The fear that lay behind North Korea’s launch of a Taepodong-2 missile last weekend was that this was the test-firing of a vehicle capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to a foreign country. It was clearly only described for domestic consumption as carrying a satellite; The US military said no satellite was observed, and rather than the launch being a near-farcical failure, it was probably a success if its intention was military, and essentially for foreign eyes.
This combination of the farcical and the unprecedented everywhere characterizes North Korea, certainly as illustrated in Mike Chinoy’s magnificent Meltdown. It tells the tale of US-North Korean relations over the last 15 or so years, beginning with the Clinton administration and ending with the last days of George W. Bush’s presidency.
Chinoy, longtime Asia correspondent for CNN, has made North Korean affairs his specialty. He has visited the country many times, once as the sole journalist to accompany Jimmy Carter there in 1994. He lists 151 people he’s interviewed, including South Korea’s former premier Kim Dae-jung and the US’s Colin Powell, Richard Boucher, Madeleine Albright, Richard Armitage, Warren Christopher, Richard Lawless and Christopher Hill; unfortunately no North Korean official agreed to an interview.
His essential thesis is that the Clinton administration very nearly brought about the closing down of all Pyongyang’s military-related nuclear activity, with Clinton on the edge of visiting the country in the last days of his presidency. All this good work (in Chinoy’s view) went up in smoke with President Bush’s 2002 “Axis of Evil” speech, with this unpropitious beginning followed by eight years of vacillation and “internal factionalism,” ending with the U-turn of December 2007 when Bush offered Pyongyang fully normalized diplomatic relations in exchange for disclosure and abandonment of its nuclear program.
This analysis may not be to everyone’s taste but, once accepted, it allows the reader to relish Chinoy’s detailed account of the progress of events on a week-by-week basis, not only in Washington but also in Pyongyang, Tokyo and Seoul. He weaves together his own involvement as a reporter, in-depth research as the Edgerton Fellow on Korean Security at the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles, and what must be the widest range of high-level contacts in the business.
Everyone will want to know what Chinoy thinks of the North Koreans and their enigmatic leadership. His analysis appears to be this. What Pyongyang’s leaders want most of all is regime security — they don’t want to be toppled in the way the leaders of Iraq, the Soviet Union and Romania were. In order to achieve this they involve in diplomatic brinksmanship, ratcheting up their bargaining chips in the hope of gaining life-saving aid and recognition. Their essential mindset, he believes, is to meet hostility with hostility, but meet benign overtures with a benign response. They are also adept at holding back their trump card until the last possible moment.
As for the more bizarre aspects of this extraordinary country, details are legion. The relation with Macau’s tiny Banco Delta Asia (allegedly used for money-laundering and the passing of counterfeit US dollars, plus the purchase of luxury items for the Pyongyang leadership), the “payment” for the 1997 US visit to the suspected nuclear site of Kunchangri with 100,000 tonnes of potatoes (not such a bad idea, North Korea suffering periodically from famine, and its climate being ideally suited to the cultivation of this food), the long-denied relationship with Syria, whose own nuclear facility was destroyed by Israeli jets in 2007, the Dear Leader’s 24-day train journey across Russia in 2001, and the now admitted abduction of Japanese nationals — all are there in this quite exceptional book.