IN June of 1994 another Korean War nearly occurred. Had it happened, the ignorance on both sides would have been not unlike that of the so-called Forgotten War of the 1950s: Washington and P'yongyang stumbling blindly toward murderous engagement over vague goals, with the peace of the world hanging in the balance.
In 1994 the problem was a nuclear reactor in Yongbyon, a town about sixty miles north of the capital, P'yongyang. Yongbyon's secluded geographic position had led to its fortification by the early fifteenth century; later it became a scenic pleasure resort for the aristocracy. For many years a silk-producing town, Yongbyon has long been home to a large synthetic-textile (mainly rayon) industry as well, leading a few observers in the U.S. intelligence community to think -- erroneously -- that an alleged nuclear-reprocessing facility observed by satellite might be just a textile mill.
Viewers of American television news will have seen a stock film clip of part of the Yongbyon complex, but never have they been told the meaning of the slogan affixed to the roof: "Charyok kaengsaeng" is a Maoist term meaning "self-reliance" or, literally, "regeneration through one's own power." Self-reliance is North Korean national policy, and was the justification for Yongbyon from the beginning -- nuclear power would be substituted in an energy system dependent on domestic coal and imported petroleum, as has been done in Japan and South Korea for decades. North Korea's reactor made use of the country's substantial deposits of uranium. But such reactors also produce plutonium, which, with a bit of refining, can be made into high-grade fuel for nuclear weapons.
Yongbyon has a thirty-megawatt facility on the model of a 1950s British gas-graphite reactor known as the Calder Hall. Construction probably began around 1979, and the facility went into operation in 1986 or 1987. No one paid much attention, including the watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency, which P'yongyang invited to come have a look -- only to find that the IAEA was (or seemed) unaware that it had signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1985. This and other IAEA mix-ups wasted two years of valuable time. In 1989 American spy satellites monitored a lengthy shutdown of the reactor, while fuel rods were withdrawn and new fuel was added. The satellites also picked up apparent evidence of another reactor, of fifty- to 200-megawatt capacity, which some thought would come into use in the early 1990s. And experts claimed to have spied a building nearby that looked like a reprocessing facility.
Still no one paid much attention -- until the Gulf War came along and gave to the post-Cold War world a new category of international miscreant: the rogue state. From the American perspective North Korea had always been a renegade, outside the boundaries of any international regime of control as defined by the West, but the collapse of the USSR turned it loose. As the only superpower, the United States found it necessary to monitor a much more unruly Third World than had existed in the bipolar era, and North Korea was newly prominent among problem countries.
U.S. government experts were divided as to North Korea's purposes at Yongbyon: some said the North had not constructed a bomb and perhaps did not want one, while others -- particularly in the Central Intelligence Agency -- maintained that it had one or two bombs and wanted the fuel to build many more. One small group thought that North Korea lacked even the technology and know-how to manufacture a nuclear weapon, while another thought it had no intention of developing such weapons and was focused on nuclear-power generation. (A reactor used solely for bombs, they argued, would be unloaded every six months or so.) All these judgments relied on the same IAEA inspections, satellite photography, infrared monitoring, and spy-plane reconnaissance, and on broader estimates of North Korea's scientific and technical capabilities.
The logic of small-state deterrence unquestionably appealed to North Korean hard-liners: engage in enough activity to render possession of a nuclear device plausible to the outside world, but make no announcement of possession, thus lessening the chance that enemies such as South Korea and Japan will be spurred to develop nuclear weapons. (Experts have documented South Korea's interest in the Israeli deterrent model.) This would explain why the Yongbyon facility was built aboveground, where it could be seen by spy satellites.
Though some observers worried in the late 1980s about the Yongbyon complex, the clanging of alarm bells did not begin until the Gulf War ended, in 1991. Leslie Gelb wrote in The New York Times that North Korea was "the next renegade state," a country that was "run by a vicious dictator" with SCUD missiles, had "a million men under arms," and was likely to possess nuclear weapons "in a few years." Another Iraq, in short. Some historical perspective is useful. North Korea, we must remember, was not defeated in the Korean War: the 1953 settlement merely restored the status quo ante. The United States and North Korea remained technically at war thereafter: an armistice, not a peace treaty, terminated the hot war. Thus the North Korea that Americans had been confronting at the demilitarized zone for four decades could be instantly reconfigured. The adjectives were new, but the Cold War demonization remained the same: "North Korea" evoked Oriental, anti-communist, racist, and outlaw imagery all in one neat package. (Charles Krauthammer, in a column for The Washington Post, probably topped all other media commentators when, in November of 1993, he called President Kim Il Sung "Genghis Khan with a telegraph, God-King of a slave state, belligerent, paranoid and determined.") Nearly every major media outlet uncritically accepted information about North Korea that either had been standard rhetoric for decades (often put out for foreign consumption by Seoul's intelligence services) or was a half-truth at best.
James Wade wrote in One Man's Korea (1967): "There's signs of a big buildup.... [The North Koreans] could be in Seoul in four hours if they threw in everything they have." Wade got this from an American engineer working for the U.S. Army -- in 1960. General Richard Stilwell, a U.S. intelligence operative in Korea and later commander of U.S. troops there, spent a good part of his adult life asserting that a Korean People's Army bellied up against the DMZ could be in Seoul within hours or days. During every crisis since the seizure of the USS Pueblo, in 1968, reporters have routinely observed that 70 percent of the North Korean army is concentrated near the DMZ. Most American reporters in the 1990s, however, lacked both immunity to such timeworn shibboleths and the inquisitiveness to ask what percentage of the South Korean army was similarly "bellied up." (In June of 1994 Time magazine featured a map showing nearly 90 percent of U.S. forces and the South Korean army within thirty-five miles of the DMZ.)
For the next few years after the Gulf War, "crises" between Washington and P'yongyang occurred regularly -- especially in November, because that was the month usually chosen for high-level talks between Pentagon officials and their Korean counterparts in Seoul. In November of 1991, at the time of Defense Secretary Richard Cheney's visit to Seoul, a Defense Department official -- reportedly General Colin Powell -- cranked up the pressure by remarking to reporters that if North Korea "missed Desert Storm, this is a chance to catch a rerun." At the time, the Chicago Tribune twice called for a pre-emptive strike on Yongbyon, and most television and newspaper reporters accepted intelligence estimates that North Korea was within a couple of years, or less, of having a nuclear weapon.