The Cold War’s Final Act

Sunday, July 30, 2000

June 25, 2000, marked the fiftieth anniversary of North Korea’s invasion of the South. The two Koreas have technically been at war ever since—although they have both abided by an uneasy truce since 1953. But the recent summit meeting between South Korean president Kim Dae Jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has generated fresh hope for improved relations. It was the first-ever meeting between the leaders of the North and South.

The limited euphoria was understandable. Would the impasse finally end? Would the book be closed at last on this last vestige of the Cold War? Skeptics point to the North’s past behavior to argue that any talks could soon degenerate into further impasse and recrimination. But there is also hope that this time a combination of factors will come into play that might lead to some progress toward ending the suspended animation that characterizes Korea.

The Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ)—two and a half miles wide and 150 miles long—is a green belt across the waist of the Korean peninsula, near the 38th parallel. It is surely the world’s most bizarre nature preserve. A hundred species of migratory birds visit this tranquil haven each year, joining contented local pheasant, black bear, wild boar, and deer—a sight to warm the hearts of environmentalists.

The wild creatures, however, are oblivious to the concentrations of military might on either side of them. Two million troops (including 37,000 Americans) could plunge into one of history’s most intensive and bloody shooting wars at a moment’s notice. The charged atmosphere north and south of the DMZ sends chills through military strategists, politicians, and statesmen.

North of the DMZ is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It is the most isolated nation on the planet. It cannot feed its own people and relies for its existence on tension created by threats of war, both conventional and nuclear (and, implicitly, chemical and biological). By most measures of nationhood, it should have imploded by now.

To the south is the Republic of Korea, a fledgling democracy with an economy that, having rebounded from the hit it took in the Asian financial crisis, is booming once again. It also has a heightened apprehension of renewed hostilities as North Korea teeters on the brink of starvation and economic collapse.

U.S. leadership—and deterrent force—is the main factor preventing another war. Forty-seven years of the status quo have left the West largely inured to the urgency of the situation and its implications. An exception to this complacency is found in the Pentagon, where specialists and strategists watch the Korean peninsula around the clock using every overt and covert method available. What they see north of the DMZ is hardly reassuring.


North Korea is the most isolated nation on the planet. It cannot feed its own people. It relies for its very existence on bluster and threats. By most measures of nationhood, it should have imploded by now.


General Thomas Schwartz, head of U.S. forces in South Korea, told Congress last fall that "the most threatening ongoing force development is the massive fielding of artillery and multiple-rocket-launcher systems in underground facilities near the demilitarized zone." Over the past year, he said, Pyongyang has accelerated a "comprehensive force-enhancement program" that has already resulted in the deployment of more than 10,000 artillery systems and more than 2,300 multiple-rocket-launcher systems near the DMZ. "These long-range artillery systems give North Korea the ability to provide devastating indirect firepower in support of ground-force operations and to strike targets south of Seoul," he added.

Schwartz’s comments came as press reports out of Seoul revealed that North Korea has continued to build missile bases and has deployed more of the weapons despite its pledge to halt ballistic missile tests. Six new short-range missile bases are under construction in North Korea, and four new medium-range missile batteries have been deployed.

Simulation results show an all-out battle costing hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of casualties as rockets and artillery hit densely populated Seoul, the South Korean capital of 12 million. Projections made in the mid-1980s conceived of a North Korean blitzkrieg that would encircle Seoul and hold the city hostage to negotiations.

A new war plan being drafted by the Combined Forces Command of South Korea and the United States shows a fundamental shift in defense strategy, reflecting a belief that the North Korean army is significantly weaker than it was a few years ago. Details of the plan were intentionally "leaked" to the media by officials in Seoul, Washington, and Hawaii (headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Command). Military planners believe that knowledge of the new plan may help to deter a possible desperate move by Pyongyang.

Three Key Players

Three very distinct personalities—and the entities they represent—define the situation: South Korean president Kim Dae Jung, North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Il, and U.S. special envoy William Perry.

Kim Dae Jung hopes that his Sunshine Policy—which involves attempts to greatly improve relations with North Korea—will end the inter-Korea confrontation and win him the Nobel Peace Prize before his term expires in 2003. This may prove elusive. North Korean leaders know that the transformation to a "normal" country would be their undoing.

Kim’s party faced tough going against the forces of presidential aspirant Lee Hoi Chang in April parliamentary elections. This mild setback made Kim a theoretical lame duck, which could hinder his attempts to restructure the chaebol conglomerates and to initiate other reforms. This could slow South Korea’s impressive recovery from the Asian financial crisis and damage the perception that it is serious about liberalizing its economy. But in a spirit of cooperation seldom seen in South Korean domestic politics, Kim and Lee agreed to bury the hatchet temporarily and give the summit with the North a chance.

Some Americans once feared that Kim might try to go it alone—call for a U.S. troop withdrawal and negotiate with the North directly. Such anxieties have proved unfounded. Kim solidly supports cooperation with the United States.

North Korea’s Kim Jong Il is more of a mystery than his late father, Kim Il Sung. Some say he is politically shrewd, others that he is a calculating terrorist. Kim Dae Jung, perhaps employing flattery, says Kim Jong Il is "improving," becoming more reasonable. University of California scholar Robert Scalapino disagrees: "Kim Jong Il knows only tension and perpetuation of tension as diplomatic tools."

