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North Korea Warns of New Tests As Nuclear Standoff Intensifies

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North Korea has warned that increased US pressure over its reported nuclear test would be considered an act of war. We get analysis from North Korea expert and University of Chicago professor Bruce Cumings. [includes rush transcript]

North Korea has warned that increased US pressure over its reported nuclear test would be considered an act of war and that it would respond with “physical” measures. In a statement carried by the state news agency on Wednesday, the North Korean Foreign Ministry also said North Korea was “ready for both dialogue and confrontation.”

The move comes as the United Nations Security Council is due to continue debating a draft resolution of sanctions proposed by the United States. There is agreement in the Security Council–including from Russia and China–that North Korea should face punitive measures. The US wants the sanctions to be brought under Chapter Seven of the UN Charter, which means they would be mandatory and ultimately enforceable by military means. But China, Russia and South Korea have expressed varying degrees of opposition to such a resolution. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday that the US did not intend to invade or attack North Korea, but she warned the North’s leaders that they now risked sanctions “unlike anything that they have faced before.”

Meanwhile in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao outlined China’s position.

  • Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao.

China has reportedly cancelled leave for troops along part of its border with North Korea, and South Korean forces have been ordered to stay on high alert.

North Korea announced on Monday that is had carried out its first-ever nuclear test, triggering global condemnation. Japan, the United States and South Korea are still trying to verify that the test was genuine. Only Russia has said the evidence available confirms a nuclear blast actually occurred.

  • Bruce Cumings. Professor at the University of Chicago. He is the author of several books on North Korea. His latest are “North Korea: Another Country” and “Inventing the Axis of Evil.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Liu Jianchao outlined China’s position.

LIU JIANCHAO: [translated] From the perspective of China, we are firmly opposed to war as a means to resolve the nuclearization of the Korean peninsula. This is our firm position. It is known to the whole international community. And for the second question, China has been long dedicated to good neighborly and friendly relations with North Korea. We don’t need to deny that the nuclear test by North Korea has a negative impact on our relations with them, and we hope North Korea will give a positive response to the appeal of the international community and honor its commitment to denuclearization and refrain from any act that may worsen the situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Liu Jianchao. China has reportedly cancelled leave for troops along part of its border with North Korea, and South Korean forces have been ordered to stay on high alert. North Korea announced Monday that it had carried out its first ever nuclear test, triggering global condemnation. Japan, the United States and South Korea are still trying to verify that the test was genuine. Only Russia has said the evidence available confirms a nuclear blast actually occurred.

Bruce Cumings is a professor of history at the University of Chicago. He is the author of several books on North Korea, his latest North Korea: Another Country and Inventing the Axis of Evil. He joins us in the studio from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Welcome to Democracy Now!

BRUCE CUMINGS: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you start off by talking about whether you believe North Korea did set off a nuclear bomb, test a nuclear bomb?

BRUCE CUMINGS: I really don’t know. They announced in advance that they were going to conduct a nuclear test, which makes them the first nation in history to do that. All other countries have blown off a nuclear weapon — you know, we found out about it the next morning. So, I think North Korea had to be in a position of assuring themselves that some kind of explosion would take place. It could be high explosives combined with nuclear material. It might be a small plutonium bomb with about half a kiloton. We just don’t really know, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it wasn’t really, you know, the plutonium bomb that everybody’s talking about.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is the significance of this? The timing of this — were you, yourself, as an expert on Korea, were you surprised?

BRUCE CUMINGS: Well, I think people have been predicting that North Korea would make an atomic test for about 15 years now, so it isn’t surprising that they eventually went ahead with it, but I think what this represents is 15 years of failure on the part of the United States and the nonproliferation regime.

We nearly had a war in 1994, which forced the United States to negotiate directly with North Korea. We had the Framework Agreement in 1994, which froze their plutonium reactor, kept it frozen for eight years. That was a great success, but the U.S. didn’t hold up its side of the bargain to go ahead and normalize relations with North Korea, to provide light-water reactors as a substitute for the plutonium reactors, and eventually the North Koreans decided that we weren’t upholding the agreement, and they started their second enriched uranium program, thanks to A.Q. Khan from Pakistan. That was a failure.

