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Mike Chinoy On How North Korea Went Nuclear

Journalist Mike Chinoy, author of Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis, discusses North Korea's development of nuclear weapons and America's attempts to stop their program.


Other segments from the episode on August 6, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 6, 2008: Interview with Mike Chinoy; Review of the film "Pineapple express."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM

Interview: Mike Chinoy discusses his new book "Meltdown" and
relations between North Korea and the United States

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.

When President Bush stopped in South Korea on his way to the Olympics in
Beijing, he said that North Korea could get off his axis of evil list if it
would fully disclose the details of its nuclear program. Bush's return to the
provocative phrase from his 2002 State of the Union address comes after a
period of progress toward defusing the nuclear standoff with North Korea.

In a new book, our guest Mike Chinoy says that the recent easing of tensions
came after six years of a failed policy of trying to pressure and intimidate
the regime of Kim Jong Il, an approach he says that only encouraged North
Korea to ramp up its weapons programs. Chinoy was a foreign correspondent for
CNN who's been to North Korea 14 times. He's currently the Edgerton senior
fellow at the Pacific Council on International Policy. His new book is
"Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis."

Well, Mike Chinoy, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, we see the North Koreans
during the '90s developing a nuclear weapons capability, or a nuclear program.
And, you know, there was a view that was sort of propounded of North Korea as
this crazed, you know, rogue state devoted to cynical mischief. And I'm
wondering, what do you think actually motivated the North Koreans to begin to
pursue a nuclear program in the '90s?

Mr. MIKE CHINOY: When you're outside North Korea, it's very easy to see the
North as this kind of menacing country, and, of course, in fairness, the North
Koreans did start the Korean War. There is that track record and so on. But
when you go to North Korea, everything gets turned around, and what the
overwhelming sense I've had on all my trips to North Korea, going back nearly
20 years, is that this is a place that really feels itself under siege,
beleaguered, and in the early '90s, that sense of feeling beleaguered was
intensified dramatically. The North Koreans' key allies in the communist
world all collapsed.

One of the most memorable experiences I had in North Korea, there are a couple
of museums where the North Koreans keep all the gifts that were given to Kim
Il Sung and to Kim Jong Il by various foreign dignitaries over many years.
And the museum for the gifts to Kim Jong Il is actually carved out of a
mountain. You go into this kind of underground complex, and so on. But in
these museums, you see gifts from people like Erich Honecker, who was the
communist boss of East Germany; Nicolae Ceausescu, who ruled Romania; Leonid
Brezhnev, the Soviet Union. And what's so striking is these are all gifts
from leaders of countries that no longer exist in that form, and the leaders
themselves were disgraced; toppled; in Ceausescu's case, murdered by his own

And it just underscores the fact that in the '90s and I think even today, the
North Koreans see themselves as very much under threat, and their game has
been all along to try and secure the survival of their regime and their
system. And I think their nuclear program and their missile program has been
designed to help ensure that in two ways. One is to provide an actual
military deterrent, and the other is, when the circumstances were right, to
put those programs on the table, the possibility of borrowing them away if the
price was right. And the price being defined not only in material terms of
aid and oil and all the rest, but in political terms. And I think the goal
that the North Korean leadership has had since the early '90s has been to
secure a rapprochement, an accommodation with the United States that would
allow their system to remain intact and to remove the US from being the sort
of top adversary that North Korea faced. And I think that's really what's
driven the North Koreans. It's regime survival in a world where all their
communist allies don't exist anymore.

DAVIES: But the paradox is so striking here. I mean, by adopting a nuclear
program, they do the single thing that would most alarm, anger and threaten
the United States. And their goal in the end is actually a diplomatic and
economic relationship with the United States?

Mr. CHINOY: I think it is a paradox, but I think that's true, and I think
it's certainly been the case in recent years, and I think it was true in the
'90s as well, because the reality is that when in 1994, after a period when
the crisis reached a stage where the US was actually, under the Clinton
administration, considering a preemptive strike on the North Korean nuclear
complex at Yongbyon, just a few months after that the North Koreans and the US
reached this deal, the agreed framework in October of 1994. And under that
deal, the North was promised certain benefits, including supply of a heavy
fuel oil and the possibility of a diplomatic thaw. And they froze the nuclear
program. They allowed in international monitors. They basically stopped the
operation of the Yongbyon plant. So there is this track record of them
apparently being willing to roll this back for the right price.