Just as Kim Il Sung ensured that his son would succeed him, so Kim Jong Il appears to have chosen his eldest son as his successor, thus paving the way for the world’s only third-generation communist dynasty. A high-ranking South Korean intelligence official told Korean Broadcasting System Radio that the 28-year-old Kim Jong Nam had recently begun work at the North’s intelligence agency, the Ministry of Public Security. "It is the first indication that Kim Jong Nam may succeed Kim Jong Il," the state radio station quoted the official as saying. However, the 58-year-old Kim Jong Il, who took the top office after his father died in 1994, is said to be healthy and could rule North Korea’s 22 million people for many more years.


The United States has replaced the Soviet Union as North Korea’s principal benefactor, providing $645 million in aid over the last five years.


Kim Jong Nam has lived much of his life in a way reminiscent of his father’s youth—blending a carefree lifestyle with official duties. A roving education has taken him to Russia and many parts of Europe. In spring 1999, Kim Jong Il reportedly insisted that his son return and start learning the ropes of life at the top. Intelligence reports at the time, since confirmed, said that in February and March 1999, street fighting broke out between field officers of the North Korean army and Kim Jong Il’s personal guard. There were reports of an assassination attempt on Kim Jong Il. Reports in Pyongyang and Seoul played down the events, but the succession theory was given credence by a reshuffling of the Korean Workers’ Party hierarchy and a purge of the national youth organization.

Korea specialist Chuck Downs, in his book Over the Line: North Korea’s Negotiating Strategy, quotes an intelligence report that a high-ranking North Korean general was arrested last April, allegedly for "having plotted the assassination attempt of Kim Jong Il the previous summer," and that the general was later executed. Some officials responsible for dealing with budding foreign business interests have disappeared, including Kim Jong U, who had boasted that North Korea was "opening a door." A few months later it was reported that he also had been executed.

If Kim Jong Il were assassinated, what would Kim Jong Nam inherit? The main points of the North Korean national profile are starvation and an economic shambles, an aging military establishment and zero esteem in the world community.

Kim Jong Il is scanning the horizon for a way out of the mess his country is in. So far, however, he continues to bluff, bluster, extort, and perpetuate his reputation for unpredictability. Thomas Henriksen, associate director and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, has labeled North Korea’s behavior since the death of Kim Il Sung "limited belligerency." Says Henriksen:

Few regimes have so calculatedly used military threats in international negotiations for diplomatic and economic gain. The irony of Pyongyang’s success is that, if it were expanded into greater gains in international investment, economic growth, and international exchange, then it would drive an opening wedge of change into North Korea’s self-contained society. International success will bring domestic change—something that the North has fiercely resisted. Pyongyang, therefore, must press its skillful foreign policy with care, lest too much success undermine the regime’s political elite.

William Perry, the former secretary of defense and a Hoover fellow, was appointed to review policy on North Korea in November 1998. He held high-level discussions in Pyongyang in May 1999. On Perry’s recommendation, President Clinton eased economic sanctions against North Korea last September, after it agreed to suspend a threatened long-range ballistic missile test. (It had conducted such a test in August 1998.) Perry has urged the administration to work with the regime’s secretive rulers rather than undermine them or promote internal reform. The strategy is in sharp contrast with the way Washington typically handles what it calls rogue or pariah states, such as Iraq, Libya, and Cuba.


North Korea’s Kim Jong Il is even more of a mystery than his late father, Kim Il Sung.


Perry submitted a report to Congress and U.S. allies last September that advocated carrot-and-stick moderation in Korea, with a step-by-step approach of relationship building through mutual concessions. The report is the work of a superior intellect and should withstand presidential election–year scrutiny. In 47 years there has never been a plan or strategy so comprehensive. Nevertheless, it is already drawing fire from some bystanders and members of Congress, and debate on it is likely to intensify as the November election approaches. There is a determined Republican lobby that wants air strikes or a threat of them against North Korea and speedy development of the Theater Missile Defense system.

Daryl M. Plunk, the Heritage Foundation’s senior analyst on Korea, argues that a "crucial principle Washington must reintroduce in its dealings with Pyongyang is reciprocity. Rewards will only follow concessions from the North that lead to peace." But North Korea shows little sign of changing its pattern of behavior. Last November, for example, Pyongyang accused the United States of trying to provoke a war on the Korean peninsula just as the two countries entered a second day of talks in Berlin intended to improve relations. North Korean delegates, led by Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan, told reporters that talks held the first day were "not good."

Appeasement or Conciliation?

Blasting U.S. policy toward North Korea as appeasement, House Republicans in November 1999 released a report charging that Pyongyang had sidestepped an international agreement limiting its nuclear capability and now poses a major threat to the United States. The report claims that the reclusive state has not frozen its nuclear weapons development and continues to acquire uranium-enrichment technologies. It further claims that North Korea has improved its missile capabilities dramatically in the last five years, even as the United States replaced the Soviet Union as its principal benefactor, providing $645 million in aid.

Analyst Chuck Downs remains skeptical that there is anything in the Pyongyang psyche to lead to conciliation, or any tendency among U.S. negotiators to be hard-nosed. "The western approach to solving North Korea’s problems is also based on false assumptions: that North Korea enters into negotiation to resolve difficulties, redress its grievances, and better its people’s plight," he says.

In the closing years of the twentieth century, these misconceptions combined to produce a curious spectacle: the world’s strongest democracies attempting to cajole an unwilling tyrant to negotiate an accommodation that would extend his regime’s survival or at least cushion its collapse.