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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
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.
From the archives:
"America's Maginot Line" by Paul Bracken (December, 1998)
Our bases in Asia are becoming more vulnerable to attack by ballistic missiles. Defending them will be very expensive and might provoke even larger missile deployments. At stake is the United States' reputation as the world's lone superpower.
From Atlantic Unbound:
Flashbacks: "The Korean Quagmire" (February 13, 2003)
Articles from the 1950s to the present offer perspective on America's role in the long history of tension between North and South Korea.
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
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.
Soon the spotlight on North Korea intensified again. George Bush made his obligatory presidential trip to the DMZ in January of 1992, and reporters paraphrased unnamed U.S. officials to the effect that IAEA inspectors would have to "roam North Korea's heavily guarded military sites at will" before they could be sure of that country's capabilities. Their reasoning was that post-Gulf War inspections of Iraq had taught experts how much can be concealed from satellites.
November, 1992, found the media engrossed in the presidential election, but a year later another spate of scare stories dominated the news -- on the weekend of November 5-7, immediately after Defense Secretary Les Aspin's visit to Seoul. The Chicago Tribune headlined its November 6 issue this way: "U.S. FEARFUL OF N. KOREAN ATTACK ON SOUTH." The accompanying wire-service article quoted an official flying home from Korea with Aspin to the effect that North Korea was deploying its military equipment closer to the border and had its troops massed near the DMZ. According to the article, North Korea was thought to be close to having the bomb. American officials were said to be worried that war could be started by either a "dying" Kim Il Sung or "a more radical and perhaps even psychotic" Kim Jong Il. The end of the Chicago Tribune article, however, presented a different scenario: sources at the State Department knew of no unusual troop movements or massing at the border. The New York Times paraphrased Aspin to the effect that there was no evidence that North Korea was producing or reprocessing more plutonium. The various sources expressed no opinion on the sanity of Kim Jong Il, although for the previous twenty-five years of Kim's involvement in politics South Korean intelligence had described him as dangerously unstable and probably psychotic.
On the same weekend charges circulated about crazed North Koreans readying an atomic bomb, forbidding access to international inspectors, and having 70 percent of their army on the border with South Korea. On Sunday, President Bill Clinton told Meet the Press that "any attack on South Korea is an attack on the United States."
SIMILAR stories on North Korea could be found across the spectrum of American journalism, from right to left and from the worst to the best, all making use of the same unexamined facts and assumptions. Here are two examples from the November, 1993, war scare. Newsweek said,
It is one of the scariest scenarios the post-cold-war world has produced: an economically desperate North Korea, its leadership as isolated as ever, rejects every effort the West makes to persuade it to abandon its steadfast pursuit of a nuclear bomb. Instead, it issues warnings about the possibility of war, which are promptly echoed by a high-ranking U.S. Defense Department official visiting Seoul. North Korea's troops, 70 percent of which are gathered within sprinting distance of the Korean peninsula's tripwire demilitarized zone, go on combat alert and Communist Party officials gather at a hurriedly called meeting in P'yongyang, the North Korean capital.
Charles Krauthammer, in The Washington Post, wrote,
There is a real crisis brewing in a place the cameras don't go. The single most dangerous problem, the impending nuclearization of North Korea, is not yet on the national radar screen. It will be.... None will sleep well with nukes in the hands of the most belligerent and paranoid regime on earth.... The North Korean nuclear bomb would be controlled by either Kim Il Sung, the old and dying Great Leader, or his son and successor, Dear Leader Kim Jong Il.... unpredictable, possibly psychotic, [he] would be the closest thing to Dr. Strangelove the nuclear age has seen.
At the end of 1992 David Sanger, the lead reporter covering the North Korean nuclear issue for The New York Times, wrote,
One of the world's most menacing powers [is now] bereft of its cold-war allies and on the defensive about a nuclear-weapons project that ranks among the biggest threats in Asia.... "North Korea could explode or implode," said General Robert W. RisCassi, the commander of the 40,000 United States troops who remain here. As the Stalinist Government of Kim Il Sung is driven further into a corner, its economy shrinking and its people running short of food, General RisCassi contends, "it is a debatable matter" whether the country will change peacefully or lash out as it did once before.... One senior Bush Administration official said last week that North Korea already had enough plutonium to build a crude nuclear weapon.... this has helped fuel... fear that the country that has bombed airliners and tried to kill the South Korean cabinet would make one last lunge for survival.
Five months later Sanger wrote in the Times,
Experts monitoring North Korea say they are increasingly concerned that the country may be preparing to use 50 tons of uranium now fueling a large reactor as raw material for nuclear weapons.... The 50 tons would be enough to produce two or three nuclear bombs.... General RisCassi... said he was "increasingly concerned that North Korea could slide into an attack as an uncontrollable consequence of total desperation or internal instability."
