North Korea has kicked UN officials out of its country, removed the cameras in its Yongbyon nuclear complex, abrogated the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and torn up a 1999 agreement to stop testing long-range missiles. It has said that any attempts by the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on North Korea would be viewed as a declaration of war.

>From this perspective–the portrayal of the current crisis in the US media–North Korea appears to be a rogue nation ruled by a madman.

The reality is somewhat different. A little history can help us understand what North Korea is doing and why.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, North Korea was left to fend on its own economically. Formerly dependent on the USSR for fuel oil to power its generators and food imports, North Korea had to quickly develop its export market and a way to generate electricity, or face collapse. This marked the beginning of the North Korean nuclear program, initially an attempt to generate power.

North Korea began to build a nuclear complex at Yongbyon, a huge cave dug into the side of a mountain. It appeared, at least to the US and North Korea’s neighbors (particularly Japan), that the Koreans might be hiding something, and the fear was that they might be attempting to refine weapons-grade material to make a nuclear weapon. Bill Clinton, with satellite photos in hand, confronted North Korea in 1993.

After a tense standoff, the two sides reached an agreement. North Korea would allow UN inspectors and cameras into the Yongbyon complex and would cease work on a nuclear plant that could make weapons-grade nuclear material. In return, the US and Japan would provide North Korea with food aid, fuel oil to run its power plants, and would help it build two commercial-grade nuclear power plants, which would generate electricity, but not be capable of producing weapons-grade nuclear material.

North Korea held up its end of the deal, and so did Japan. But the Clinton administration had a tougher time selling this deal to Congress. Congress okayed the fuel oil, but refused to approve the two commercial nuclear plants. Providing any kind of nuclear materials to North Korea was verboten. Indeed, it’s possible that Clinton knew he didn’t have the votes in Congress to approve the two plants; he may have agreed to that part of the deal simply for expediency’s sake. (In other words, he struck a deal that made him look tough and statesman-like while probably knowing that he couldn’t deliver on his end and thinking that he could stall long enough to leave the problem to a future president.)

In the meantime, North Korea got tired of waiting for construction to begin on its two promised plants. The fuel oil helped a lot, but they decided to give the Clinton administration a little scare, just to prod Bill Clinton’s memory about his unfulfilled promise. In 1999, they fired a prototype long-range missile over the north of Japan, sparking another round of diplomatic talks.

By that time the Clinton administration was on its way out, unable to make any firm promises. Clinton managed to extract a promise from North Korea, however, to halt testing of long-range missiles, although no one really believed that North Korea has completely stopped work on its long-range missile program. After all, missiles are one of North Korea’s main exports. (Remember the ship bearing North Korean missiles to Yemen that was stopped in the Persian Gulf a few weeks ago?)

Then, in 2000, George W. Bush was elected president of the United States. The first thing the Bush administration did was cut off all negotiations and all contact with North Korea. Then September 11 happened and the Bush administration declared a War on Terrorism. The Taliban were supporters of terrorism, so Bush attacked and destroyed the Taliban, leveling what was left of Afghanistan in the process. Turning its sights to new targets, the Bush administration named Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as members of an “Axis of Evil.” Immediately, Bush singled out Iraq because of its “Weapons of Mass Destruction.”

Surely one can see why North Korea would be in a panic. The Bush administration has isolated them, refused to talk (much less negotiate), and is on a crusade against perceived enemies. To North Korea, the US appears to be a rogue nation, governed by madmen. North Korea might be next on the Bush agenda. So, like it or not, they decided to develop a deterrent to US aggression: a nuclear weapon.

US policy has always viewed nuclear weapons as a deterrent against aggression, first in relation to the Soviet Union, and now in regards to so-called “rogue” or “terrorist” nations. When Cold War politicians like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney discuss this deterrent philosophy, they always mention North Korea. Always.

Likewise, Donald Rumsfeld has been pushing the development of the “Son of Star Wars,” an anti-missile program intended to intercept incoming long-range missiles from hostile nations. When discussing this program, Rumsfeld always mentions North Korea. Always. Rumsfeld has been successful in gaining funding for the Son of Star Wars; in the first stage of deployment, set for next year, 10 interceptor missiles will be based at Fort Greely in Alaska. In 2005, 10 more will be deployed in Alaska, the closest US territory to North Korea. Meanwhile, testing of the interceptor missiles has been conducted in the Pacific, as a sort of warning to the main target of this billion-dollar, scary, destabilizing boondoggle: North Korea.

Naturally, North Korea doesn’t view these missiles as strictly for defensive purposes. They view them as an offensive weapon aimed directly at their heartland. They also take to heart Donald Rumsfeld’s assertion that the US can fight two wars at once: against Iraq and North Korea, if necessary.

In this context, North Korea’s actions make sense. It’s the Bush administration that appears irrational, particularly in their refusal to negotiate directly with North Korea. North Korea is right to condemn US attempts to take this issue to the UN Security Council as a stalling tactic to buy time so Bush can deal with Iraq first. Notably, South Korea, China, and Japan all support negotiations; they are particularly fearful of the prospect of sanctions against North Korea, which could cause the downfall of Kim Jong Il’s government and the exodus of millions of refugees. South Korea, in particular, would rather have a slow, economically easy reunification, instead of a major economic collapse in North Korea.

But the Bush administration is on a crusade. If only the US media could figure that out and report the news with a little bit of objectivity.