While U.S. forces scour Iraq for weapons of mass destruction, and as the fate of Saddam Hussein remains unknown, thousands of miles away the U.S. faces another dictator, North Korea's strange and reclusive leader, Kim Jong Il, and another -- potentially more serious -- crisis.
In "Kim's Nuclear Gamble," FRONTLINE traces the delicate maneuvers and clumsy turns that have brought the world to the brink of a nuclear showdown in East Asia. Through interviews with key insiders -- including former cabinet secretaries, U.S. ambassadors, diplomats, and negotiators -- the one-hour documentary examines the highly unstable
relationship between America and North Korea and the question of what to
do about North Korea's determination to develop nuclear
For 10 years, threats, deceptions, and
diplomatic ploys have shaped U.S. relations with the isolated "Hermit Kingdom." Complicating relations between the two nations, analysts say, is a
fundamental lack of knowledge about one of
the world's most isolated countries. A highly militaristic communist
nation, North Korea has been teetering on the verge of economic collapse for much of
the last decade -- a period during which aid officials estimate that up
to 2 million North Koreans died from famine and starvation.
Such dire economic circumstances contribute, observers say, to North
Korea's fear and suspicion of free-market superpowers like the United
States and to its desire to arm itself with a nuclear arsenal. Furthermore,
the economic situation has led Pyongyang to rely more and more on one of
its only sources of hard currency -- the export of ballistic
missiles -- a proposition that greatly alarms the Bush
administration in the post-Sept. 11 era.
"Kim's Nuclear Gamble" traces the highs, lows, and crisis points
during the past decade of U.S.-North Korean relations, beginning with
Pyongyang's announcement in 1994 that it planned to reprocess fuel from
its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon -- a move that would have given North Korea enough
plutonium to make five to six nuclear bombs.
"We were willing to risk war," former U.S. Secretary of Defense
William Perry tells FRONTLINE. "We seriously considered solving
the problem directly by simply striking the reactor and processor at
Following the intervention of former President Jimmy Carter,
however, negotiations resumed and ultimately resulted in a deal that
became known as the Agreed Framework. North Korea pledged to shut
down its nuclear reactor, and in return, the United States promised to
pay for and deliver 500,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil each year
until the construction of two light-water
reactors -- designed to make proliferation more difficult -- was complete.
However, former U.S. officials concede that while North Korea
fulfilled its promise to properly shut down the reactor, the United
States showed less enthusiasm for fulfilling its half of the agreement.
Late shipments of the promised oil and slow construction on the
light-water reactors, they say, angered the North Koreans. "In my
judgment, the [Clinton] administration was not prepared to expend very
much political capital on behalf of implementation of the Agreed
Framework," says Stephen Bosworth, former U.S. Ambassador to
While tensions over compliance with the Agreed Framework mounted
between the U.S. and North Korea, Pyongyang's relations with South Korea
took an upswing. South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, who won the Nobel
Peace Prize in 2000, instituted what became known as the "Sunshine
Policy," which advocated openness and engagement between the two
countries. Lim Dong Won, the architect of the Sunshine Policy,
tells FRONTLINE, "We want[ed] to induce change in the North. That is the
way to build confidence."
However, in 1998, North Korea tested the world's confidence when it
fired a three-stage ballistic missile -- capable of reaching Alaska -- over the Sea of Japan. The third stage failed, but the test sent a message. "Kim's Nuclear Gamble" follows the Clinton administration's attempts to renew
negotiations with North Korea in the wake of the missile test -- which
included a historic visit to Pyongyang by former Secretary of State
The 2001 presidential transition had a dramatic impact on U.S.-North
Korean relations. FRONTLINE speaks with numerous former government
officials who describe a sharp decline in U.S. relations with both North
and South Korea under George W. Bush -- a deterioration that got even
worse, they say, after Sept. 11 and Bush's "axis of evil" speech.
Donald Gregg, a longtime CIA official and former
ambassador to South Korea, for example, tells FRONTLINE that the current
Bush administration "has never had a [North Korea] policy. It's had an
attitude -- hostility. By threatening them, by calling them a terrorist
state we make it much harder for them to become a normal nation."
Current U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Thomas Hubbard calls
Gregg's statement an "exaggeration." "The clear policy of our
government is that we find nuclear weapons in North Korea to be
unacceptable and intolerable," he says. "Nobody wants nuclear weapons
in North Korea."
At issue, analysts say, is the Bush administration's insistence that
any negotiations with North Korea also involve Russia, China, South
Korea and other nations -- a condition that the White House hopes would
prevent North Korea from "blackmailing" the United States with threats
to produce -- and use -- nuclear weapons.
"I think that's one of our concerns," Hubbard concedes, "that it
might be tactically attractive for the North Koreans to try to isolate
us in a bilateral negotiation. But that's not necessarily in the best
interest of the United States. We think a multilateral approach would
be much better."
Critics contend, however, that forestalling a dialogue with North
Korea any longer could have dire consequences for America and the
"Day after day, the North Koreans turn up the heat another notch,"
says Robert Gallucci, President Clinton's top adviser on North
Korea and the chief negotiator of the 1994 Agreed Framework. "If we
don't talk to these rogue regimes and feel good about that, people may
Hubbard says the Bush administration is more optimistic. "We believe
that this is a problem that can be solved," he says. "We don't have a
precise formula for that yet -- but we do believe it is still
Meanwhile, although the Bush administration refuses to designate the
conflict a "crisis," the clock is ticking.
"What North Korea is doing now with the nuclear weapon program is not
only [a] crisis, it's a serious crisis," Perry says. "We have months,
not years, to resolve this problem before it reaches the point of no