Return to Transcripts main page
CNN Special Reports
The Two Faces of Kim Jong-un. Aired 9-10p ET
Aired February 24, 2019 - 21:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST (voice-over): The best way to destroy an enemy, Abraham Lincoln once said, is to make him a friend.
President Lincoln, meet Kim Jong-un.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If anybody said we would be sitting here today talking about Kim Jong-un sitting down with President Donald Trump...
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I mean, he is like a maniac.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- you would have thought we were insane.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): In just months, we have gone from schoolyard taunts...
TRUMP: He is a sick puppy.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): -- to the hair raising rhetoric of war...
TRUMP: They will be met with fire and fury.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): -- to a history-making moment.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Trump's groundbreaking summit with Kim Jong- un.
TRUMP: They want to make a deal. That's what I do. My whole life has been deals.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Great danger on the downside. But if he can pull it off --
TRUMP: Thank you, everybody.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- there's tremendous reward on the upside.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Danger from a violent dictator.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: His own uncle killed by a firing squad.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They are not crazy, they're brutal.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): But now, a new face of Kim Jong-un. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All of a sudden he is literally toasting with the
most powerful leaders in the world.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): This is North Korea?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Kim Jong-un at the water park, on the roller coasters with his beautiful wife.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): But one thing has never changed.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They always wanted the nuclear weapons.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): How much does Donald Trump really know...
TRUMP: He is a pretty smart cookie.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): -- about the man he has made a deal with?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Incredible uncertainty.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you wait, you die.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Consequences for the next 60, 70, 100 years.
ZAKARIA: I'm Fareed Zakaria. I want to show you a video, one that tells you the story of North Korea. This is our planet, specifically Asia, as seen from the space station. That area is South Korea, ablaze with light and life.
This black hole, it looks like water, is North Korea. It is a country so impoverished, so backward, that it sometimes seems to be from another century.
The economy of South Korea is 36 times larger than that of the North. Yet somehow the North Korean leader now commands the center of the world stage.
This is the story of Kim Jong-un, his past, present, and how he has managed to bring an American president to his doorstep.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): December 28th, 2011: Kim Jong-un had just inherited the cruelest, most repressive dictatorship on Earth. His father, Kim Jong-il, was dead from a heart attack. In icy Pyongyang, tens of thousands lined the streets. For many mourners, it was a chance to catch a glimpse of their new leader.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People believed he is too young, he is too inexperienced.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): There were real fears that Kim Jong-un, still in his 20s, was not up to the job.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He looked like a boy. There he is, sobbing over his father's casket.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Some doubted that he could ever command the kind of cult-like worship his grandfather and his father inspired. A reaction like this.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't want to say it's insincere but let's say the enthusiasm's over the top. These people are going to be on North Korean television.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): It's the question we so often ask about North Korea, is this real or is it propaganda?
As the camera moves down the line of mourners, most seem to react only when the camera reaches them. This "Godfather"-like drama ran for days on North Korean television.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): It became propaganda. It is the lifeblood of North Korea and one of the key reasons the Kim dynasty has endured.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: North Koreans want the Kim family to continue ruling North Korea. This is about regime survival.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Kim Jong-un quickly embraced the first rule of regime survival: control all information.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Kim Jong-un is, to a certain extent, everything. He is the rock star. He is the celebrity. He is the be-all and end- all.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Which is good because he is the only show in town. There's only one kind of television and it is all broadcast by the government.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And it's all part of the brainwashing, complete indoctrination since the people are born.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): In a program about the leader's extraordinary abilities, we are told that he is a world renowned composer who learned to drive at the age of 3. Children are taught to worship him.
This TV show for kids is not exactly "Sesame Street." These small children sing, Americans go down on their knees and beg Kim Jong-un for their lives.
A child draws a picture of the U.S. on fire. A kindly grandfather says, "Good job."
Most North Koreans have no Internet. no access to outside media at all.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The North Korean regime wants to be sealed up from the outside. It fears that kind of openness.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): There are a few exceptions, like Kim Jong-un himself.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He watches American news.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): For ordinary North Koreans, watching foreign TV can mean prison. Still, many take their chances. Copies of "Friends" and shows like it are smuggled in and watched in secret. "Friends" was seen widely enough that North Korea appears to have copied it.
