“They must be made to believe that we are about to collapse, that they will inherit more maggots than they can count, more bodies than they can bury, more disease than they can cure, more chaos than they can stomach. They are convinced that we are weak, on our last legs, about to collapse? Let them; let them worry every night when they go into their warm beds that we are about to hold our breaths until our wasted bodies fall across their doorstep.” – From Inspector O (James Church)
A fluorescent bulb flickered spontaneously, the only light in the white, windowless room. It hadn’t been long, but North Korea’s muscles already felt stiff in that hard chair. The adrenaline kept his mind off of it.
From behind a desk, America leaned over to lessen the gap between them. “Listen here, you little communist shitworm.” Their closeness made North Korea’s skin crawl. He wondered if America could see it, his flesh slithering like that. Must have been quite the sight. “You’re gonna tell me where you’re hiding the bombs or this is gonna get ugly.”
It already was.
“The nukes! I know you have them. You smarmy little bastard–” little this, little that, apparently America could only feel big when everyone else was small, “–why else would you threaten to pull out of a treaty specifically designed to keep people from making nuclear weapons?”
America looked like a feral wolf, the way he was snarling. “I know you used Yongbyon to make weapons-grade plutonium–I know it, the UN knows it, the whole damn world knows it. So how much you got, huh? How many bombs did you cook, kid?”
North Korea leaned back and arched a brow. “No?”
America slammed his hands down on the table and swore loudly. It jolted North Korea so badly that his ass lifted off the seat.
(Now, pay attention. The first trick to any battle is making your opponent think you’re a threat. The truth doesn’t actually matter.)
North Korea straightened himself up. “Maybe I have been storing spent fuel in pools. Maybe I go swimming in them.” The joke was lost on America and his stony, sunken eyes. “Maybe I do have a bomb. Maybe I have many.”
America’s eyebrows scrunched together terribly, but then he must have quelled his inner beast because his face softened. He’d gone from a wolf to warthog, and it was almost an improvement. “How about we roll this back a little, alright, bud? I’m going to create a timeline, and you let me know if anything seems amiss.”
America sat down and spread out some papers on the top of the desk. He flipped one over and drew a horizontal line across its blank back. He made a dot, wrote 1985, all big and imposing, and then the letters N, P, and T.
“Think back some years. Reimagine yourself singing the Non-Proliferation Treaty–you remember that thing, don’t you? You remember where you promised not to develop nuclear weapons, right?”
“Vaguely. It’s hard to remember things sometimes. My mind used to get clouded by the noise coming from the missiles you had pointed at me. Did you know that they talked?”
(The second trick–are you taking notes?–is letting him think that you’re crazier than he is. Irrationality is a weapon, but only when it’s a facade. Otherwise, it’s just a flaw.)
“And did you talk back?” There was a sneer in America’s voice, but not on his face. He looked back down at his work. “So you’re party to the NPT, just like me, just like South Korea.” Even skillful tacticians let things slip sometimes, like how the corner of North Korea’s mouth might have twitched at the mention of his sister. “Then 1991 comes along.” Another dot. “That was a pretty good year for us, don’t you think? I pack up my nukes while you and your sister sign a nice little agreement where you, once again, promise not to develop, store, touch, possess, share, or even lick nuclear weapons ever, at all.”
“I haven’t licked a missile, if that’s what you’re wondering. Have you?”
“But you blocked the inspections, North Korea.”
“False. Completely false.” There may have been a smile on North Korea’s face but, his fist so badly wanted to connect with the jackal’s jaw. “For months I complied with the safeguards and allowed you to check my facilities. Go ahead, write that down on your paper.” America didn’t. North Korea adjusted his glasses. “I only resisted when you called for more intrusive and invasive inspections, which you likened to colonoscopies.”
“I said I’d be gentle, didn’t I?” Certain muscles tightened reflexively. “But come on. You can’t really think I’m going to buy this idea that you didn’t want us poking around because you felt embarrassed. You have been feeding us bullshit since day one,” he said so matter of factly that the urge to punch intensified, “and I’m done playing games.”
“You idiot,” North Korea hissed. “This has been a battle for my survival for sixty years. Not once have I treated this like a game.” When America’s smile turned dangerous, North Korea suddenly remembered that he was alone with this guy in a room with no windows. His head started floating up and he reached out to grab it.