And I would say one other thing, in a somewhat more recent context. The North
Koreans saw what happened to Saddam Hussein--and I've had North Koreans say
explicitly to me, and North Korean officials have said this publicly--`Saddam
Hussein didn't have a bomb and looked what happened to him. And we have a
nuclear program, and we're going to use it to ensure that does not turn out to
be the fate of Kim Jong Il.'

DAVIES: So in 1994, the Clinton administration realizes it's going to have to
take a diplomatic approach, and they work out this arrangement, this thing
called the agreed framework. It's in effect a treaty, although doesn't get
ratified by the Senate. And the North Koreans in effect agree to freeze their
program, and the United States provides some benefits, some fuel oil, and
agrees to help them build light water reactors for power. To what extend did
the North Koreans live up to their end of the deal, and to what extent did the
United States live up to their end of the deal?

Mr. CHINOY: I think the reality is they were frustrations on both sides.
The agreed framework was a complicated deal, but the central thing was that
the North Koreans did in fact freeze operations at their Yongbyon nuclear
facility. I think had they not done that in the intervening years, they could
well have produced enough weapons-grade plutonium for 50 or 60 nuclear bombs.
That being said, there was a lot of criticism of the agreed framework,
particularly from the Republicans, and one of the complications was that soon
after the deal was signed, the Republicans took control of Congress in fall of
1994. And so for the rest of the Clinton administration, one of the
difficulties was that Congress was reluctant to fund a lot of the fuel oil and
other economic goodies that had been promised. And there was a lot of ill
will and suspicion on both sides.

So it was a kind of a cold peace, I suppose is the way you could describe it.
It stopped the nuclear activity, but it didn't go much beyond that. And there
was a lot of suspicion and frustration on both sides. And it was not really
until the very end of the Clinton administration, when there was a final
attempt to sort of move the process of rapprochement forward, that the
momentum picked up again.

DAVIES: But just to be clear, the North Koreans did permit international
inspectors in to look at that nuclear facility and confirm that indeed it had
been frozen.

Mr. CHINOY: That's right. There were inspectors there. I've talked to some
of them. There's no question that the plutonium part of the program was
frozen. There is an issue about their attempts to explore a uranium-based
nuclear program, which becomes central to the crisis that I explore in the
book that began in the late '90s, but in terms of the plutonium program at the
Yongbyon reactor, they did in fact freeze it. But they didn't dismantle the
reactor. They were able, with essentially a flick of a switch, to start it up
again when the crisis broke out at the end of 2002.

DAVIES: All right. So in late 2000, as Clinton is preparing to leave office,
there was an effort at bringing the whole thing together and getting a
comprehensive deal, which would have given the North Koreans sort of what they
wanted and given the United States the assurance that the North would shut
down its nuclear facility. And in the end, it just didn't happen, in part
because it was simply too late in the game. And then in 2001, George W. Bush
becomes the president, and within nine months we have the September 11th
attacks. How did North Korea react to the September 11th attacks?

Mr. CHINOY: Well, I think the North Koreans were very concerned that, after
9/11, the US was going to lash out because of how angry, dramatized people
were, and clearly somebody was going to be targeted, the people behind it.
And the North was very concerned that it not be lumped in with others who
might be blamed.

It's worth, I think, stepping back just for a moment. You mentioned the final
months of the Clinton administration. There's one particular event which
becomes very important, and that is, in October of 2000, Kim Jong Il sent his
top military aide, Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok, to Washington. Vice Marshal Jo
met Clinton at the White House. The two governments signed a communique in
which they pledged that neither government would have hostile intent toward
the other. And for the North Koreans, who were seeking this rapprochement
with the United States, they saw this document as central to underpinning a
new relationship and were signaled from the moment that it became clear George
Bush was going to be the new president that they wanted to continue this
process of engagement.

And the administration was divided, the new administration, from the very
beginning. And then after 9/11, there was a lot of fear about another
terrorist attack, and Vice President Cheney in particular was worried about
the next one possibly involving nuclear material. And so the signals from the
very beginning were that this was going to be a different, much more
tough-minded approach towards North Korea. And the North Koreans were
extremely frustrated because they wanted to continue to engage.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Mike Chinoy. His new book is "Meltdown." We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Mike Chinoy. He's a veteran
journalist who's traveled to North Korea. He's also a senior fellow at the
Pacific Council on International Policy. He's written a new book, "Meltdown:
The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis."