"Our Neighbors" is about friends in an apartment building, who hang out and watch TV together. They dance just like the "Friends" characters. But on "Our Neighbors," this is the reason they are dancing, Missile launches, the ultimate North Korean survival play and an ever-present theme in music videos, on huge outdoor screens, at classical music concerts.
Propaganda shows North Korean missiles taking out imaginary American targets, all while the American flag burns.
At a huge anti-American rally, banners read, "We become human bombs to defend Kim Jong-un."
The missile launches have stopped for now but while they were going on, they brought out a whole new side of the North Korean leader. He gave one officer a piggyback ride and even threw all of them a parade.
He loves these guys. Their nuclear weapons and missiles were Kim Jong-un's ticket to a seat at the table with Donald Trump.
EVAN OSNOS, "THE NEW YORKER": They looked down the barrel of the gun, in effect, that Donald Trump had trained on them. And what they needed was to get to a point where they could reasonably say to the United States, now we will come to the table.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): But there was one more thing Kim Jong-un had to take care of before he could step out onto the world stage. It may be the most important rule of regime survival: eliminate all threats.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: His own uncle, Jang Song-thaek, was pulled out of a party meeting. He was accused of having sold out North Korea, of having clapped halfheartedly at a meeting for the leader.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): That's right. Uncle Jang Song-thaek did not clap hard enough. But what really marked him for execution: he had amassed too much power.
OSNOS: Everybody in North Korea knew that Jang Song-thaek, one of the most powerful people in the government, had been executed. And not just executed, he had been killed by a firing squad.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Publicly executed him in front of hundreds of North Korean officials.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This was execution as propaganda.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): It was a pattern Kim Jong-un began early. He may have been grief-stricken at his father's funeral but the seven pallbearers have all either been killed or pushed aside.
JUNG H. PAK, FORMER CIA ANALYST: He wanted people around him who are loyal to him and not to his father.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): His top military leader was said to have been killed with an anti-aircraft gun. And there was one more man who some saw as a threat to Kim Jong-un.
BLITZER: Tonight, the half-brother of the North Korean strongman, Kim Jong-un, has died suddenly and mysteriously in Malaysia.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): It was murder and it was bizarre. Kim Jong-nam was killed in the middle of the Kuala Lumpur airport. A young woman put a cloth to his face that contained a deadly nerve agent.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think the creepiest or the darkest part of that video is that the North Korean managers that were in charge of that operation are in the airport watching him. I mean, there's still a lot of haze and mystery around it and who actually ordered it.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): The State Department said North Korea was responsible for the murder of Kim Jong-nam. But the North denies it. Kim Jong-un has ordered the executions of at least 140 of his own top officials, according to South Korean intelligence.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He has maintained power by ruthlessly eliminating a threat at the first moment it appears.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Many of the dead men had something in common: strong ties to China. He was worried that the Chinese might try to depose him and make some alliance with the North Korean military. So he goes after generals, he goes after, you know, North Korean officers, his uncle, the half-brother.
SUE MI TERRY, FORMER DEPUTY INTELLIGENCE OFFICER, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: I think Kim Jong-un felt insecure that China could potentially wanted to do a regime change. China could work with the United States and come up with a different leadership in North Korea.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): But that was before Kim made a new best friend. He and Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, have bonded repeatedly in recent months.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is one more major step in Kim's carefully choreographed march onto the world stage.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Until very recently, most Americans saw Kim Jong-un as a cartoon character. Many asked, how could an American president meet with a man who was building nukes and missiles aimed at Americans?
OSNOS: Donald Trump has made a very big bet. He is basically putting all of this on his own ability to negotiate his way through this.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): And to top it off, the negotiations are as high stakes as any president has ever faced. OSNOS: We haven't had anything like this since the Cold War.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): The Cold War; to really understand North Korea, we need to go back to that crucial period, in the middle of the 20th century.
