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 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.

Critics have called this process a one-way street of American concessions to P'yongyang, but in recent years North Korea has also made a number of concessions, diplomatic and otherwise, many of which have gone generally unremarked in our press. It agreed to join the United Nations in 1991, in spite of extant resolutions branding it the aggressor in 1950. It allowed the IAEA to conduct several inspections of its declared nuclear facilities, an act that many American newspapers downplayed or ignored, but also one that would have been unthinkable for P'yongyang during the heyday of the Cold War. It passed new and unprecedented joint-venture laws and tax-and-profit regulations, and has numerous ongoing projects with foreign firms, including several from South Korea. P'yongyang has continued to call for better relations with the United States, and has agreed to joint searches to find the remains of American soldiers killed in the Korean War. It has welcomed a wide range of Americans to visit (including the Reverend Billy Graham, who preached in P'yongyang in 1992 and again in early 1994).

Under the final accord, reached in October of 1994 and known as the October Framework Agreement, P'yongyang was promised that in return for freezing and eventually dismantling its graphite reactors and returning to full inspections under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, a consortium of nations organized by the United States would supply light-water reactors to help solve the North's energy problems. Subsequent negotiations determined that financing for the new reactors, valued at about $4 billion, was to be provided mainly by South Korea and Japan. In the meantime the United States and other countries would provide heavy fuel oil for heating and electricity production to meet North Korea's immediate energy needs, and the United States would begin gradually upgrading diplomatic relations. In early 1995 the North balked at accepting South Korean light-water reactors, because it feared dependency on the South, but high-level negotiations in May and June solved that problem, essentially by relabeling the reactors.

The October agreement is predicated on mutual mistrust, and therefore both sides must verify compliance at each step toward completion of the agreement, which will not occur until the early part of the next century, because constructing the reactors and bringing them into use will take years. By that time, if all goes well, the United States and North Korea should finally have established full diplomatic relations, and the North's nuclear-energy program should be in full compliance with nonproliferation. Before the reactors are completed, the North Koreans will have to open the famous waste sites to IAEA inspection, which will finally show us whether they ever reprocessed enough plutonium for an atomic bomb.

"A Prudent Recognition"

WITH the nuclear crisis seemingly resolved, North Korea -- indeed, Korea in general -- has receded to the margins of U.S. media attention, remaining there unless an errant North Korean sub lands on a beach in the South, or a Korean company takes over another U.S. firm, or the "psychotic playboy" Kim Jong Il inherits another title from his dead father. I have no idea what the average American must think about the media's railing on for years about North Korea's evil intentions, only to be proved so often wrong in their estimates and thence to sink into silence. I do know that a vast gap exists between what the foreign-policy elite wants to do in Korea (maintain our troops there, essentially forever) and what the American people want (not to have U.S. soldiers returning home in body bags). According to a 1995 public-opinion survey, more than 80 percent of experts think we should defend the South against a Northern attack, but only 39 percent of the public agrees.

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