You know, a lot of Americans became more acutely aware of North Korea when
President Bush gave that speech declaring them among the axis of evil. Would
you just say a little bit about where that line came from and its impact on
the North Koreans?

Mr. CHINOY: The axis of evil line came out of an effort in the fall of 2001
in the lead-up to the State of the Union to--there was a speechwriter named
David Frum who tried to invoke the image of the axis powers from World War II,
and then Michael Gerson, who was a leading speechwriter, turned that into the
axis of evil. It's an interesting question: Who put in North Korea? Gerson
himself has written that adding North Korea, that decision came from
Condoleezza Rice. And it was done simply so that the speech was not simply
targeting Islamic countries. North Korea was a convenient non-Islamic bad
guy. David Frum, who coined the original phrase, said that when he heard the
axis of evil phrase in the speech with the reference to North Korea, that he
assumed that the administration had a sort of clear-cut policy about how it
was going to deal with North Korea, but it later became clear that North Korea
was thrown in as an afterthought and that the administration didn't really
have a thought out policy about what it was going to do.

But it did have a major impact in North Korea, where it reconfirmed the
North's suspicions that Washington wished it ill. And it had an even greater
impact in South Korea at the time because the South Koreans in 2002 were very
much in favor of engaging North Korea. And this fueled the very sharp
tensions between South Korea and the United States that really poisoned the
alliance for a number of years.

DAVIES: Well, let's talk about that approach within the Bush administration.
I mean, a lot of your book deals with people in the State Department, Colin
Powell and others, who believed that engaging the North Koreans in a
diplomatic process was the best way to secure a reduction of their nuclear
program. And then the neoconservatives in the Bush administration, you know,
particularly Vice President Cheney, who had a different view, what was their
attitude towards North Korea, Cheney and those folks?

Mr. CHINOY: Well, there was a group of people, the so-called hard liners,
the neocons, they believed that North Korea was basically the most horrible
place on the face of the earth, that had an awful regime, a terrible leader, a
horrible human rights record, that it was wrong morally and politically for
the United States to do anything that would be seen to be propping up that
regime. And their goal was essentially to isolate it and coerce it, and that
was a view widely held by this group.

The so-called moderates were not exactly wimps on North Korea. I think Colin
Powell, his deputy Richard Armitage and others had no love for the North
Korean system, but I think they made a pragmatic judgment that in the end some
kind of negotiated deal would better serve American interests. But
particularly after 9/11, after the successful toppling of the Taliban, in the
run-up to and then the immediately successful toppling of Saddam Hussein, that
was kind of the high point of the hard line neocon ascendency in the Bush
administration. And at that point, this idea that we call the shots and we
have the power and leverage to force the North Koreans to capitulate to our
terms, was really dominant. And so you had this very bitter struggle which
led to inconsistency, incoherence, the right hand and the left hand operating
at cross purposes, which really in the end sort of paralyzed American policy.

DAVIES: Well, it's clear the North Koreans felt that a much tougher stance
from the United States was under way. How did they react to it?

Mr. CHINOY: Well, for the first two years of the Bush administration, the
North continued to signal that it wanted to negotiate, and despite these
various, what I think in North Korean eyes were seen as provocative gestures
from the administration, they were eager still to talk. And so in the fall of
2002, after many ups and downs, when the Bush administration decided to send
Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly to Pyongyang, the North Koreans
thought that he was coming to finally resume negotiations that had been on
hold since the end of the Clinton administration. And they actually prepared
a proposal with ideas about how to address certain issues. So it wasn't
really until that trip and the controversy that erupted over the North's
secret uranium procurement effort that the North sort of switched gears and
took this much more provocative step of staging the nuclear breakout. But
their position has pretty much consistently been, `We want to talk and we're
willing to negotiate all of these issues.' And they said that even during the
most provocative phases of the crisis that unfolded in the years that

DAVIES: And what were some of the provocative steps that the United States

Mr. CHINOY: Well, the pivotal turning point here comes in the summer of 2002
when American intelligence uncovers solid evidence that North Korea was
engaging in a clandestine effort to procure components for a program to enrich
uranium, and that intelligence came in in the summer of 2000. And it prompted
a kind of major review, an assessment of what to do. And this is a very, very
complicated and controversial issue because there's no doubt that the
intelligence was accurate, that the North was trying to procure components.