It was in that crucible that the Kim dynasty was forged, three generations of dictators, who would rule North Korea for the next 70 years. It begins just after the Second World War. Soviet troops had liberated the North of Korea; the allies, the South.
Soviet premier Joseph Stalin names a leader for the newly formed North Korea, a young general who had fought with the Soviets in World War II. His name was Kim Il-sung, a genuine hero to the North Korean people.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He must have had enormous charisma.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Founder of the nation.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): With Soviet help, he quickly amassed an army. And in 1950, Kim Il-sung invaded South Korea. The Korean War had begun. When America, the Soviet Union and China got involved, many feared it could become a world war.
HARRY TRUMAN, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We are fighting in Korea for our own national security and survival. We stand by that commitment.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): For the first time, North Korea experienced the power of a nuclear threat.
JEFFREY LEWIS, NUCLEAR PROLIFERATION EXPERT: From the very moment of North Korea's inception, it has felt like it is under the threat of a nuclear attack by the United States.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): America did not use the bomb. But its aerial bombardment of North Korea was brutal. More than 1 million North Koreans died. So did more than 36,000 American troops.
PAK: Devastated the whole Korean Peninsula.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): In 1953, the two sides signed an armistice. And even though Kim Il-sung had started the war, he blamed the U.S. for turning his country to rubble.
PAK: This is how the North Koreans grew up thinking about the United States.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): After the war, Kim Il-sung rebuilt North Korea with money from his sponsor, the Soviet Union. He put in bridges, roads, built plants and factories. And by the 1960s, North Korea became a relative economic success.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is a guy with a 7th grade education who becomes one of the most powerful dictators of the 20th century.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): But there was a darker side to North Korea's founder. Kim Il-sung, who had endured the terrifying specter of a nuclear attack during the Korean War, had begun his own quest for the bomb.
LEWIS: It never occurred to Kim Il-sung that North Korea should not have nuclear weapons.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): By the 1980s, Kim Il-sung began turning over some of his duties to his son, Kim Jong-il. Father and son were vastly different characters.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You could talk to certain migrants from North Korea that live in the South. They will tell you that, Kim Il-sung we loved. Kim Jong-il frightened us.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Kim Jong-il was introverted.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Kim Jong-il is a complicated person. He was prone to mood swings.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): In 1994, Kim Il-sung died.
There were doubts about Kim Jong-il's succession but they gradually faded because he had one talent: he was a master propagandist.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When Kim Jong-il took charge of the propaganda and agitation department of the Workers' Party, that's when they started turning Kim Il-sung into this God figure.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): The great myths of the Kim dynasty, the preposterous stories of their godlike abilities and sacred bloodline, Kim Jong-il largely created them.
TERRY: He was very influenced by Christianity in a strange way. They have what seems like a Bible that's all about Kim Il-sung's works. They have Bible study groups.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): The resemblance to Christianity is no accident. Many Kim myths are rooted in the religion, perhaps because founder Kim Il-sung was raised a Presbyterian. His parents were believed to have been converted by American missionaries.
TERRY: It's a cult, with Kim Il-sung as God and Kim Jong-il as son of God. These are their leaders that need to be worshipped.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): The Kims essentially created a religion around themselves. And that became a key driver of their regime survival. Kim Jong-il created much of it. But it turns out he had another ambition. What he really wanted to do was direct.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Kim Jong-il really wants to make movies.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Loved American cinema and was a huge movie buff. ZAKARIA (voice-over): He loved Elvis, "Gone with the Wind," but most
of all, "Titanic." So inspired was Kim Jong-il, that he made his own version of "Titanic."
But what he did in 1978 was still more bizarre, even by North Korean standards. He ordered the kidnapping of a South Korean actress. He also kidnapped her husband, a movie director, and he ordered them to make movies.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Look, I need to improve the North Korean film business. I brought you here. Anything you need, just you let me know.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): As the '90s approached, Kim Jong-il was spending huge sums to build a nuclear weapons program and the economy began to collapse.
When flooding destroyed North Korea's meager food supply in the 1990s, there were no resources left to feed the country. It was one of the worst famines the world has ever seen. At least 2 million people died of starvation.