But the worst failure has occurred in the Bush administration, where you have people inside that administration that can’t decide whether they want to overthrow North Korea or negotiate with North Korea, so they have essentially moved on two tracks with no consensus, and the President has not asserted himself to have a uniform policy. And now, after five years of this, North Korea has gone on its own to detonate a nuclear device, and we’re really back to square zero.

AMY GOODMAN: What I think is astounding for some is the enormous pressure and attention right now on Iran, that many say does not have weapons of mass destruction or a nuclear bomb, and yet North Korea clearly further along, if not having one bomb, may have a number of bombs, but the same pressure has not been applied.

BRUCE CUMINGS: It’s important to understand that North Korea is a garrison state with a million men under arms. It has another several million who have served for long periods of time in the military. It’s been sanctioned since 1950, when the Korean War began. It’s been isolated by the United States since the regime was formed in 1948. They are used to outside pressure. They’ve lived with it. And they continue to live with it. Sanctions will not make a difference with this regime. Even if China were to cut off its aid, it’s not going to fall. So we have to negotiate with it.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what’s happening right now at the United Nations?

BRUCE CUMINGS: Well, John Bolton wants to move to Chapter 7 sanctions, which would be backed up by military force eventually. And North Korea has said that would constitute an act of war. That puts us right back to where we were in 1993 and '94, when the U.S. was pushing the Security Council to do something about North Korea's plutonium program, and China and Russia resisted. They will resist any hint of military force, and so I don’t think we’re going to get Chapter 7 sanctions.

I do think, though, that Mr. Bolton represents a point of view within the administration that the U.S. may go ahead and sanction North Korea regardless of what the UN does, possibly blockading their ports and things like that, which will be dangerous. But really, as I said earlier, the only way to resolve this situation is through direct talks between the United States and North Korea.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Cumings, you just mentioned how A.Q. Khan had gotten nuclear material to North Korea. Three years ago, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh revealed that Pakistan was helping North Korea build the bomb. Hersh reported the CIA had concluded that Pakistan had shared sophisticated technology, warhead design information and weapons testing data with the Pyongyang regime. But according to Hersh, the Bush administration sat on the CIA report, because the White House didn’t want to divert the focus from Saddam Hussein, and Pakistan had become a vital ally in Bush’s war on terror.

BRUCE CUMINGS: Well, I think Seymour Hersh is right. Pakistan did have a nuclear Wal-Mart for North Korea, Iran and Libya, other countries. We did not punish Pakistan in any way for this, even though they were the worst proliferators by far in the world. And the Bush administration, when it came in, in 2000, was presented during the transition, by Clinton administration officials, with intelligence that North Korea had begun importing enriched uranium technologies from Pakistan, and they sat on it for 18 months until the preemptive doctrine was announced in September of 2002.

James Kelly then went to Pyongyang the following month, in October of '02, and confronted the North Koreans with this evidence of a second nuclear program. And the North Koreans, as they almost always do when confronted with their backs to the wall, said, “Fine, you know, we have it. We'll see you later.” And they proceeded to kick out UN inspectors that had been on the ground for eight years, removed themselves from the NPT, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and reopened their reactors. Furthermore, they got control of 8,000 fuel rods that had been encased in concrete for eight years, and that probably is the plutonium that would be at the basis of this bomb test.

So, this was a complete and utter failure, because North Korea paid no penalty for jumping out of the NPT again, getting back their reactors. And the Bush administration continued to essentially argue inside the administration about whether to topple the regime or try and negotiate with it. So it was really quite a remarkable failure, and North Korea, let alone Pakistan, neither one of them, until now, has really paid much of a price for this.

AMY GOODMAN: Yesterday, Arizona Senator John McCain gave a speech in Detroit, and he said, “I would remind Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and other critics of the Bush administration policies that the Framework Agreement of the Clinton administration was a failure.” Explain what that Framework Agreement was.