The question at the time became, what do you do with it? How do you handle it
politically? The intelligence assessment was that it was still several years
before the North was likely to have an actual capability to make a
uranium-based bomb. And so the moderates argued that the US should raise this
issue in the context of trying to resolve its outstanding differences with
North Korea.

The hard liners--Vice President Cheney, John Bolton, others--said that this
attempt to procure uranium program was cheating and showed the North Koreans
couldn't be trusted and therefore they had to be confronted on it. And so
when Assistant Secretary Kelly went to Pyongyang, he was essentially ordered
not to negotiate but to confront the North Koreans on this issue. And that
visit is an extremely critical one because it led to the crisis that followed.
I talk a lot in the book about what happened at that meeting and how the
Americans came away convinced the North Koreans actually admitted what Kelly
had claimed, that they had a uranium program. It's much less clear that he
did. But in any case, the response from the US side was we have to push the
North Koreans.

DAVIES: Well, it seems that...

Mr. CHINOY: And it was in response to that that the North Koreans then
staged the nuclear breakout.

DAVIES: Right. And then the book details a whole series of steps that the
North Koreans did. I mean, kind of not denying that they were trying to
procure uranium, then eventually expelling international monitors from their
nuclear facility, and eventually launching rockets, and then in October of
2006 conducting a nuclear test. And the United States, of course, responded
with tougher and tougher condemnations and other steps. Were the Koreans all
along saying--well, what was their message as they continued to escalate their
nuclear program? What was their message to the United States?

Mr. CHINOY: The North Koreans have consistently tried to convey two
messages. One is a message of strength. `Don't think you can mess with us,
or we'll push back twice as hard as you push.' And that has been their style
all along, and that's been their response to coercion and attempts to coerce
them, which have not worked. The record has shown that attempts to increase
sanctions or to pressure them in other ways have tended to backfire. I think
one of the reasons for that is this is a regime that let nearly two million of
its own citizen starve to death in the 1990s. It's a regime that is sort of
impervious to the kinds of levers of pressure that might affect other regimes.
And to make a political point, it's more than willing to allow its citizens to

But at the same time, the North Koreans have consistently said that they were
willing to negotiate, and if the US would treat the North with a certain
degree of respect and signal that it was willing to fundamentally change the
relationship, the North was willing to engage.

DAVIES: Mike Chinoy's book is "Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North
Korean Nuclear Crisis." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm
Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies sitting in for Terry Gross.

We're speaking with former CNN Asia correspondent Mike Chinoy, who's written a
dramatic account of the United States' nuclear standoff with North Korea.
Chinoy says the hard line US approach during the first six years of the Bush
administration only made things worse. His new book is "Meltdown: The Inside
Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis."

One of the debates in the current presidential campaign is whether it is wise
for an American president to talk to our adversaries, or in what circumstances
one should engage our adversaries. And there's an interesting moment where
you're talking about, in the book, about where the United States has required
intelligence that North Korea is pursuing uranium enrichment to advance its
nuclear program. And the question's, are we going to send James Kelly, the
assistant secretary of state, over to talk to them about it. And Vice
President Cheney says, `What's the point of going and talking to the North
Koreans about this? Say we confront them, all they're going to do is deny
it.' Consider that for a moment, will you? I mean, you know, he has a point,
that, why talk to people who will lie to you? Consider, as you look at the
handling of this nuclear crisis, the issue of whether it makes sense to talk
to people who you feel are misbehaving.

Mr. CHINOY: I think the question that has to be asked is: What's the
alternative? And I think the history of the last six or seven years has shown
that not talking to the North Koreans doesn't produce the desired results.
And I don't think anybody who supported engagement would argue that the North
Koreans are nice or trustworthy. But what happened in this administration was
that instead of diplomacy being a tool to achieve national security goals,
diplomacy was transformed into some kind of huge concession, that the fact of
talking to North Korea was somehow seen as legitimizing these evil North
Koreans, and therefore the US shouldn't do it. And the North Koreans made
very clear that if the US wouldn't talk to them they would take an alternative

