kim's nuclear gamble

the baffling 'hermit kingdom'

In excerpts from their interviews with FRONTLINE, Jimmy Carter, Stephen Bosworth, William Perry, Thomas Hubbard, Ashton Carter, Donald Gregg, and Madeleine Albright offer some thoughts on North Korea's belligerent rhetoric and unpredictable behavior.

who are they?
photo of bosworth

Stephen Bosworth
U.S. Ambassador to South Korea (1997-2000)

You've talked about the North Koreans as being somewhat rational. There are many people who would say that's a big mistake.

read the full interview

Well, they're not crazy. I mean, these are human beings. They have the same basic instincts that you and I have. They want to survive. They live within a construct that is very different from ours. They've been living in this black cave for the last 50-odd years, so that, what they see of the world outside is a little bit like what Plato's people saw of the world outside the cave. But they're not crazy. Within their context, they operate in a rational fashion.

They basically have ceased to function as a national economy. They have very little left, in terms of instruments of national power. Basically, all they have is their military. The only way they can get our attention -- and they think they need our attention -- is to rattle their military and pull our chain. And they will continue to do that, until they get what they think they need. They think that they need our attention, in order to relieve them of what they consider to be this awesome threat from the United States. So, they want desperately to get our attention.

photo of Carter

Jimmy Carter
U.S. President (1977-1981)

read the full interview

I think it's hard for some people to understand, in fact including me, how fearful North Korea is that they will be attacked by the United States.

Can you talk about how Kim Il Sung relayed that sense to you of his own fearfulness about the U.S.? [Editor's Note: Carter traveled to Pyongyang during the 1994 nuclear crisis.]

Well, his fearfulness about the United States was not nearly so clear to me as the present fear is in North Korea, and that's what I really meant. But my opinion then was that North Korea couldn't accept the condemnation of their country and the embarrassment of their leader and that they would respond.

And I think this small and self-sacrificial country and the deep religious commitments that you had, in effect, to their revered leader, their Great Leader as they called him, meant that they were willing to make any sacrifice of massive deaths in North Korea in order to preserve their integrity and their honor, which would have been a horrible debacle in my opinion.

I don't think they feared that the United States was going to attack, except they did think that there might be a precision strike against their nuclear capability, against their one tiny site, which is a very small nuclear reactor. I think there were 8,000 fuel rods there being maintained. But they had withdrawn the inspectors, which I helped get them to put back in immediately. So that was the military tactic that they were fearing then.

I think now, though, this country is still isolated, it's still paranoid. It's still willing to make incredible sacrifices for their so-called honor. And I think they now feel that they might very well be attacked.

photo of perry

william perry
U.S. Sec'y of Defense (1994-1997); U.S. Special Envoy to North Korea (1999)

read the full interview

The number one objective of the North Korean government is to ensure the survival of their regime. There are some people in North Korea that argue that in order to do that they have to change their economy in fundamental ways. And those people have had some success in trying to drive North Korea in that direction.

But the preponderant view is that in order to ensure the survival of the regime, a strong preponderant view, is that they need to have a strong military. The North Korean military understands quite clearly that they cannot compete with the United States military. They have learned the lessons of Desert Storm very, very well. And therefore, they argue that they need nuclear weapons as an offset to our preponderant conventional military capability. And those people in the North Korean military have had a very heavy say in the North Korean government, and I think a very heavy influence in Kim Jong Il's decisions.

photo of gregg

donald gregg
Former National Security Adviser to Vice President George Bush (1982-89), former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea (1989-93)

What do the North Koreans want?

read the full interview

I think the regime in North Korea wants to survive. I think a coterie around Kim Jong Il has a plan or a hope for North Korea becoming a more normal country, perhaps making widgets instead of missiles, perhaps taking part in the economic integration of northeast Asia.

I think he is in thrall to the North Korean military, who feels threatened by a process of openness, which may endanger their preferred status. So the more they feel threatened by us, the more demands they place upon Kim Jong Il.

What do we know about North Korea? You've made some statements about your experience there as a CIA officer in the embassy in the '80s.

