Who’s Afraid of Kim Jong Il?

Tuesday, October 30, 2001

Since the inauguration of George W. Bush, almost all the media attention to Korea has been focused on the subject of danger from North Korea. The problems and possibilities of our traditional ally, South Korea, have been muted as perceived threats from North Korea—blending long-range missiles and nuclear weapons—have engulfed the administration. U.S. foreign policy in Northeast Asia has become contradictory and ambivalent toward North Korea. Is North Korea to become engaged or counted as an enemy? The United States wants to neutralize North Korea’s dangerous weapons but at the same time justify its missile shield on the basis of this possible security threat.

How is it that the 20 million people of North Korea, half-starved and crushed under an antiquated Stalinist-style regime defunct everywhere else in the world, should have such a remarkable ability to frighten the Pentagon and, in the process, earn both the opprobrium and concern of the international community?

A Century of Struggle

Why should what is happening in Korea in 2001 be of immediate concern to Americans? Didn’t we solve the problem of communist North Korea and democratic South Korea during the Korean War of 1950–53? Unfortunately, the war, which resulted in an armistice and not a peace treaty, was not the end of the problem. How to maintain the peace in Korea has been a priority matter for all parties concerned—including China—during the past 50 years.

At the conclusion of the Korean War, the United States signed a security pact with the Republic of Korea as a guarantee of support against the prospects of a new attack by the Soviet-backed North Korea regime of the "Great Leader," Kim Il Sung. The demilitarized zone (DMZ) at the 38th parallel became the most heavily fortified and tense area anywhere in the polarized world. The North Korean military forces of about one million faced a more modern South Korean force of about 600,000 (plus American forces of about 40,000). There were forays and frays along the DMZ, but the uneasy peace was maintained. Both Koreas, with generous aid from their respective mentors, started on the path of economic development. For a time, they progressed in tandem, the North perhaps ahead, but by 1980 the South was clearly ascendant.

It is rather ironic that North Korea, a nation of only 20 million people who have been half-starved under the kind of Stalinist-style regime that is now defunct everywhere else in the world, should have such an ability to frighten the Pentagon.

As if this were not bad enough for the pretensions of the North, in 1989 the Cold War substantially ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. For North Korea this was a disaster. Economic and military aid was cut off by the bankrupt and confused Russian government. Without oil, food, and munitions, the North was on its own; by the mid-1990s its economy had stalled and gone into decline. The inadequate food supply produced widespread famine. Headlines in American newspapers highlighted two themes: famine and nuclear weapons.

Looking at the new hand he had been dealt, Kim Il Sung concentrated on regime survival, the absolutely vital aspect of national security for a Stalinist state. The twin pillars of North Korea’s policy accordingly became a strong military and a xenophobic program designed to keep out foreign influences, such as the exchange of embassies with Western countries. North Korea concentrated on itself, reviving the old "Hermit Kingdom" approach to the world. The sole exception was China, with which it shares a 600-mile border.

The plight of North Korea did not go unnoticed by South Korea and its U.S. ally. In the heady days of German reunification in October 1990, a model was at hand for the South to take over the North. The South Korean Ministry of Unification had for years been training cadres to administer the North in the event of a real takeover, presumably in anticipation of an internal collapse in the North rather than a military campaign that in all likelihood would destroy both countries.

North Korea appealed for international help, and thousands of tons of food aid arrived, including from South Korea and the United States, despite legitimate concerns that the food might well end up feeding the military rather than starving children. International relief organizations tried to supervise the ultimate destination of this aid. By 1996 there were high hopes in Seoul that the North would implode, despite public pronouncements from the Chinese that they would not allow North Korea to collapse. The Chinese highly value the North as a buffer state, and major Chinese aid began to arrive in the form of food and oil.

While the food issue simmered, another troublesome issue would not go away: the North Korean determination to produce nuclear weapons. It had been known for years that North Korea had developed a facility at Yongbyon for nuclear power and, it was suspected, to develop a nuclear bomb. At Soviet urging, North Korea had previously joined the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an organ of the United Nations, and was thus subject to inspections to ensure that it complied with nonproliferation standards. The question of inspections became a contentious issue between the United States and North Korea, and in 1994 the United States threatened North Korea with additional economic sanctions if it did not agree to negotiations regarding inspections. North Korea said that if the United States succeeded in imposing such sanctions, it was equivalent to a declaration of war.

South Korean president Kim Dae Jung’s hopes of being the architect of Korean unification now seem forlorn.