And I think what you had from the earliest days of the Bush administration
really until the end of 2006 was a history of the North Koreans staging this
nuclear breakout while signaling that they wanted to talk. And from 2007
onwards you've had a negotiating process that has not yet gotten rid of their
nuclear program. But when you compare the circumstances that exist today to
what existed in October of 2006 right after the North Korean nuclear test,
it's not nearly as dangerous a situation as it was. So the problem in not
talking to them is, what are your options? The military option is bad. The
forcing regime collapse is a problem, and the South Koreans and the Chinese
who are the neighbors aren't going to buy into that. So in the end, in many
ways, the policy for the first several years of the Bush administration, the
US policy, as one cynic describe, was no carrots and no sticks. There was a
lot of rhetoric. There was a lot of posturing. But in fact, under the
circumstances, not much was done. They weren't talking to them and they
weren't bringing them down.

DAVIES: You know, another charge that emerged in this period was--and it was
reported quite a bit in the media--was that the North Koreans were not only
developing nuclear weapons, but that they were actively counterfeiting US
currency and supporting the manufacture and trafficking of drugs. Boy, talk
about a rogue state. How much truth is there in this?

Mr. CHINOY: I think there's little doubt that the North Koreans have, over
the years, been involved in illicit activities of various kinds, including
narcotics trafficking, including counterfeiting, and there's a fair amount of
evidence to suggest that that's been the case on and off for a long time.
What happened in sort of 2003, '4, '5, was a concerted effort on the part of
the Bush administration to sort of identify and target this. And this was
initially called the Illicit Activities Initiative, and it culminated in an
attempt by the Treasury Department to go after a bank in the former Portuguese
colony of Macau next to Hong Kong called the Banco Delta Asia. This bank had
52 accounts by North Korean companies or individuals, people associated with
North Korea. And the Treasury Department designated the bank as a suspected
money laundering concern. And the upshot was there was a run on the bank that
was seized by the Macau authorities, these accounts were frozen. And banks
around the world refused to do business with North Korea.

And I think part of the intention of targeting North Korea like this was in
fact to cripple their ability to have access to the international financial
system. And I think hard liners saw this as yet another way to bring pressure
on the leadership, to coerce them, maybe to accelerate some kind of internal

The North Korean response, however, shows again what the pattern when the
North Koreans are under pressure. Instead of collapsing or acquiescing to
American demands on the nuclear front, what the North did was it pulled out of
the six party talks in Beijing. And between September of 2005 and October of
2006, when the US refused to work with the North Koreans to find a mechanism
to address these issues with the suspect bank and refused to engage in
bilateral discussions, the North tested missiles on July 4th, 2006, and then
they staged their nuclear tests. So I think this is another episode that
shows when the North Koreans get squeezed, their reaction is to push back.
And then only after Washington agreed to try and unravel this Banco Delta Asia
issue did the North come back to the six party talks, and they reached a deal
that's gone as far as it has gone so far in terms of rolling back the nuclear

DAVIES: Mike Chinoy's new book is "Meltdown." More after a break. This is


DAVIES: Our guest is veteran Asia corespondent Mike Chinoy. His new book
about the North Korean nuclear crisis is called "Meltdown."

You know, your book is interesting because it's about the broad strokes of
policy and contention between the United States and North Korea. But it's
also about the intricacies of the diplomatic process. And I wonder if you
could think of an example of where the business of diplomacy--I mean,
developing of relationships, hosting a dinner or offering a toast--actually
matters in world events.

Mr. CHINOY: I think one of the things that became clear as I researched this
book was the extent to which, for the North Koreans, issues of face, of
prestige, of respect really do matter. It's partly, in Asia issues of face or
perhaps more important than elsewhere. It's partly because the North Korean
diplomatic or strategic goal has been to ensure the legitimacy and survival of
its regime and leader and system by getting it to be acknowledged by the
United States. So I think there were a series of episodes, which I recount in
"Meltdown," where there was a kind of series of gratuitous insults by the
United States government. When Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly went
to North Korea in October of 2002 to confront them on their uranium program,
he was given instructions that he was not to host a reciprocal dinner for the
North Koreans even though they would be hosting one for him on the night of
his arrival. And he was also given instructions he was not allowed to raise
his glass in a toast. And as one of the members of Kelly's delegation said to
me, `This is what diplomats do unless there's a shooting war. We have dinner
with each other. We exchange toasts, and we try and work through the
differences and see where we're at.'

