a sanctions resolution to the United Nations. Pyongyang declared that it would regard such a step as an "act of war."

In a meeting at the Demilitarized Zone in March 1994, a North Korean official warned that if conflict broke out, the North would turn Seoul into "a sea of fire."

With my coverage of Billy Graham's visit having apparently impressed the North Koreans with CNN's global reach, I was invited to bring a CNN team to Pyongyang to cover a visit by a small group of foreign dignitaries participating in celebrations to mark Kim Il Sung's eighty-second birthday on April 15. The following morning, we spent two and a half hours with the Great Leader at the lavish marble-clad Kumsusan Palace on the outskirts of the capital. Kim appeared confident, relaxed, and in robust health. Over a lunch of roast goose and quail egg soup, he went out of his way to emphasize his desire for a peaceful resolution of the nuclear crisis.

"The world is now calling on our country to show nuclear weapons we don't have," Kim said emphatically. "I have had just about enough. What's the use to have them? We don't want war ... We have done a lot of construction in our country and we don't want to destroy it. Those who want war are out of their minds."

I interpreted Kim's statement as a signal that he wanted to negotiate a way out of the looming crisis. Yet, for reasons of national pride and negotiating leverage, Pyongyang followed Kim's statement with another signature act of brinksmanship, unloading nearly 8,000 spent fuel rods from the reactor at Yongbyon. During the process, according to nuclear proliferation experts, the North refused "to allow the IAEA to record the location of the individual fuel rods in the core, thus destroying one of the key technical means for measuring the operational history of the reactor and determining total plutonium production." The result was to make the task of determining whether Pyongyang had already produced more weapons-grade plutonium much more difficult, if not impossible. Moreover, if the fuel rods were processed, experts said North Korea would be able to build five or six new nuclear weapons.

The prospect that North Korea—impoverished, isolated, anxious about its own survival, and with a long track record of selling missiles and military technology to nations hostile to the United States—might soon possess a half-dozen nuclear weapons set off alarm bells in Washington. As spring moved toward summer in 1994, the Clinton administration began serious preparations for a military option. Plans were drawn up for the evacuation of American civilians from South Korea and for a preemptive air strike to destroy the Yongbyon nuclear facility with precision-guided bombs. U.S. commanders were convinced that North Korea would respond to such a strike by attacking South Korea. In a country long victimized by its larger, more powerful neighbors, now organized under a system whose guiding ideology, devised by Kim Il Sung, juche —loosely translated as "self-reliance"—there was no way that Kim would bow to external pressure, especially from the hated Americans. The U.S. military calculated that a full-scale war would kill as many as one million people, including nearly 100,000 Americans residing in South Korea.

Alarmed at what seemed to be an inexorable slide toward disaster, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter decided to intervene, traveling to Pyongyang in mid-June for talks with Kim Il Sung. The report I had broadcast on CNN of my meeting with Kim in April had impressed North Korean authorities with the network's global reach. At the last minute, I received permission to travel with Carter, and was the only journalist allowed by the North Koreans to accompany him. In an atmosphere of extreme tension, I followed the former president on the almost deserted four-lane highway from the DMZ to Pyongyang and watched as he met Kim Il Sung at the palace, where I'd enjoyed lunch with the Great Leader two months before. At Kim's side was Deputy Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju, a tough, plain-spoken veteran of earlier diplomatic encounters with the United States. Given North Korea's preoccupation with "dignity," the presence of such a distinguished foreign visitor provided an opportunity for Kim Il Sung to compromise without appearing to lose face. On June 16, Carter brokered the outlines of a deal, under which the North Korean leader agreed to freeze his nuclear program in return for an end to the U.S. push for sanctions and the resumption of talks with Washington. The former president announced the breakthrough in a live interview on CNN as senior Clinton administration officials were finalizing their war plans; they halted their meeting to gather around a TV set in the White House to hear Carter's news.

A dangerous confrontation had been averted. North Korean officials were so relieved they took Carter for a cruise on Kim Il Sung's luxurious yacht and gave me and my CNN colleagues the most precious possible gift—our very own Kim Il Sung buttons.

Four months later, in Geneva on October 21, 1994, after intensive and difficult negotiations, Assistant Secretary of State Robert Gallucci and Kang Sok Ju signed a three-page document called the Agreed Framework. The talks had been complicated by Kim Il Sung's sudden death from a heart attack in July and uncertainties surrounding the succession of Kim Jong Il. But the North appeared politically stable, and Kim was apparently eager to build on the commitments his father made to Jimmy Carter.


Excerpted from Meltdown by Mike Chinoy. Copyright © 2009 Mike Chinoy. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Griffin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments     xi
Cast of Characters     xv
Preface     xix
"Without You There Is No Us"     1
So Close...     21
Regime Change     43
"Axis of Evil"     65
The "Scrub"     81
High-Level Meetings     103
The Four-Letter Word     127
Meltdown     142
War Games     158
"Read My Statement"     175
"We Don't Negotiate with Evil. We Defeat It."     194
"Some Good, Some Bad, Some Ugly"     212
"We Have Manufactured Nukes"     225
The September 19 Declaration     241
Illicit Activities     252
Going Ballistic     274
The Bomb     292
"How Are We Going to Get Out of This?"     305
"We Are All Waiting for You"     322
"Dear Mr. Chairman"     340
Postscript     363
A Note on Sources     367
Notes     371
Select Bibliography     389
Index     391

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