And finally, there is Kim Jong-il's legacy of political --
ZAKARIA (voice-over): -- imprisonment. Begun under his father, he greatly expanded it and it continues to this day. This is the dark side of a brutal and secretive regime.
But there is another North Korea, a country many people have never seen, with entertainment, wealth, luxury. There is even a glamor couple.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: North Korea's imagemakers are turning Kim Jong-un and Ri Sol-ju into sort of William and Kate.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): That story when we come back.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): When Kim Jong-un first came to power in 2011, he made a pledge to improve the lives of North Koreans. No more belt tightening, he promised. We know North Korea is repressive and cruel, one of the darkest and most secretive societies on Earth.
But now there are some dramatic signs that it is changing under Kim Jong-un.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What message are you trying to send to the West?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He wants to show the world it's on the move, it's modern and it's upscale.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): This is a different North Korea than you have seen before. It begins in the capital city, Pyongyang. [21:25:00]
ZAKARIA (voice-over): If you didn't know, you might think it was Orlando.
This is North Korea?
New waterparks, amusement rides, even unauthorized Disney characters?
OSNOS: Kim Jong-un did not naturally enjoy the support of his people. He had to build it.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): In a very poor country, Kim Jong-un has spent billions building new luxury apartments and at astonishing speed. He has transformed the city's skyline.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And you see it when you go to Pyongyang. It is a city that has been essentially created like a stage set.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): In a way, it is. Pyongyang is a sort of Potemkin village built to show that North Korea is booming.
The capital city does not represent how most North Koreans live. Only people most loyal to the regime, about 11 percent of the population or 3 million people, are chosen to live here.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He had a lot of work to do to establish himself as a legitimate leader. And one of the ways he did that was by starting to unveil these real estate developments.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): North Korea recently called these developments more powerful than 100 nuclear warheads. The capital has been dubbed Pyonghattan. And just like Manhattan, apartments don't come cheap.
OSNOS: All of the apartments, all the land belongs to the state. People are given apartments and then they begin to trade them. People are spending tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy the best apartments in town.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Kim is desperate to convince the world that North Korea is thriving, despite years of economic catastrophe and severe sanctions.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: People are going to these restaurants. They are taking taxis.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Kim is showing off new subway cars, horseback riding stables, even an international beer festival.
PAK: He is trying to counter the existing narrative that North Korea's this backward, isolated, desolate place.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): The first lady, Ri Sol-ju, is a big part of the image makeover.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: North Korea's imagemakers are turning Kim Jong-un and Ri Sol-ju into William and Kate in the United Kingdom.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She became a fashion icon in North Korea.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Rules about how women can dress have also changed.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They can wear shorter skirts, taller high heels.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Luxury items or fake luxury items, faux Channel bags, fake Louis Vuitton.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): And there is a new moneyed elite. Comrade Kim is even allowing something that looks suspiciously like capitalism to grow. In a sense, Kim Jong-un is buying the support of Pyongyang. But there is a problem: Kim is running out of money. It's one of the reasons why he is reaching out to the world.
OSNOS: He has to show the most privileged people in his country that he can lead them to some kind of better life because, if he doesn't, they will figure out a way to get rid of him.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Or they may leave. There are more than 30,000 North Koreans defectors now living in South Korea. And there has been an increase in the number of elites leaving in recent years. But most defectors come from the other North Korea, outside Pyongyang, where poverty and hunger are widespread.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: North Korea, in many ways, inhabits the 21st century in some places and the 17th century in others. People are literally farming with their hands.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): In the other North Korea, the roads and railways are crumbling. The U.N. says almost half the population is hungry and lacks clean water and electricity.
In a socialist country, where people are supposed to be clothed and fed by the government, most North Koreans are now forced to fend for themselves. It looks like the "Hunger Games."
JIEUN BAEK, AUTHOR: These markets sprung out of nothing. People started selling anything that they could to make money to support themselves and their families.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Under Kim's father, people began selling foods and goods smuggled in from China to survive the famine.