Well, I refer to North Korea as the longest-running intelligence failure in the history of U.S. espionage.


They were very difficult to recruit. I think the reason being that they came from a country that had a tradition of being the "hermit kingdom," trying to shut out the incursions of foreigners. They came from a Confucian tradition. Very tight family structure.

And then there was the overlay of self-reliance and the overlay of the particularly virulent kind of Marxism which had been adopted in the North. They were just extremely difficult to get at. And then if you did get one to agree to help, it was almost impossible to do anything with him once he returned to North Korea. It's just always been an extraordinarily difficult nut to crack. I think our intelligence is better now. We certainly have much better satellite coverage ... and we fly U2's and so forth. But we still are not able to get inside their heads.

You made an observation to me when we first spoke on the phone about the demonization of Kim, the damage that that does, and that you had remembered that we had done that in history.

Right, with Ho Chi Minh. Yes. I think when we have an antagonist whom we don't understand, we have a very dangerous tendency to fill our gaps of ignorance with prejudice. We did that with Ho Chi Minh and we are doing that with Kim Jong Il -- a perfect example being a cover story on Newsweek calling him "Dr. Evil." ...

Well they could spend less on a nuclear weapons program, and more on feeding their people.

That's correct. I think the reason they don't is what I said at the beginning -- that the military feels threatened by a process of openness, and lays the demands on for a continuation of the very generous resource allocation to them.

Some people are going to listen to this, and say, "You know, Donald Gregg, conservative, former CIA, national security adviser to George Herbert Walker Bush -- where did you become a dove on North Korea? Where did you begin apologizing for the North Koreans?"

I don't [think] I am apologizing for North Korea. I think nothing I've done in the 25 years since I retired from CIA is so reminiscent to me of my CIA work. I always saw intelligence work as an attempt to cut behind appearance to reality, and I always felt that if you were going to be effective in dealing with a problem, you had to know what actually was going on, not what appeared to be going on.

Yes, there are people starving in North Korea. Yes, there is a misallocation of resources. But there is a group in North Korea that has a hope that North Korea can do better by establishing better relations with their neighbors, by, as I said, building widgets instead of nuclear weapons. I think that that plan ought to be encouraged, and by threatening them, by calling them a terrorist state, by calling them the other things that this administration has called them -- the axis of evil, pygmy, etc.

[By doing that] we make it much harder for them to change the allocation of resources. We make it much harder for them to become a normal nation. They are very proud people. They have said to me, and they have said to others, "Do not confuse us with Iraq. You're not going to be able to do to us what you probably are going to try to do to Iraq."

photo of albright

madeline albright
U.S. Secretary of State (1996-2000)

In October of 2000, you go to Pyongyang to try to get them to put away their missile program, to stop making their long-range missiles. What is Kim Jong Il up to, in your opinion?

read the full interview

Well, I think at that stage he wanted very much to have a relationship with the United States. The purpose, I think, generally, of his policy was to get some recognition from the United States that North Korea existed, that we should have diplomatic relations. So he was really quite open, in discussions that we had, in terms of limiting his missile program, and it was very evident that what he wanted to do was to be involved in a negotiation, which would lead to a meeting with President Clinton that would result in a better relationship.

If he's willing to give away his missile program, why does he embark on that in the first place?

Well, I think that the whole issue probably goes back to the end of the Cold War, where he had lived under the patronage and with the support of the Soviet Union and China. Then, all of a sudden, the Soviet Union, his major patron, disintegrates and the question is what is the status of North Korea itself in the world, which explains, I think, a lot of what happened from '93, '94 on.

What I think he wanted to do was to establish himself as a leader on the world stage, and the only way he could do it was by developing various aspects of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, and to have some kind of missile projection, because that's their only cash crop.

It is an economy that doesn't work, but they do manage somehow to figure out how to build various high-tech missile components.

Is Kim Jong Il delusional?

I don't think he's delusional. For me, the situation was that here is a person who is isolated, but not uninformed, who has operated in his own system where he is deified and, at the same time, wants to be in the outside world where nobody will pay any attention to him. So I can't imagine what it is like to be raised in a society where their only statues that exist are to you and your father.