There was another episode in the summer of 2003 when the six party talks got
under way where Assistant Secretary Kelly was told that he could only have a
conversation, a one-on-one conversation with his North Korean counterpart in
full view of all the other members of the six party talks. And so one of
Kelly's aides went to the Chinese and said, `Will you please put some couches
in the corner of the main room where the plenary session is being held?' And
then Kelly approached the North Korean and said, `Would you like to come sit
down and talk?' And the two men went into a corner. And all the other members
of the other four countries attending the six party talks--the Chinese, the
Russians, the South Koreans and the Japanese--were standing on the other side
of the room craning their necks trying to overhear what the two men were
talking about. And it was a kind of of embarrassing, humiliating moment. But
it was reflective of this attitude among many of the hard liners that the
North Koreans were so horrible the US could not dignify them with the normal
gestures of respect that make up the day-to-day workings of diplomatic

DAVIES: You know, and yet there are other moments where the style of the
North Koreans seems so--well, hard to find the right word. I'm thinking of a
1999 meeting that you describe in which William Perry, the American official,
goes. And this official gives him a very direct and personal threat.

Mr. CHINOY: The North Koreans are hardly, you know, paragons of virtue or of
excellent behavior. Their style has been bluster and brinksmanship and
threats. That's always been the case. I think one of the lessons to come
away with is, if it's understood that that's their style, that they do not
necessarily need to be taken literally. But there is a case where when Perry
went to Pyongyang the North Koreans kind of hinted, `If things go wrong we'll
drop a nuclear bomb on your hometown in California.'

DAVIES: They said, `We know where your hometown'...

Mr. CHINOY: Right.

DAVIES: `We know where you're from and we will vaporize your hometown if you

Mr. CHINOY: That's right. That's right. So they're not above making these
kinds of threats. In 1994, at the height of the nuclear crisis before the
agreed framework was negotiated, a North Korean official said to South
Koreans, `We'll turn Soul into a sea of fire.' So hyped up rhetoric and
bombast and threats are central to the North Korean diplomatic arsenal. But
also, once you understand that that's their style and not to be always taken
literally, you can kind of parse it for the deeper meaning of what might or
might not be possible. But unquestionably their rhetoric and their venom and
their personal attacks--I mean, there was a period in the spring of 2005 that
I write about in "Meltdown" where the North Koreans and the Bush
administration were exchanging incredibly nasty insults. Bush and Cheney made
critical comments about Kim Jong Il. The North Koreans came back with just
really, really nasty comments. And you have these two governments exchanging
the bitterest of insults. So that's partly how the North Koreans play the

DAVIES: Eventually, at the end of 2006, the Bush administration--I mean,
things have changed. The Iraq war has gone badly, etc. And it changes its
tack and decides to engage North Korea. To what extent has progress been
made? Where are we now on this issue?

Mr. CHINOY: Well, I think a couple of interesting points here. One is that
the administration wasn't united in changing tack. What happened was that the
new assistant secretary of state for East Asia, Christopher Hill, was able to
convince Condoleezza Rice after she became secretary of state that dealing
with North Korea offered better possibilities than confronting them. She was
able to convince President Bush, and I think particularly with the Iraq war
going as badly as it was going, the possibility of some kind of diplomatic
achievement looked increasingly attractive. So over bitter objections from
Vice President Cheney and his office and other hard liners, Hill, with Rice's
backing, was able to re-engage the North Koreans.

DAVIES: And what have we achieved? Yeah.

Mr. CHINOY: Well, it's interesting. There was a deal in February of 2007
that laid out a kind of road map. And what we now have is a situation where
the Yongbyon nuclear facility is in the process of being disabled. There are
monitors there. The North Koreans recently staged a very public blowing up of
the cooling tower there. If this process continues, it's going to be much
more difficult for them to bring them back online. The North has also
provided a, as it was supposed to under these deals, a declaration of its
activities, particularly related to plutonium.

But there are a number of very difficult issues that are still outstanding.
The first one is the question of verification of this declaration. And that's
what is currently in dispute. The US is insisting that the North Koreans
agreed to allow people to go in and interview North Korean officials, bring in
instruments to take measurements and samplings so that the US can verify what
the North Koreans are claiming is the current state of play of their plutonium
program. And there's also continuing dispute about two other questions. One
is the actual status of whatever the North tried to do on uranium and also the
nature of the North's nuclear cooperation with Syria, because last year the
Israelis blew up this what looked like a nuclear reactor being built in the
desert in Syria that the US contends was being built with North Korean help.