Although many considered this just another example of North Korean hyperbole, Secretary of Defense William Perry felt obliged to take it at face value. He assembled top U.S. military commanders from around the world to determine how to respond if necessary. A gradual military buildup was contemplated, but, serendipitously, former president Jimmy Carter was visiting North Korea at the time and learned from Kim Il Sung that the North was willing to reopen negotiations on nuclear issues. The crisis was over as quickly as it had begun.

These negotiations led to the Geneva Accords of October 1994, whereby North Korea agreed to shut down its old reactors in exchange for new light-water reactors that would be more suitable for generating electric power (although still capable of producing plutonium). The United States was also to provide diesel fuel to make up for the loss of electricity while the new reactors were being constructed. They were to be paid for mainly by South Korea and Japan. No IAEA inspections were required for 10 years.

Although this agreement solved the immediate problem, many Americans and South Koreans were uneasy about the deal, especially the inspection aspect. During the last year of the Clinton administration, unprecedented efforts were made to improve relations with North Korea to settle both the nuclear and the long-range missile concerns. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang in October 2000, and a high-level North Korean official visited Washington. President Clinton even considered going to Pyongyang for a comprehensive settlement with the North, but this foundered over the agenda and then the exigencies of the disputed November U.S. presidential election.

The Long March toward Reunification

The spark for this last-minute American effort had been the historic visit of South Korean president Kim Dae Jung to Pyongyang in June 2000. From the beginning of his administration in February 1998, Kim’s first priority—aside from a temporary foreign debt crisis—had been to improve relations with the North to fulfill the longtime dream of reunification of the divided country. Previous South Korean administrations had pressed for that end but on the premise of a takeover of an imploded North. Kim was willing to fashion an arrangement that would gradually bring the divided nation back together, as Korea had been in its imperial past. The visit swelled with mutual expressions of goodwill and high expectations for economic and cultural ties and included the promise of a return visit to Seoul by Kim Jong Il (Kim Il Sung’s son and successor).

There was euphoria in the South: the president’s popularity surged to more than 90 percent; plans began for family exchanges, tourism, export zones, and South Korean business investments. Yet after six months of frenzy, including the Clinton efforts, it was fairly clear that almost all the initiative was coming from the South. Kim Dae Jung pressed ahead, despite a growing perception that there was little reciprocity. By December 2000, the prospect for peace and reconciliation had resulted in the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Kim Dae Jung. The imperative to conclude a unification agreement was intense.

The change in American administrations worried Kim, who felt he could not lose momentum at this juncture. He did not adequately consider, in my view, the preoccupation of the new Bush administration with its own immediate priorities, generated in the course of the closely contested election. Kim persisted, however, and finally was rewarded with a summit meeting with President Bush on March 7, 2001. Prior to the meeting, Secretary of State Powell stated that he intended to follow up on the most promising lines of the Clinton initiative. But in the actual meeting, the new president (advised by Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld) said that he did not trust Kim Jong Il or his willingness to adhere to agreements and was reviewing U.S. foreign policy options. In short, Bush was unwilling to continue talks with North Korea.

The North Korean threat provides a compelling justification for the development of a U.S. missile shield.

This delay sent a tremor through both Kim Dae Jung and South Korea. Bush had only said what many Americans and South Koreans believed, and the general communiqué reaffirmed our traditional security policy with the South. But the air was out of the unification balloon. Without strong U.S. support, Kim had little more to offer to the North. South Korean newspapers said Kim and Korea had been insulted, but in truth, Kim had overplayed his hand, assuming that his priorities were identical to those of the United States.

In June, the Bush administration said it was willing to resume talks with the North on a comprehensive basis, dealing not only with nuclear and missile matters but with conventional weapons as well. The North replied that its precondition for talks was the withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea—its traditional negotiation ploy. This was repeated by Kim Jong Il during his visit to Moscow in early August. The United States, to ensure the peace, has maintained an army, which is now at the 37,000-troop level, as well as air and naval units in support of the South. The security arrangement with the South has long been a critical element of U.S. strategic deployment in Northeast Asia, along with troops in Japan.

Whether the North can have meaningful negotiations with the Bush administration, with its tougher demands and emphasis on verification, is largely moot. North Korea is in a better position to feed its people and reform its economy now than it was before, so progress in negotiations is likely to be slow. And in the present circumstances, North Korea—still stubbornly adhering to a government best described as "Stalinism with North Korean characteristics"—remains a good justification for development of a U.S. missile shield.

Kim Dae Jung’s hopes of being the architect of Korean unification now seem empty, although after a six-month hiatus, reunification talks were resumed in mid-September. This great task and a new security regime in Northeast Asia remain for others to build in this new century.