BAEK: What began as tiny, one-street stall businesses, many of these have evolved to massive businesses in North Korea.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Kim Jong-un has allowed the markets to grow. South Korean intelligence estimates that about 40 percent of the population is now engaged in part --
ZAKARIA (voice-over): -- of the market economy. And the regime is profiting. Kim Jong-un is walking a tightrope.
OSNOS: How do you begin to have some of this economic activity without loosening the reins so much that it gets away from you and you end up driven from power?
That's the dilemma. That's the dictator's dilemma.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): It stunned the world when Kim Jong-un invited K-pop singers from South Korea to perform in Pyongyang.
OSNOS: It gets to the absolute heart and the puzzle of North Korea. On the one hand, North Korea knows that its people want to taste what the outside world has to offer. But then, at the same time, the leadership is desperate to maintain control.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): The question is, can this closed, repressive society survive as the door begins to crack open?
When we return, what happens if that door slams shut and all Kim Jong- un has left is his nuclear arsenal?
ZAKARIA (voice-over): There is just one reason North Korea now stands at the center of the world stage: this penniless, isolated, totalitarian state could start a nuclear war.
ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN (RET.), FORMER CHAIRMAN OF THE JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: It would explode quickly.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): A deadly scenario haunts the greatest military minds. Two unpredictable nuclear-armed leaders, just one terrible mistake.
MULLEN: He is just crazy enough, from my perspective, and unpredictable enough that he might use those weapons.
LEWIS: The scenarios I worry about are not ones where leaders deliberately choose to start a nuclear war but it's when they stumble into one, either through incompetence or just sheer miscalculation.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): One theory, it could start with a commercial flight that goes off course.
LEWIS: What if the North Koreans shot down a civilian South Korean airliner?
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Accident or not, a major incident that could trigger an escalation.
LEWIS: People would be really, really outraged and so you could imagine there would be calls for a kind of punitive strike against North Korea.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Most likely, a limited strike, what has been called the bloody nose strategy.
PAK: It is not to destroy North Korea but it is to teach Kim a lesson.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): But what if Kim doesn't understand the lesson?
TERRY: They don't know that this is supposed to be just a limited and one time only.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Pyongyang might see itself as under attack.
TERRY: Kim Jong-un could miscalculate and perceive a larger military action or regime change coming. So he acts out first.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Some say his first response would be to use his conventional weapons.
MULLEN: North Koreans have tens of thousands of artillery rounds and rockets aimed at Seoul.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): There are 25 million people living in and around the South Korean capital, including almost 30,000 American troops.
MULLEN: It would be tens of thousands of people that would die almost immediately in Seoul. Obviously, with Seoul under attack, the South is going to go to Pyongyang.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Tens of thousands more would die there. And another twist: China could enter the conflict.
MULLEN: There's an awful lot for China to lose here if this peninsula gets out of control. There's so much uncertainty here, Fareed, with our president, with Kim Jong-un, with China. It's very, very difficult to predict how this is going to come out.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): One thing is certain: the stakes could get even higher.
LEWIS: Once there are things exploding in North Korea, Kim Jong-un may very well conclude that that's not just a limited strike but the beginning of an invasion. And if that's the case, the North Korean plan is to use their nuclear plans against U.S. forces throughout South Korea and Japan on the first day of the war.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): North Korea has one of the world's largest armies, 1.1 million soldiers and as many as 60 nuclear warheads.
LEWIS: So cities like Tokyo and Seoul and Busan are going to have a lot of nuclear weapons going off in them and that's going to be a tremendous catastrophe.
MULLEN: These are the most lethal, devastating weapons man has ever created and put on Earth.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): To see the horror of it clearly, look back to 1945; Japan, more than 70 years ago.
MULLEN: People disappeared so quickly in Hiroshima and Nagasaki that their shadows actually were left on the ground.
From my perspective, it is absolutely essential that we do everything we possibly can to not get into a conflict there.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): To understand why North Korea has fought so fiercely over the years for nuclear weapons, you need to understand all that they went through to get them.
One man who understood the power of the atomic bomb was its creator, Robert Oppenheimer.