And so there are all of these issues outstanding, and it's kind of poised at a
moment where there has, I think in fairness, been a lot of progress. The
North has never gone this far in disabling Yongbyon. It's never been as
forthcoming as it has been. But there are still a lot of questions. And if
the verification issue isn't settled to Washington's satisfaction the US is
signaling that it may not take North Korea off the United States' list of
states sponsoring terrorism. And that has been a central North Korean demand.
And so we're poised at a moment where it could move forward and leave whoever
takes office in January of 2009 with the plutonium program disabled. And the
next stage, which is to negotiate the fate of their actual bombs and try and
roll that back, sort of ready to move forward. It could equally be a case
that President Obama or President McCain will find a situation where there's
still a lot of tension and dispute and the progress that's been made could
unravel because it's still fragile.

DAVIES: You know, it's interesting. One of the narratives in your book is,
as we see a new president take office, George W. Bush in 2000, a different
policy takes hold at a time when there was, you know, a lot of hope and
progress between the United States and North Korea, and things sharply
reversed. And we're now at another juncture where we're going to have a new
president in a few months. As you look at what Barack Obama and John McCain
have said about the North Korean issue, what do you see?

Mr. CHINOY: There are some interesting echoes of what happened in the
transition from Clinton to Bush here. You have in the wanning days of an
administration a pretty dramatic acceleration towards trying to resolve these
issues, but one that has not yet reached full fruition. And so there are a
lot of outstanding issues to be resolved.

Senator McCain has been very tough on North Korea. In some ways he's been
more hard line than George W. Bush, and has signaled that he would take a
very skeptical approach towards a lot of what has happened recently. Senator
Obama has been a bit more positive, but still somewhat, he and his advisers,
somewhat skeptical and cautious about what's gone on.

The North Koreans have been told repeatedly by American officials and people
outside the government--from Henry Kissinger, who's participated in meetings
in a sort of track two basis with the North Koreans, to others--`Do you deal
with the Bush administration. You're never going to have as good a chance
now, because whoever comes in there will be a policy review, things will be
put on hold.' McCain, as I said, is I think openly skeptical. Obama's going
to have a lot of other issues, including orchestrating a drawdown of US forces
in Iraq. And I think the Republican--a lot of people in the Republican Party
are very uneasy with this new, more conciliatory approach that President Bush
has taken. Apart from John Bolton and the few other outspoken conservatives,
have kind of held their fire, but would not necessarily do so if it's an Obama
administration trying to adopt a similar approach.

So we could be in for some rough sailing, particularly if these loose ends
that are still being sorted out now about verification and the status of the
North's uranium program and its nuclear cooperation with Syria and so on are
not worked through in the next few months. And there's no question that time
is going to run out.

DAVIES: Well, Mike Chinoy, really interesting. Thanks so much for speaking
with us.

Mr. CHINOY: Thanks very much for having me.

DAVIES: Mike Chinoy is senior fellow at the Pacific Council on International
Policy. His new book is "Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean
Nuclear Crisis."

Coming up, David Edelstein on the new stoner film "Pineapple Express." This is

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: David Edelstein on the movie "Pineapple Express"

Writer and actor Seth Rogen met James Franco on the 1999 TV series "Freaks and
Geeks," produced by Judd Apatow. Rogen co-wrote and stars with Franco in the
new film "Pineapple Express." Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN: The latest film from the Judd Apatow factory,
"Pineapple Express," is a foul-mouthed stoner comedy that morphs into an
over-the-top gross-out action flick. The star, Seth Rogen, plays Dale, a
pothead process server who witnesses a brain-spattering, drug-related murder
and goes on the lam, pursued by assassins, accompanied by his befuddled dealer
Saul, played by James Franco. Rogen co-wrote the movie with Evan Goldberg.
The pair also wrote last summer's Apatow-produced hit "Superbad," a
coming-of-age story with another bad trip. To score with girls, "Superbad"'s
virginal teen heroes went in search of booze, an odyssey that took them into a
druggie wasteland of scary child men.