BRUCE CUMINGS: Well, it was an agreement that came after a very dire threat of war in 1994 that froze their entire plutonium facility at Yongbyon in North Korea. They had seals on the doors, closed-circuit television, and at least two UN inspectors on the ground, 24/7, all the time. So there isn’t any possibility of that agreement having failed. It held for eight years and denied North Korea the plutonium that would have allowed them to make more bombs. Senator McCain is engaged in some sort of demagoguery here, because I don’t know a single expert who would say that that Framework Agreement was not successful, at least for eight years, in keeping North Korea’s plutonium facility shutdown.

Now, the enriched uranium program is not even clearly a program for a bomb. It may be to enrich uranium for light-water reactors that were expected to have been built by the United States and its allies. But even if it is for a bomb, it’s much more difficult to enrich uranium to a weapons grade and create a uranium bomb than it is to create a plutonium bomb, plus they already have now, thanks to the Bush administration’s policies, the wherewithal for six to eight plutonium bombs, so in effect they don’t even need the other program.

People say North Korea cheated. Wow, isn’t that really terrible? Kim Jong-il cheated. I don’t know anyone who thinks that Kim Jong-il is a person who can be trusted, but I do know that North Korea kept that agreement made in 1994 and the U.S. did not. We pledged ourselves to normalize relations with North Korea. We didn’t do that. We pledged ourselves to build light-water reactors. They got started in 2002. So when you actually look at that agreement between country X and country Y, rather than the endlessly demonized North Korean regime, you see that we are responsible, as well as the North Koreans, for the current situation.

But as far as Senator McCain is concerned, he is just flat wrong. It’s not a partisan question. It’s a question of knowing what that agreement was and whether it was carried out or not.

AMY GOODMAN: Bruce Cumings, right now the North Korean government, Kim Jong-il, is saying that if even sanctions, further sanctions are imposed, they would consider it an act of war. Can you tell us who Kim Jong-il is? And what do you make of that?

BRUCE CUMINGS: Well, Kim Jong-il, of course, is the son of Kim Il-sung. He’s 64 years old. He was brought up alongside his father, from the Korean War onward, to be the successor to his father, in a very sort of Korean traditional manner. When you look at South Korean conglomerate firms, like Hyundai, they do the same thing. The eldest son succeeds the father. Now, this may not be communism, but it may be some form of feudalism, but it’s very Korean. And Kim Jong-il certainly doesn’t have the charisma of his father, but he’s very smart, he’s well informed, and he’s been at the center of power since about 1970. We’re talking 35 years.

So, he is a formidable individual, but much more than that, he is backed by a phalanx of hundreds and hundreds of leaders at the top of that regime that worked with Kim Il-sung. About six years ago, the top 40 leaders, of the top 40 leaders only one was under 60 years old, and that happened to be Kim Jong-il. So you have a kind of a geriatric leadership with children of the leaders in their 40s and 50s and 60s running the place. And they are not going to bend to the United States or collapse or a change just because we want them to.

I must say that every time I turn on CNN, which I like as a channel, what do I see? A story on North Korea and goose-stepping soldiers come into view, and the goose-stepping soldiers stay there, as if this is a Nazi regime. The goosestep was done by almost all the communist regimes. It predates Hitler. It’s not very edifying. But it is the case that we live in a democratic society where an attempt to get some sort of nuanced view of North Korea is almost impossible. You have to search for it in the fine print of our very best newspapers.

So I think it’s — let me just say that we have to know our enemy. If this is our enemy, we have to know it. And people in Washington have constantly underestimated, mischaracterized Kim Jong-il and the North Korean regime, and we’re paying the price for it. These people wanted normalized relations with us. After 60 years, since we divided Korea in 1945, it seems to me that talking to them and normalizing relations is the only way to solve this problem. And what’s so terrible about having an embassy in Pyongyang? We have embassies all over the world with countries we don’t like.

AMY GOODMAN: Bruce Cummings, I want to thank you very much for joining us, professor at the University of Chicago, joining us from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor today. Among his books, North Korea: Another Country and Inventing the Axis of Evil.

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