And in November of 1993 Sanger wrote in the Times,
A top military officer . . . said tonight that the challenge posed by P'yongyang's continued refusal to allow international inspection "is in many ways much tougher and more dangerous than... Bosnia." ... There is evidence [my emphasis] ...that North Korea has extracted plutonium from its nuclear waste in recent years, probably enough to build one or more crude weapons.
That North Korea is a menace has been taken for granted since 1946: Kim Il Sung came to power in February of that year, and the following month the first American alarms about an attack on the South were heard. That North Korea is teetering on the verge of collapse with a basket-case economy has been a stock line since the Berlin Wall fell. Journalists have routinely focused on the fact that North Korea has refused inspections, yet at the time of the third Sanger article above ("P'yongyang's continued refusal to allow international inspection") North Korea had allowed the IAEA to make six formal inspections of its Yongbyon site, from May of 1992 to February of 1993. North Korea is perhaps more jealous of its national sovereignty than any other postcolonial state; nevertheless, under American pressure it opened itself to inspections by the IAEA -- an agency that routinely uses information gotten from U.S. intelligence through satellite reconnaissance of North Korean territory. The day before he wrote the third article excerpted above, Sanger had quoted one of Les Aspin's aides as saying, "We have no evidence that they are extracting or reprocessing plutonium." Sanger added that in the past the CIA has said "it suspects North Korea already has enough plutonium to make at least one crude weapon." That is, Sanger turned a CIA suspicion one day into "there is evidence" the next.
The point is not that North Korea is a nice place, or that it is beyond suspicion, or that it has an admirable media policy: quite to the contrary, for half a century it has piled exaggeration upon exaggeration, lie upon lie, even when the truth would be more helpful to its cause. But that is what we expect from communist regimes. What is the excuse for blindly imitative, fundamentally ignorant media coverage in a raucous democracy like the United States?
This media accommodation is now routinely explained by reference to the celebrity status of anchorpeople and top reporters and to the fleeting soundbites of daily television, which together lead journalists to seek not just the access they need but also the power and glory that go with it, and to shrink their prose to levels of unconscionable brevity. But the greatest problem is simply the asymmetry of America and Korea: for fifty years the United States has meant everything to Korea, but Korea still means little to the United States. The media's attention span for Korea is next to nil unless reporters have a crisis to discuss.
IF we assume that P'yongyang's real goal was to build weapons, it had solid justification for going nuclear: after all, it could easily argue that it was merely engaged in deterrence. In following as much press and television coverage as I could from 1991 to 1994, I saw not one mainstream article or broadcast that explored what P'yongyang constantly spoke of -- namely, that North Korea had been the target of periodic nuclear threats and ongoing nuclear deterrence from the United States for decades.
The United States is the power that introduced nuclear weapons into Korea, and it took this drastic step primarily to stabilize volatile North-South relations. Always suspicious of North Korea's intentions, in the mid-1950s the Eisenhower Administration also worried that South Korean President Syngman Rhee might reopen the war. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles wanted to restrain both sides -- with nuclear weapons. Even hotheads like Rhee and Kim Il Sung, he believed, would think twice before starting a war that would rain atomic destruction on the peninsula. In January of 1958 the United States positioned 280mm nuclear cannons and "Honest John" nuclear-tipped missiles in South Korea; these were followed a year later by nuclear-tipped Matador cruise missiles. Soon American and South Korean defense strategy rested on routine plans to use nuclear weapons very early in any new war -- at "H + 1," according to one former U.S. commander in Korea, meaning within one hour (more likely a few hours) of the outbreak of war if large masses of North Korean troops succeeded in attacking south of the DMZ. Annual "Team Spirit" military exercises included rehearsals for battlefield nuclear war. North Korea responded by building enormous facilities underground or in mountain redoubts, from troop and materiel depots to munitions factories and warplane hangars. This was a bit of a problem for American surveillance, in that it allowed for a great many places to hide an atomic bomb.
From the time of the seizure of the USS Pueblo, in 1968, any brouhaha in Korea has brought nuclear war close -- even the absurdist "tree-cutting" incident in 1976, when war nearly came over the pruning of a couple of poplar trees in the DMZ which allegedly blocked the view into North Korea (soldiers from the North killed two GIs who were part of the tree-trimming detail). U.S. and South Korean forces went on high alert (for the first time since 1953) during this confrontation, and the Korean theater was awash with American forces: an aircraft-carrier task force sailed into Korean waters, and a phalanx of nuclear-capable B-52s lifted off from Guam and flew up the peninsula toward the DMZ, turning back at the last moment. It perfectly illustrated the high tension of this insanely militarized "demilitarized zone."