Now Rogen and Goldberg and the director, indie arthouse starling David Gordon
Green in his slob comedy debut, exploit that wasteland for kicks. The movie
they've slapped together has a hollow, heartless feel, its plotting lazy, even
by stoner comedy standards. There is, however, something to be said for even
second rate stoner comedies. After some bad decades of overdoses, crack
cocaine and the surprisingly potent "Just Say No" movement, it suddenly wasn't
cool to laugh at people hacking up the contents of their lungs over humongous
doobies. But stoner comedies have crept back into the mainstream. First came
"The Big Lebowski" and its improbable pothead gum shoe, The Dude. Then
"Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle" gave us a surreal druggie odyssey in
which the most obscenely fatty of all fast foods was the holy grail. The
audience seemed grateful to laugh again at marijuana, something illegal and
socially irresponsible, but for all its dangers a big part of American

In Apatow's "Knocked Up," Rogen played a stoner living among stoners. But the
agenda was unlike the usual pot comedies. Apatow rung as many gags out of
dope as he could, then made it clear his hero had to set aside the bong and
take responsibility for himself and his new dependents. It seemed rather
opportunistic, but it allowed both potheads and moralists to enjoy the ride.

The same double edge is in "Pineapple Express." The heroes are forced to grow
up, in this case to take arms against killers. But it's the pot stuff that's
the most entertaining. I could listen for hours to Rogen and Franco shoot the
cannabis-scented breeze.

(Soundbite of "Pineapple Express")

Mr. JAMES FRANCO: (As Saul Silver) What's up with the suit?

Mr. SETH ROGEN: (As Dale Denton) Oh, I'm a process server. So I have to
wear a suit.

Mr. FRANCO: (As Saul) Wow, you're a servant, like a butler, a chauffeur?

Mr. ROGEN: (As Dale) No, no. What? No, I'm not like--no, I'm a...

Mr. FRANCO: (As Saul) Shine shoes.

Mr. ROGEN: (As Dale) ...I'm a process server. I like...

Mr. FRANCO: (As Saul) In process.

Mr. ROGEN: (As Dale) I work for a company that's like hired by lawyers to
like hand out legal documents like subpoenas to people who don't want them.

Mr. FRANCO: (As Saul) Subpoena?

Mr. ROGEN: (As Dale) So I got to wear like disguises sometimes just to make
them admit that they're themselves so I can serve them the papers.

Mr. FRANCO: (As Saul) Disguise?

Mr. ROGEN: (As Dale) Kind of, I guess. It's a hell of a job.

Mr. FRANCO: (As Saul) That's cool, man.

Mr. ROGEN: (As Dale) Like a day-to-day basis, it's fine.

Mr. FRANCO: (As Saul) You got a great job where you don't do anything.

Mr. ROGEN: (As Dale) That's what I say.

Mr. FRANCO: (As Saul) I wish I had that.

Mr. ROGEN: (As Dale) Are you kidding? You do. You have the easiest job on

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: (As Saul) That's true.

Mr. ROGEN: (As Dale) You didn't think of that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: (As Saul) I do have a good job.

Mr. ROGEN: (As Dale) Yeah, you do nothing.

Mr. FRANCO: (As Saul) Thanks, man.

Mr. ROGEN: (As Dale) No prob.

(End of soundbite)

Mr. EDELSTEIN: Good times. And James Franco finally gets the breakout role
he deserves. In loose striped pants, his hair long and floppy, he shows off
his radiant good nature. Even his irritability carries a wisp of childlike
wonder. But Rogen's jabber, hilarious in "Knocked Up," feels more and more
like shtick--and with its echoes of Albert Brooks, secondhand shtick. Dale
has a cute high school girlfriend played by Amber Heard. But it's even harder
to fathom her attraction to him than it was Katherine Heigl's in "Knocked Up."
The supporting cast has its moments, many of them belonging to Danny McBride
as the infantile dealer's dealer. But it's mostly stereotype city. The most
distinctive touch is the gore, akin to a "Three Stooges" comedy where Moe
actually pokes out Curly's eyes. But there's something spiritually off in the
mix of pothead slacker jokes and formula buddy action movie carnage.

When the picture gets moist with male bonding, you can't tell how you're
supposed to react. Stoner comedies like "The Big Lebowski" and "Harold and
Kumar" and the films of Cheech and Chong make a point of thumbing their noses
at dopey formulas in the name of a higher dopiness, even if it's partly a put
on. The pothead machismo of "Pineapple Express" is a trip to nowhere.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

You can download podcasts of our show at our Web site,


DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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