You know, if I’d realized that Mike Chinoy, former CNN correspondent and author of “Meltdown,” was reading all those things I was writing about him, I might not have been so mean. Why was I not informed?
I am a regular reader of OneFreeKorea, which I have always found interesting and thought-provoking, despite the darts you regularly send my way. I have not responded to your frequent criticisms, but under the current circumstances, and given your derogatory comments in your Nov. 22 post, I thought it would be helpful to try to clarify some of the points you raise in your sweeping critique of my work on “Meltdown.
First, you seem to forget that my book is a work of reporting, not a “venting” of opinion. The episodes described, as well as the judgments and assessments I tried to make, were based on interviews with scores of people on all sides of the debates over North Korea policy in Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo, and Beijing, as well as insights gleaned from more than a dozen reporting trips to Pyongyang while I was a correspondent for. CNN. I didn’t begin the project with a preconceived view. I simply tried to recount the history as I uncovered it from my research.
Your suggestion that I somehow “missed” the story of North Korea’s effort to acquire a uranium enrichment capability is simply not true, as any careful reading of “Meltdown” will show. Read chapter 5, called “The Scrub,” for example. It recounts in great detail the intelligence findings on what the North was trying to do as regards uranium.
Of equal importance is what I note on the first page of chapter 6:
“But many questions remained. How advanced was the program? Had a production facility actually been constructed? How many years would it take before bombs could be produced? Above all, what were Pyongyang’s motivation and its ultimate intentions in starting the acquisition effort? And here, the consensus that had been achieved on the procurement intelligence broke down. In interpreting the information and considering a policy response, the same ideological biases and political turf battles that had marked earlier debates over what to do with North Korea reemerged.
This was the reality at the time. Serious people in Washington had real disagreements over what the information on uranium meant and what to do about it. I didn’t make up the fact that there were divisions in the government and intelligence community, nor twist the information I got through my reporting to fit a preconceived agenda.
On page 112, for example, I quote Robert Joseph, who was then at the NSC and advocated a tough line towards the North. When I asked him in an interview about the debate in the Bush administration over what Jim Kelly’s instructions should be for his October 2002 trip to Pyongyang, he said: “What are you going to do, ignore that they’re pursuing nuclear weapons through enriched uranium, which is in violation of the Agreed Framework and the NPT and the safeguards?”
On the same page, on the same issue, I quote Colin Powell, who told me that Joseph and other critics of engaging Pyongyang “wanted to use this [the uranium intelligence] as a flaming red star cluster into the sky that the North Koreans have cheated, abrogated the Agreed Framework, we always told you that was a bad idea. I didn’t take sides. I was just reporting what they said — which clearly underscored the sharp divergence in views among administration policy-makers.
In relation to acquiring a uranium weapons capability, the questions about just what the North has been trying to do, has actually done, what kind of facility it might be able to build, when it might be operational, and what would be the best policy options for the U.S., have been controversial issues in Washington over the past decade. Even today, there are different assessments of how far along they are, as well as differences over what kind of policies would best address these very real concerns. The fact that the North has now shown a uranium facility to Siegfried Hecker answers some questions, but raises many more. And it in no way eliminates the questions, doubts, and internal debate over North Korea policy that I chronicle ““ accurately and fairly, trying to understand and recount the motivations and actions of all sides ““ in “Meltdown.
You and I clearly have different views about how to deal with North Korea, although we are unquestionably on the same page in agreeing on its awfulness. And I can imagine how satisfying it is to launch jabs over the Internet at people whose opinions do not coincide with yours. But as bad as the North Korean system is, to paint my efforts at careful reporting and analysis of this situation in the black and white terms your regularly use is unworthy of the kind of intelligent and thoughtful discussion all of us who care about Korea’s future ought to be having.
You know, Mr. Chinoy, nothing wrecks the ambiance of an ankle-biting blog post so much as a detailed, thoughtful, and classy response, so let me begin with a point of agreement. I think we can agree that the Bush Administration’s North Korea policy was a long, vacillating failure, even if we wanted the administration to vacillate in opposite directions. While I believe that you and I approach these topics with a desire to make objectively defensible arguments, we also approach these topics with strong beliefs, preconceptions, and biases. I suppose mine are more evident to you than they are to me, and I’ll leave that where it is.
Yes, we’ve always had and still have doubts about the specifics of North Korea’s uranium program, the number of centrifuges, and the level of enrichment. My post acknowledged that. Indeed, some of the most damning evidence of North Korea’s HEU program emerged after the publication of your book. We can argue about these minutiae until doomsday, but isn’t the broader debate pretty much over? In retrospect, can we agree that the most plausible interpretation of all of this evidence, culminating with what the North Koreans have just shown Dr. Hecker, is that North Korea has been working toward a uranium enrichment program all along? All of those centrifuges weren’t made just last year. Doesn’t this lead to the conclusion that North Korea has been dealing with us in bad faith? Three American presidents have now offered North Korea diplomatic outreach, aid, and relations in exchange for disarmament, and yet those outreaches have done little to slow North Korea’s progress toward a nuclear arsenal. Supporters of Agreed Framework I can fall back on citing some temporary freezes of the plutonium reactor, but it has never taken North Korea especially long to find an excuse to kick the IAEA monitors out. Can you really argue that we have anything to offer Kim Jong Il that he wants more than nuclear weapons, and if so, on what basis?
The thoughtfulness of your response ought to earn you much respect from my readers. You’d earn even more if you could concede, in retrospect, that the North Koreans were playing a double game with the HEU program, and probably for the duration of two agreed frameworks. It certainly looks that way today.