The crisis between Washington and P'yongyang that nearly brought us a new Korean War lasted for nearly two years, from the inauguration of Bill Clinton until the fall of 1994. For the American press the crisis seemed to begin on March 12, 1993, when North Korea announced that it would withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The North Koreans, however, thought that the crisis had begun on January 25, early in the first Clinton Administration, when military officials in Seoul and Washington announced that they would go ahead with Team Spirit war games, which George Bush had suspended a year earlier and then revived for early 1993. A few weeks later the new CIA chief, R. James Woolsey, testified that North Korea was "our most grave current concern" in terms of weapons proliferation, and General Lee Butler, the head of the new U.S. Strategic Command, announced that he was working on plans that could enable the United States to retarget on North Korea, among other places, some of the strategic nuclear weapons that had formerly been meant for the USSR. Tens of thousands of American soldiers joined their South Korean counterparts in large war games that began in mid-March and included the deployment of such weaponry as the B-1B bomber, nuclear-capable B-52s from Guam, and several naval vessels carrying cruise missiles. This was the context in which North Korea announced that it was pulling out of the NPT.
American war games in Korea used to be aimed at a potential Soviet- or Chinese-backed invasion, but since the demise of the USSR and the normalization of South Korean-Chinese relations they have been aimed only at the North and its nonnuclear, obsolescent military forces. The NPT does not deny to nations the right of self-defense, and it states that countries without nuclear weapons must not be threatened by those that possess them. With its threat to leave the NPT, North Korea played a strong card -- by implication, other near-nuclear powers might do the same. The NPT then current was due for renegotiation in 1995. Soon Team Spirit ended, however, and quickly the North agreed to high-level talks with the United States and subsequently suspended its withdrawal from the NPT (on June 11, 1993). Reading the North Korean press and listening to P'yongyang radio made clear that Team Spirit and a long history of U.S. nuclear threats were what motivated the North; it had warned against resuming the games since the 1992 U.S. elections. Yet all during the crisis P'yongyang continued to call for good relations with the United States, amid its typical bombast against American imperialism.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Wall Street Journal reported last November that American officials fear that Seoul wants "to throttle North Korea" and provoke its collapse by denying it food aid and the expansion of relations with the United States called for in the October, 1994, agreement. The Southern armed forces have always had leaders who would like nothing better than to subjugate the North. North Korea, of course, also has its confrontational people, and they will resist being throttled by every means, ingenious and otherwise, possibly including derailing that same agreement whenever they think relations with the United States won't get them what they want -- or simply when the world stops paying attention to them. With Bill Clinton re-elected, the North will probably seek to wrest more concessions from Washington. The point is that if we do not thoroughly re-evaluate our Korea policy, American troops may still be restraining the two Koreas another fifty years from now.
Washington needs to find a way to bring the Korean War to a close, to replace the 1953 ceasefire with a permanent peace arrangement, and to extricate itself from the Korean civil conflict. Today this is unlikely, however, because Washington, too, can endanger the peace. For four decades we were supposed to have been containing Soviet or Chinese communism in Korea. Now Korea underpins a Pentagon budget of Cold War proportions. When the Clinton Administration undertook a "bottom-up" review of American armed forces, in 1993, the Pentagon relied on the ever present "North Korean threat" to justify forces large enough to assure the capability to fight two wars at once -- and thus achieved a defense budget of about $265 billion. We spend ten times as much on defense as the rest of the world's ten most powerful armies combined, but never mind: poverty-stricken North Korea, supposedly near collapse, has to appear a giant lest the Pentagon budget collapse.
Meanwhile, the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency fight over the Korean tea leaves they both read. If the CIA claimed that North Korea had one or two atomic bombs and wanted ten or twenty more, only to be proved wrong, it cannot be that the CIA is a waste of taxpayers' money; it must be that the State Department connived with the North Koreans to paper over this nuclear program. "The depth of disdain between State and CIA is remarkable," one knowledgeable former official told The New York Times last October. "I know people in State who think CIA is a greater enemy than Russia ever was, and that feeling is reciprocated."
One outside power continues to bear the greatest responsibility for peace on the Korean peninsula, and for failing to resolve the Korean conflict even fifty years after it began: the United States. Nowhere else does the United States directly command the military forces of another sovereign nation, as it does in South Korea. Only in the 1990s has Washington finally moved toward a more equable Korea policy, allowing it to play the role of honest broker (while retaining its alliance with Seoul), and no longer allowing the South to dictate the pace of engagement with the North. The result is the October Framework Agreement -- the first time since the Korean War that any important problem in Korea has been resolved through diplomacy. If it is sincerely implemented by all sides (a big if), it should yield a divided Korea that is at peace. It may also hold the promise of future progress toward a peacefully reunified Korea -- an outcome that ultimately rests with the Korean people themselves.
As for Americans, we need to take a hard look at the dangers of our many far-flung responsibilities, which have now long outlasted the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR. Fifty years ago, when the Truman Administration took upon itself one global commitment after another, the eminent historian Charles Beard counseled "a prudent recognition and calculation of the limits on power," lest the United States suffer "a terrible defeat in a war" -- and become like the "wrecks of overextended empires scattered through the centuries." For a generation it seemed the most foolish statement imaginable. In 1997 it cuts through the rhetoric of our debates like a breath of fresh spring air. It is high time for us to bring our Korean expeditionary forces back home.
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 1997; Time to End the Korean War - 97.02; Volume 279, No. 2; page 71-79.