“No games, huh?” America looked down again. “You say that the 90-some grams of plutonium you have are from defective fuel rods that you reprocessed in ’89.”
“That sure is convenient. And the discrepancies in your initial reports–they have some magical explanation from the 80s, too?” For whatever reason, he let that stay right there and instead drew another dot. “Alright, here we are, 1993, where you’re talking big and saying you want to withdraw from the NPT. I have a theory.”
“Of course you do.”
“You’re making a fuss because you got caught lying. Because you’re finished, on your last leg. Your economy is in the gutter, you’re in the middle of an energy crisis, and you’re utterly alone. How much longer do you think you have, North Korea? Five years? Ten years? That’s a short, short time. It’ll fly by in a blink.” He snapped.
There’s a phrase about broken clocks that, apparently, also applies to imperialist pigs.
North Korea pulled himself forward so that his knees touched the desk. He rested his hands on top of America’s papers. “Aren’t you curious?” A soft question.
“About what your missiles told me? They said, ‘Be afraid! I can strike you at any time. I am waiting. I am watching. I will kill you if you give me a reason.’ And my bombs, they talk too. They’re going to say the same things. You’ll hear them whispering in your ear every night for the rest of your life. You’ll wonder, ‘when will North Korea strike me with the weapons he may or may not have?’ When the wind blows a little too much to the west. When I look up at the sky and notice some star has a strange twinkle. When I can’t sleep and have energy to burn. When I’m irritable because the headache hasn’t gone away. When I feel a strange pain in my hand and know it’s a sign that I should press the button.”
America’s jaw tightened. The beast resurfaced on his features. The fun was over. “I can end your nuclear program right now if I wanted to. I can blow your facilities to shit and make sure that you never even dream of making another bomb, let alone recover another gram of plutonium. I can turn your ten years into five, your five years into six months.”
Time stopped and the air grew thin. This was a threat so loud and clear that it rang in North Korea’s ears, beat against his brain. America didn’t want a war, but if he thought it was the only option, he’d take it.
Now North Korea had one choice: give him a better option.
“But you won’t.” He didn’t mean to raise his voice, but it happened. His pounding heart pushed it out of his throat. “Step back, America. Examine the whole scene. The plutonium, the nuclear plants, the bombs–it’s all just a very small part of the picture. You’re clawing at the surface of something very, very dangerous. You know that I could have bombs, but you don’t know how many or where they are.” His mind was floating again, but he didn’t have time to catch it. “You’re afraid of what will happen if I succeed, and even more afraid of what will happen if I don’t. So you can punish me for breaking whatever agreements you think I broke, you can sanction me and you can drop as many bombs on Yongbyon as you want, but if I die, everything you have ever done to me will come back to you as anguish and regret.”
He stood up and met America’s sneer and disgust with focused, piercing scorn. “You’ll fear me the way that I fear you, and when you get sick being afraid–well, there’s our opening. You have demands, I have needs. That makes for good chemistry, doesn’t it?”
(Here’s another trick. Sometimes the only way to get what you want is to be volatile and vengeful. Survival doesn’t come to you on little rays of sunshine. You have to grab it by the roots and rip it out of the burning earth. Something will die; it’s either you or the garden.)
Their eyes remained locked for some time. America could have been angry, could have been pensive, could have been surprised. Whatever it was, North Korea couldn’t read it.
Right before the silence got maddening, America gave a low whistle. “You’ve got some eyes, kid. You could kill a man with that look.”
Just then the door swung open. China wasted no time directing his fury at America. “What the hell is this? Do you think you have any right to drag another person into an empty office and interrogate him in secret?”
America threw up his hands. “Hey, he came here on his own.”
North Korea, whose heart rate finally began to relax, nodded at his friend. “I did. Thank you, but shouldn’t have worried. He’s bad at interrogations.” A pause. “But he did torture me.”
“The hell I did!”
“The light,” North Korea pointed upward, “kept flickering. But there wasn’t a pattern to it. No order. Just when I thought there was a rhythm, it would go stagnant, or blink too many times in a row. I couldn’t stand it.”
Chaos was a terrible, terrible thing, except when it wasn’t.
“Will you be okay?”
North Korea snapped back to reality. Could brains get frostbite? It felt like they could. “What?” He squinted at China, whom he could hardly see in the dark office; the electricity was out again.