ROBERT OPPENHEIMER, ATOMIC BOMB CREATOR: We knew the world would not be the same.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): He looked back on the day the nuclear age began, July 16th, 1945, the test, codenamed Trinity.
OPPENHEIMER: I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, Vishnu takes on his multi-armed form --
OPPENHEIMER: -- and says, "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds."
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Three, two, one. Now.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): A few decades later, North Korea has become Vishnu.
How did a country so poor, so isolated from the world, acquire the most destructive technology on Earth?
And can we really expect them to give it all away?
This is the story of how North Korea got the bomb.
North Korea's nuclear program began early.
LEWIS: They always wanted a nuclear weapon.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): To get the bomb, Kim Il-sung needed help from his powerful Cold War ally, the Soviet Union. The Soviets gave the North civilian nuclear technology, training its scientists in Russia and helping them build a small nuclear research reactor. But they stopped short of giving them the bomb, afraid of the chaos that might result.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Soviets told the North Koreans, don't build the bomb.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): After China joined the nuclear club in 1964, Kim Il-sung asked Chairman Mao for help. But Mao refused to help as well. If the North Koreans wanted the bomb, they would have to make it themselves. Kim Il-sung ramped up nuclear programs at the North's universities to foster homegrown talent.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They were going to train their own people so they did not have to rely on the rest of the world.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): The North tried to copy a nuclear reactor in Great Britain that the Brits had used to make their nuclear arsenal.
LEWIS: It makes really nice plutonium for nuclear weapons.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): The designs for the reactor were not hard to find.
ALEX WELLERSTEIN, NUCLEAR WEAPONS HISTORIAN: By the 1970s, you can go to a university library and check out books on nuclear reactor design.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): To get all of the intricate nuclear parts, the North went shopping, cutting deals all over the world.
SIEGFRIED HECKER, FORMER DIRECTOR, LOS ALAMOS NATIONAL LABORATORY: There were a lot of greedy business people that were willing and able to sell this stuff.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): They began building their homemade reactor in the 1980s under the watchful eye of the CIA.
LEWIS: The United States intelligence community at first thinks it's a copy of the tiny little Soviet supply reactor because they think the North Koreans are idiots and can't do anything.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): But North Korea surprised everyone. They had built a reactor that could fuel a nuclear arsenal.
LEWIS: It's really big. And big enough to produce enough plutonium for a couple of bombs a year and that causes a panic.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The crisis over North Korea's nuclear program is nearing a crucial turning point.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): In 1994, the tense situation became a full- blown crisis.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Experts are convinced North Korea's building a nuclear bomb.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): The North blocked international inspectors at the reactor...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's the tensest time for the region in 40 years.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): -- and appeared to take measures to start making bombs.
LEWIS: It seems very likely that they have started siphoning off plutonium so that they could have a small stockpile of nuclear weapons.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): President Clinton considered the military option, a surgical strike on the North's nuclear facilities. South Korea braced itself for an all-out war on the peninsula.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Families are stockpiling gas masks, first aid kits, drinking water. There could be a second Korean War.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Then, miraculously, a way out. Former President Jimmy Carter, freelancing, met with Kim Il-sung in North Korea. They reached a deal.
JIMMY CARTER, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think we have come to a much better understanding.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): A few months later, the agreed framework was signed. The North promised to freeze its nuclear facilities, including two much bigger reactors under construction, that could have produced dozens of bombs every year.
HECKER: That's an enormous amount and they gave it up as part of the agreed framework.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): In exchange, the United States would give them millions of dollars' --
ZAKARIA (voice-over): -- worth of oil and help build two lightwater reactors, good for making electricity but bad for making bombs. It looked like a victory for President Clinton.
BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This agreement is good for the United States, good for our allies and good for the safety of the entire world.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): But a few weeks later...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Clinton Congress is taking a pounding tonight.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): The Republicans won control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. They were not fans of the deal.
PHIL GRAMM (R-TEXAS), FORMER SENATOR: I don't trust North Koreans. I think this is a very questionable deal.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: We are going back to the days of President Carter, of appeasement.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Many in Congress didn't want to pay for North Korea's reactors or the oil and the shipments were delayed.
