Fire and Fury in the Hermit Kingdom


North Korea’s Nuclear Program

Donald Trump’s taunt of Kim Jong Un as “little rocket man” was just an extreme example of the long-standing narrative of North Korea as a hopelessly backward country led by cartoonish villains, rogue maniacs looking for an excuse to launch a war against the West. But is this accurate? In this episode, we look back at the history of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and talk with people who have actually met and worked with North Koreans, to try and understand their motivations and what the future holds for this dangerous relationship.

The story veers back and forth between crisis and resolution and a new crisis. In 1994, North Korea announced they were beginning to remove plutonium from their reactor to make weapons-grade material. President Bill Clinton responded by declaring this a red line and asked his new Secretary of Defense, William Perry, to draw up plans for a missile strike on their reactor. In the middle of a tense White House meeting preparing for potential war, they received a phone call from former President Carter that he had negotiated a deal to stop the reprocessing.

But in 1999, a new crisis flared up when North Korea started testing long-range missiles. President Clinton again called on William Perry, who was out of government by then, to lead a negotiating team in partnership with South Korea and Japan, in what came to be called the Perry Process. Once again, a promising deal was agreed upon. But this too fell apart when the incoming Bush administration surprisingly jettisoned the deal, choosing an aggressive strategy of sanctions and regime change. Despite this pressure, the North Koreans pushed ahead to develop a sizable nuclear arsenal, and missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads to much of the United States.

William Perry describes his role in the first two Korean crises, and how he was personally threatened with a nuclear attack by a North Korean general. Philip Yun worked was with Perry during the 1999 negotiations, and discusses his perspective as a Korean-American. Dr. Siegfried Hecker tells his remarkable story of visiting North Korea multiple times in the early 2000s and seeing their reactors up close and personal. Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on nuclear North Asia, describes what we know about today’s North Korean arsenal and ballistic missile program. Our guests speculate on the future of that program, the danger to the U.S. and the West, and the prospects of any type of nuclear deal with “The Hermit Kingdom.”

Dr. Hecker examines North Korean plutonium facility in 2004
Dr. Hecker examines North Korean plutonium facility in 2004
Bill Perry (blue scarf) crosses the DMZ to North Korea, Feb 2008
Bill Perry (blue scarf) crosses the DMZ to North Korea, Feb 2008


Dr. Siegfried Hecker
Former director, Los Alamos Laboratories; senior fellow emeritus at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University; author, Doomed to Cooperate: How American and Russian Scientists Joined Forces to Avert Some of the Greatest Post-Cold War Nuclear Dangers

Dr. Jeffrey Lewis @ArmsControlWonk
Adjunct Professor, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey; director, CNS East Asia Nonproliferation Program; creator, Arms Control Wonk podcast

Bill Perry @SecDef19
19th U.S. Secretary of Defense; co-author, THE BUTTON: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump

Phillip Yun
Former Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs; former COO of Ploughshares Fund; President and CEO of the World Affairs Council of Northern California

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