“Will you survive?” North Korea’s eyes were drawn to the small flame of the lighter in China’s hand. “Are you going to make it?”
“Yes.” North Korea said the word again, louder this time, as if he was trying to convince himself he believed what he was saying. “Yes. Yes, of course, I will. I have even more leverage now. As long as they thought I might have bombs, I could squeeze anything out of them–money, food, energy. But now that they think I’m dying, I can get even more.”
“Dying?” Was that alarm?
“Right. That’s what they all think.”
“But is that what you think?”
“What did I just tell you? I said I would make it, didn’t I?” The constant cough and the chills and the fatigue that never went away–they argued otherwise.
China paused. “What about missiles? Do you really have enough plutonium to make a bomb?”
North Korea grit his teeth. It was like China was experiencing the conversation in slow motion, hearing words seconds after they were actually said. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
After a moment China sighed, a hand coming up to rub the space between his eyes. “Cute.”
“You used to be cute. What happened?”
“You pig.” North Korea snarled. “How dare you talk about me like I’m some kind of small animal. Cute. I could have bombs. Show me respect. For once in your damn life, respect me.”
China sighed again, this time louder. “Forget I said anything.”
(The fourth trick is to know when to strike. This might be the most important trick of all.)
That fall, all the pieces fell into place and both sides bowed to compromise. North Korea promised to freeze plutonium production in exchange for fuel, economic assistance, security guarantees, and two light-water reactors that would generate much-needed electricity.
He poured two shots then took a seat at the counter. Victory deserved celebration, after all.
“As I was signing the agreement,” North Korea said, “my hands shook. What was it from? Anxiety, lack of sleep, anemia? I don’t know. I don’t know.”
“Fear?” China suggested.
“Fear? No, why?”
“The flash of explosions, the burn on your skin, the smell of napalm that will never leave your nightmares. The threat of annihilation that never ended, even if the war did. Isn’t that why your blood boils when you hear you his name or see his face?”
True–true, true, true. All of it. The nightmares never stopped, even after decades. The wealth of crimes, crimes against humanity–America would never have to pay for them. Never. It was sickening, unforgivable, evil. And yet–
“Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.” North Korea walked over to the window and pulled the curtain back. “In Berlin, they put up a wall. But look outside, China. Do you see a wall?”
“That’s right. There’s no fucking wall.”
Wanted to put this out there: Despite what I write, I’m not pro- or anti-North Korea. I’m simply sharing with you 1) an important event in history and 2) what I know about North Korea’s and America’s nuclear programs.
1. The quote at the beginning comes from a book series I’ve been reading about a Pyongyang-based detective. The 3rd book in the series, Bamboo and Blood, is set during the same time as missile talks between the US/UN and North Korea. Although the book is fiction, it’s based on real events. While the situation in North Korea (famine, flooding, TB epidemic, etc.) was much worse in 1997 than when my story takes place, the US–or rather, William Perry, the Secretary of Defense at the time–was certain as early as 1993 that North Korea was on the road to collapse. I think many others felt the same.
2. There is a prevailing theme of orientalism in the American media and among the American public when discussing North Korea and related matters. The idea that North Korea’s leaders are “crazy” and infantile can be credited to racism and hysteria, but I also think North Korea has taken advantage of this “madman” image in the past and has used it as part of a wider survival strategy. So while orientalism is undeniably wrong, I think it’s a bad card that North Korea has learned how to play well.
3. Despite B. R. Myer’s controversial opinions about the Koreas, I still think he gets some things about North Korea very right. In many settings, he’s argued that the fact that the US has kept the peninsula divided for 60+ years plays just as important–and in his mind, an even more important–role in sustaining North Korea’s contempt for the United States.
4. And now, my bibliography:
- On the Recent Spate of “Why North Korea Hates America” Articles
- North Korea: State of Paranoia by Paul French
- North Korea: Another Country by Bruce Cumings
- Fuel and Famine: Rural Energy Crisis in the DPRK
- Chronology of U.S.-North Korean Nuclear and Missile Diplomacy
5. Once again, Bruce Cumings inspires me with his creative use of language; in his book, he kept comparing the IAEA inspections to intrusive colonoscopies. I found that an amusing but unfortunate metaphor.
By the way, this is what a spent fuel pool looks like (though you really don’t want to go swimming in it):