Meanwhile, North Korea didn't live up to its end of the deal, either. They pursued a second path to the bomb, separate from the nuclear reactor route, enriching uranium.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are happy that it was successful.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Enter A.Q. Khan, the mastermind of Pakistan's atomic bomb. Khan admitted he ran a nuclear black market for nations like Iran and Libya. North Korea was said to be one of his best customers. Khan later took back his confession but nuclear experts say it was all true.
GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): The Bush administration called North Korea out for its uranium program and gave up completely on President Clinton's deal from the 1990s.
In hindsight, that was a big mistake. The North responded by restarting its mothballed reactor and converting plutonium into nuclear bombs. Bush scrambled to strike a new deal but it was too little, too late.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: North Korea has performed its first test ever of a nuclear weapon.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): North Korea joined the nuclear club in October 2006.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: North Korea tests a nuclear bomb and is now a nuclear power.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Under Kim Jong-un, it was a nuclear program on steroids, four tests in five years.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A seismic event detected in North Korea.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: North Korea says it has successfully tested a hydrogen bomb.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): In a rare televised speech on New Year's Day, Kim Jong-un officially declared mission accomplished.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking foreign language).
ZAKARIA (voice-over): His nation's decades-long quest for the bomb had been realized. The question is, despite the recent overtures for peace, will Kim Jong-un give up the prize that his family and his country fought for, for so long?
ZAKARIA: So what did come out of the unprecedented meeting between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump?
They signed a joint statement but one with little substance.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): North Korea affirmed its desire for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, as it has done before, without giving any specifics or timelines. It agreed to no mechanisms for verification and monitoring.
ZAKARIA: The United States gave more. It offered Kim a platform as an equal to the president, who spoke warmly of him...
TRUMP: We had a really fantastic meeting.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): -- committed to provide security guarantees to North Korea, agreed to cancel long-standing joint military exercises with South Korea...
TRUMP: Thank you, everybody.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): -- and dangled the prospects of foreign aid and investment to the North.
ZAKARIA: But one benefit, regardless of the ultimate outcome, is that it probably ends the idea of North Korea as a crazy country.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Some of Washington's biggest mistakes have been when it has treated countries or governments as 10 feet tall and fanatical or lunatic. And for years, the conventional wisdom about the North Korean regime was that it was unpredictable, irrational and, thus, undeterrable.
After all, people said, just look at the bizarre rituals and the crazy haircuts of its leaders.
ZAKARIA: In fact, as I've often pointed out, the North Korean regime has been rational, strategic and successful, given its core goal: survival. It has preserved its basic form of government for 70 years, persevering through the breakdown of the Soviet Union and its empire, the Arab Spring, the demise of other Asian dictatorships from South Korea to Taiwan to Indonesia.
Look at the world from Kim Jong-un's perspective. By the time he came to power, the regime had lost its great patron, the Soviet Union. Its closest ally, China, with whom it fought the Korean War, now viewed it as a nuisance, often voting to sanction North Korea at the United Nations.
And the most powerful country in the world, the United States, often expressed a desire to see wholesale regime change in Pyongyang.
So Kim Jong-un accelerated the policy of his father and grandfather, which was to buy insurance. But it would take a great deal to make North Korea destroy its entire nuclear capacity. It has historically only appeared willing to do so in return for the end of the U.S.-South Korea military --
ZAKARIA (voice-over): -- alliance, formal recognition by Washington and large amounts of aid. ZAKARIA: The negotiations do contain risks. Any deal that leaves
North Korea with nuclear weapons and yet eases sanctions and provides aid would cause dismay in large parts of Asia and leave South Korea and Japan vulnerable.
Since Pyongyang has cheated often in the past, the treaty and inspections regime would have to be far more intrusive even than the Iran deal.
But whatever the risks, it is certainly worth negotiating with North Korea. In doing so, we will realize that it is a rational regime and we will understand that, if negotiations fail, it can still be contained.
North Korea is a regime capable of being deterred but it is also a regime capable of outwitting an American president, especially one too eager to make a deal.
That's our program. I'm Fareed Zakaria. Thanks for watching.