Like most Yale students, the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il spends a lot of time surfing the net. In fact, Kim keeps three computers around, as well as stacks of Hollywood movies, bottles of Scotch whisky and a fleet of burgundy Mercedes Benz, according to Law School Dean Harold Koh, who visited North Korea as a diplomat in former President Bill Clinton’s administration.
In response to North Korea’s recent nuclear test on Oct. 9, Koh — who has three years of experience in the State Department and a three-day visit in North Korea under his belt — said the United States needs to find a compromise with North Korea, tone down its rhetoric and keep China and South Korea on its side. Other Yale professors who study international relations agreed that the nuclear test represents a major paradigm shift in the region and could lead to further escalations if diplomatic talks are not resumed soon.
Although negotiations between the United States and North Korea have deteriorated significantly in the past few years, there was more contact between the two governments under the Clinton administration, culminating in a visit by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to North Korea in November 2000. Koh said the Bush administration’s shift to a more confrontational attitude toward North Korea has not been effective in changing the regime’s attitudes.
“The policy has been a very bizarre blend of harsh talk and relatively little action,” Koh said.
Koh, at the time a U.S. assistant secretary of state, accompanied Albright on the official diplomatic mission to Pyongyang for talks with Kim. Koh, along with more than a dozen American diplomats, spent the trip in extensive meetings with Kim as well as on tours of Pyongyang. He said what he saw was reminiscent of the authoritarian state portrayed in George Orwell’s novel “1984.” While much of North Korea still lacks basic infrastructure, Kim lives in quite comfortable conditions in his presidential palace, Koh said.
At their meetings, Kim dominated the talks and had little consultation with advisers, Koh said.
“Kim Jong Il is a very strange man, but he is very intelligent,” he said. “Hhe is ready to talk, so what you want to do is negotiate with incentives.”
On the flight back from their trip, Koh said he remembers asking the State Department’s nuclear expert if North Korea had nuclear weapons. The expert told him he thought they had the capacity to develop six of them to target capitals of neighboring countries and to keep one to sell, Koh said.
The nuclear test shows that the North Koreans must have at least seven or eight nuclear weapons, Koh said.
“At this point, the threat is greater that they will sell weapons, because there was such a long period with no multilateral talks,” Koh said. “They do exactly the things President Bush tells them not to do.”
President George W. Bush’s administration made two mistakes that contributed to the nuclear test two weeks ago, Koh said, by breaking off six-party talks and then by calling North Korea part of the “Axis of Evil” with Iraq and Iran in Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address.
Koh said he believes Kim thought he had no choice but to develop nuclear weapons as a defense mechanism after he saw Iraq, one leg of the “Axis of Evil,” being invaded by the United States.
But Charles Hill, professor of international studies and executive aide to former Secretary of State George Shultz during the Reagan administration, said the nuclear testing is just the latest in North Korea’s game of intimidation and apology and that they are using it as extortion for aid.
“He wants electricity, food aid and the lifting of economic sanctions, and the main bargaining chips on his side are the weapons he can build and then later disarm,” Koh added.
Political science professor Paul Bracken said neither the Clinton nor the Bush administrations’ policies stopped North Korea from becoming a nuclear power, but the 2000 efforts were important.
“I don’t think there’s realistically anything we could have done to prevent this,” Bracken said.
Bracken said the nuclear test showed that the world has moved into a second nuclear age. He said current policies towards North Korea may not be enough to stop further weapons development.
“The U.N. resolution has little impact on reversing North Korea’s nuclear program,” he said.
After North Korea’s nuclear test, the United Nations Security Council voted to impose economic sanctions on North Korea.
Koh said the United States now should focus on restarting multilateral talks with North Korea. Bilateral talks would not be useful, he said, since the United States cannot fulfill the conditions North Korea cares about, such as ending economic sanctions, on its own.
“The most important thing is to shift the setting from a confrontational public setting with threats and counter-threats to a meaningful ongoing negotiation,” he said.
Hill agreed that the United States needs to assume that North Korea will sell their nuclear weapons, as they have supplied missile technology to rogue states, such as Libya, in the past. He said the United States has significant influence in terms of the parties involved in the talks.
“The U.S. should stick to the multilateral forum,” Hill said. “The U.S. should continue to do what it’s doing and to work this diplomatically with six-party talks.”
Koh’s visit to North Korea in 2000 was his second. He had also visited North Korea in the 1970s at a time when it was quite rare to tour the country, he said.