I would imagine this is one of the stranger visits you've experienced to another country as a negotiator, as a Cabinet member.

Yes. I mean, I had spent my life as an academic studying communist systems and had been to many communist countries and, actually, in various periods, as a private citizen, met with communist officials. So it isn't as if I'd never seen a communist country.

But this was the most totalitarian city I had ever seen in terms of huge buildings, very wide boulevards, all designed to make the individual feel like an ant, and then basically all of these statues or monuments to the Great Leader and the Dear Leader, of the father and son, and then the fact that it was pretty much an empty city.

When we came in with our motorcade, I've been in many motorcades, and usually people wave or are surprised to see such a long line of cars, [but] nobody paid any attention to us, as if they had motorcades all the time.

Obviously, we saw only what they wanted us to see, but it's evident that there were apartment buildings that had no electricity in them beyond the lower-level floors, and pretty dingy in that regard. But his own guest houses and the things that we were taken to were very ornate.

photo of acarter

ashton carter
Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy (1993-1996)

read the full interview

Remember, the North Koreans have a very heated rhetoric, and a very heated way of talking to foreigners, including Americans. They talk about how they're going to turn Seoul into a sea of fire. They're going to turn Tokyo into a sea of fire. They'll ask you, "Where are you from?" And when you tell them where you're from, they'll say, "Well, we're going to turn that into a sea of fire."

They asked you where you were from?

They asked Bill Perry where he was from. Well, he's from San Francisco, and they [said], "Well, we can turn San Francisco into a sea of fire." They have a level of rhetoric that takes your breath away.

I remember when in 1994 we were dealing with North Korea, the intelligence experts would come in, and they would say, "Well, that's a very interesting statement by the North Koreans. It's rather conciliatory." And I'd say, "How can you tell that's conciliatory?" And they would say, in effect, "Well, you know, it doesn't say anything about your mother." In North Korean terms, that's conciliatory.

So, it's a whole level of paranoia, overheated rhetoric, which is the results of three generations of Stalinist indoctrination. There's no question that it's a very strange place. It is heartbreaking, what the situation of children and old people is in North Korea, and therefore, one has to realize that you're dealing with about the most dangerous situation you can imagine -- of isolated, repressive government and a people that has suffered in unimaginable ways.

You've seen that first hand? That suffering?

No. Of course, when you visit there as an American, you're in Pyongyang. Pyongyang is a model city, and so, they're not showing you the places where there's truly suffering. But I've talked to humanitarian aid workers who have seen the real North Korea, which I never saw. There's a generation of children there who are not just physically stunted, but in all likelihood, we understand, neurologically stunted because they didn't get enough food when they were young. So, it really is a heartbreaking situation. Now on top of that situation, you have a headlong run to nuclear weapons, and you've got about the strangest and most dangerous situation you can imagine.

photo of hubbard

Thomas hubbard
U.S. Ambassador to South Korea (2001-present)

... Give me some sense of what it's like to negotiate with the North Koreans.

read the full interview

Well, of course, North Korea is a very isolated place, a very different place. The regime follows a philosophy that is totally different from ours. Often with North Koreans, and I think that remains true today, you have to try to read beyond the rhetoric -- the rhetoric is always very strong -- try to get beyond that to try to figure out what they're actually saying.

There are some able negotiators in North Korea. The group of people that we dealt with were mainly competent diplomats, obviously following instructions that were very hard for us to understand and representing positions that were very hard to deal with. But they were able to conduct a professional negotiation.

So they're not crazy? They act rationally?

They act, I think, according to a philosophy and an approach that makes sense under their system. Whether that is rational? It's simply not rational, for example, for any regime in the world, like the North Korean regime, to pursue nuclear weapons, other dangerous weapons while failing to provide food for their people. That's not a rational approach to national life. But within that philosophy they follow a course that makes sense in their terms.



home : introduction : analyses : the north koreans : chronology : nuclear capabilities
interviews : readings & links : discussion : producer's chat
teacher's guide : tapes & transcripts : press reaction : credits : privacy policy
FRONTLINE : wgbh : pbsi

photograph copyright © afp/corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation