Time to End the Korean War

For more than forty years what little we have known about North Korea has come largely from reporters and policy experts whose views of that country's intentions and capabilities may well be misleading or false. The time has come, one student of Korean affairs argues, to let North and South settle their differences directly, and bring U.S. soldiers home

The other issue that energized P'yongyang in early 1993 was the IAEA's demand to carry out "special inspections" of two undeclared sites in North Korea, which the IAEA said were nuclear-waste dumps. (The North Koreans claimed that the waste sites were military installations, and therefore off limits.) The IAEA had never before demanded such an inspection in any other country, but it was under international pressure for not having ferreted out several sites in Iraq that were discovered after Baghdad was defeated. In addition to citing the Team Spirit war games, the North resisted these inspections on two grounds: first, that the IAEA had used U.S. intelligence to find new sites to visit (which it had), and that since the United States was a belligerent in Korea, this violated the mandate of the IAEA; and second, that the IAEA had passed the results of its inspections to the United States, and should North Korea allow this to continue, the United States would eventually want to open up all North Korean military facilities to the IAEA. (As we saw above, that is precisely what some high-level American officials advocated.) P'yongyang lambasted the IAEA for following the desiderata of its sworn enemy, the United States, and for not demanding equal time to see what the United States might be doing at its many installations in South Korea.

Toward Relaxation

THE newly inaugurated Bill Clinton, a President inexperienced in foreign affairs, faced an immediate crisis over P'yongyang's threat to withdraw from the NPT, and the more general problem of what to do about the North's ill-understood nuclear project amid alarmist warnings from the CIA and the Pentagon. In spite of much provocation to do otherwise, the Clinton Administration took the road of negotiation and accomplished something no previous Administration ever had: it solved a serious crisis in Korea without sending forth a hailstorm of troops and weaponry to face down Kim Il Sung, as previous Presidents had done. For once, in short, the United States used deft diplomacy to defuse a Korean crisis. The Clinton Administration deserves commendation for this astute and adroit effort.

The Administration opened direct high-level talks with North Korea not just on nuclear weapons but also on a wide range of policy issues. U.S. negotiators dangled a number of possible concessions in front of the North, including an end to the Team Spirit games, a pledge that the United States would not use force against the North, and an upgrading of diplomatic relations (including the opening of liaison offices in both capitals). The Administration also mobilized the United Nations, various allies, and North Korea's only potential friend -- China -- to warn P'yongyang of the dangers to itself and to the world should it withdraw from the NPT. Meanwhile, it examined ways to supply the North with less-threatening kinds of nuclear-power generation.

After the talks began, the heritage of recrimination and mutual misunderstanding proved hard to overcome. In July of 1993 the first real breakthrough came, however, and it came from the Korean side. The North Koreans proposed that their nuclear program, based on graphite reactors and Korea's abundant natural uranium, be replaced by U.S.-supplied light-water reactors, which would be less likely to lead to weapons proliferation but would require that P'yongyang become dependent on external supplies of fuel. This unexpected proposal moved the dialogue forward, and in November of 1993 P'yongyang formally proposed a package deal to resolve the whole issue -- one that was similar to the provisions ultimately agreed upon in October of 1994.

Agreement was stalled for many months and for many reasons, the main one being the IAEA's demand to inspect the waste sites. In May of 1994 P'yongyang shut down its reactor for the first time since 1989, withdrawing some 8,000 fuel rods and placing them in cooling ponds -- raising fears that the spent fuel would be used to obtain plutonium. This left U.S. officials with no apparent room for maneuver; predictably, this act also occasioned another media blitz about a new Korean War. In this case, however, unbeknownst to the media, the warnings were warranted. Former President Jimmy Carter, who had some years before been invited to visit P'yongyang, was alarmed by what he had learned of the crisis from briefings by Administration officials, and decided to take matters into his own hands.

Carter flew off to P'yongyang in June, and by a sleight of hand that depended on the Cable News Network's transmission of some of his discussions with Kim Il Sung and of a live interview from P'yongyang in which Carter announced that a deal had been struck, he broke the logjam. He apparently persuaded Kim to freeze the Yongbyon facility in return for U.S. abandonment of threatened sanctions against P'yongyang and the promise of a new relationship with the United States. President Clinton appeared in the White House press room and declared that if P'yongyang did freeze its program (that is, left the fuel rods in the cooling ponds and halted ongoing construction on new facilities), high-level talks could resume -- and they did, on July 8, in Geneva.

North Korea may or may not be on its last legs, but it certainly played a masterly diplomatic game after its support from the Soviet bloc ended. The contest between Washington and P'yongyang resembled that between a big dog and a small dog when only the small dog knows where the bone is buried and how big it is. The bone, of course, was the "waste sites," which upon examination would tell the world whether North Korea's hole card was an ace or a deuce. Better not to show it at all; the eventual tabling of this issue was a key element in the final agreement. Through its practiced policies of negotiation, confrontation, and prevarication, P'yongyang got one concession after another out of the United States -- withdrawal of nuclear weapons from South Korea (in the fall of 1991), the suspension of Team Spirit, the first high-level U.S.-North Korea talks ever, and an American commitment to a new diplomatic relationship.

Presented by

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. Who cares about youth? James Hamblin turns to his colleague Jeffrey Goldberg for advice.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. James Hamblin turns to a colleague for advice.

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Video

Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In