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 In 1989 American spy satellites monitored a lengthy shutdown of the reactor, while fuel rods were withdrawn and new fuel was added.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.