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

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.

Why are we still in Korea, and still subject to the possibility of a war that could kill tens of thousands of Americans and perhaps millions of Koreans? As the only remaining superpower, the United States does not lack for pundits who think that any problem in the world, anywhere, is our business. But the Korean problem has particularly been our business ever since a thoughtless decision at the end of the Second World War divided a nation and a people with ancient integrity. Fifty years later Korea is the best example in the world of how easy it is to get into a war and how difficult to get out.

The American people need to ask their leaders what difference the interminable Korean conflict makes to their lives. If North Korea is the worst place in the world, as some think, what difference does that make to Americans? In 1995 South Korea spent three times as much on defense as did the North. Why should American soldiers remain hostage to the inability of Koreans to settle their problems, so long after they began? The answers will pour forth from the national-security pundits: if we don't remain in Korea, Japan will go nuclear, China will get adventurous, the Asia-Pacific region will destabilize. But for forty years their answer was different: our troops were in Korea because of the Soviet threat. The collapse of the USSR left security analysts scratching about for these new rationales. In fact so long as Japan maintains its security alliance with the United States, it has no reason to fear developments in Korea. China will not seek adventures in Korea when it has so many other problems on its plate, such as Taiwan and Hong Kong. The truth is that we keep our troops in Korea today, and have for more than forty years, as part of a civil-war-deterrent strategy -- to contain the North and to restrain the South.

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