When it comes to Korea, Americans are reliving the past without understanding it. In 1994, the United States and its ally South Korea had reached an impasse with the North Korean leadership headed by the current leader’s father, Kim Jong-il. Tensions reached such a pitch that the Korean Peninsula seemed perilously close to war. It was somewhat unexpected at the time because the previous few years had produced a positive dialog on the peninsula.
Indeed, in 1992 an agreement was signed aimed at denuclearizing the peninsula, and all manner of cooperative efforts were envisioned between the South and the North—from economic cooperation to limited reconciliation of long-simmering grievances among those who had family members living on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the area separating the two Koreas after the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War.
As if such progress were simply too much for North Korea to handle, it all came into serious question when intelligence sources began reporting efforts by the North to reprocess plutonium produced by its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. A nuclear weapon seemed the logical objective. It is important to note here that North Korea was at the time a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), foreswearing by treaty ever building such a weapon. Thus such actions seemed particularly perfidious.
Such apparent perfidy could not go unheeded by the United States, and the peninsula was plunged into crisis.
Confronting that crisis on the U.S. side was a team with exquisite diplomatic and military skills—secretary of state Warren Christopher, secretary of defense William Perry, and chief negotiator Robert Gallucci, former assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs. Eschewing war as a viable alternative but never vocally foreswearing it, U.S. diplomats began negotiations with North Korea. With the full participation of U.S. ally South Korea, on October 21, 1994, the negotiators reached what became known as the Agreed Framework (AF) between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [North Korea].
It was a simple bargain: if North Korea ceased reprocessing plutonium, a consortium led by the United States would provide Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO) in sufficient quantities to make up for the loss in electricity caused by the shutdown of the plutonium reactor and, for the long-term, would begin building less dangerous Light Water Reactors (LWRs) to replace North Korea’s plutonium reactor.
Further, the AF envisioned an eventual restoration of diplomatic relations between the agreeing powers, the establishment of consular offices in the two capitals, and generally much-improved relations. It also called on North Korea to abide by the NPT, its additional safeguards agreement, and basically to cease any attempt to build a nuclear weapon.
As with the nuclear agreement with Iran today, key members of the U.S. Congress—a Congress turned Republican in that “year of Newt Gingrich”—strongly opposed any rapprochement with North Korea. They immediately began to undermine the AF. As Ambassador Steven Bosworth, first head of the consortium, said at the time: “The Agreed Framework was a political orphan within two weeks after its signature.” There were—and are today with respect to Iran—various reasons for these undermining actions.
First, a few members of Congress genuinely believed North Korea could not be trusted, that it was a threat to the United States, and that therefore its regime should be eliminated. Outspoken individuals such as the fiery neoconservative John Bolton shouted support for these members, just as Mr. Bolton does today with respect to Iran.
Second, quite a few members—mostly Republicans but with a scattering of Democrats, just like with Iran today—wanted to protect America’s imperial reach. That is to say, they saw—not unreasonably—that the U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula gave America a dramatic advantage should it ever find itself in a Northeast Asian confrontation. These members did not want to see a unified Korea, one that might ask the United States to leave the peninsula. Their aim seemed to be to keep North Korea alive and threatening.
Third, it seems fair to speculate that some members feared a loss of personal political power. In other words, they were beholden to defense contractors for massive donations, and to protect their cozy relationships with these companies they may have felt a need to foster ongoing animosities with potentially threatening countries. North Korea was readily available, as Iran is also today.
Finally, some Republicans saw political benefit in undermining the Democrat in the White House, President Clinton, by opposing the AF. Similarly, some congressional Republicans today seem particularly hostile to the nuclear agreement with Iran because it was achieved by President Obama.
Whatever the intricacies underlying this congressional opposition, by the late 1990s the United States was not living up to its side of the AF. There also emerged a dilatory process of financial support by consortium members, which angered North Korea. The fuel oil under the HFO program was delivered late and in serial amounts rather than in quantities and at times tacitly agreed. Construction of the concrete foundations for the first two LWRs was behind schedule. Though other consortium members (South Korea, Japan, Australia, and the European Atomic Energy Community) generally were providing the appropriate funding (though tardily), the U.S. was not.
We’ll probably never know whether the North Koreans decided on a hedging strategy before the AF was inked or if they only decided to construct an alternative path to a nuclear weapon after they saw the tardy financial process, experienced the U.S. reneging on elements of the bargain, and read in U.S. newspapers strong statements opposed to the AF by congressional Republicans and their media mouthpieces.
It’s an important question, but one CIA analyst told me in 2002 that it likely would never be answered. While some inside and outside the U.S. intelligence community insist they know the Koreans never intended to live up to the agreement, I have been able to study the intelligence data thoroughly, and there is no definitive evidence one way or the other.
Moreover, some experts thought the leadership in Pyongyang, having witnessed what they could get by relinquishing a plutonium program, thought they could repeat the process with an HEU program and gain even more. These experts thought that what the North Koreans deeply desired was a more or less normal relationship with Washington, and Pyongyang calculated that such a process of blackmail was the surest way to achieve it. Today, it appears that process of blackmail now includes nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, the final steps perhaps in a very dangerous game.
In any event, in the early 2000s the North Koreans were detected enriching uranium. This is the second path to a nuclear weapon, highly-enriched uranium (HEU). When Assistant Secretary of State Jim Kelly went to Pyongyang in October 2002, essentially to confront the North Koreans over their secret HEU program, he got a surprise. His North Korean counterpart, First Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Kang Sok-ju, admitted to the program—almost as if it were an expected development, given the U.S. tardiness in fulfilling its part of the AF and the Bush administration’s nearly two-year delay in resuming substantive talks with the North or even continuing the warming relations fostered by the previous Clinton administration where there had even been talk of high-level dialog between Pyongyang and Washington and an eventual exchange of ambassadors.
But the admission by North Korea to a secret alternative path to a bomb killed all diplomacy instantly, despite the fact the North Koreans denied that Sok-ju had made the admission to Kelly (four years later, in an effort to resume positive diplomacy, Washington backed away from long-held assertions that North Korea had an active clandestine program to enrich uranium at the time).
What eventually resulted, however, was not war but a resumption of negotiations by the George W. Bush administration under what became known as the Six-Party Talks, bringing in all interested parties. In addition to the United States and North and South Korea, the participants included Russia, Japan, and China. China in particular was judged by the U.S. as having special leverage over North Korea.
These talks lasted for several years but proved unavailing. As a result, North Korea became not only a nuclear power, testing its new weapons several times, but also deeply involved in ballistic missile testing and nuclear weapon miniaturization—the two principal developments needed to produce a nuclear-tipped ICBM.
This is where we are today—with several added dimensions:
First, President Trump seems willing to match word-for-word—and perhaps action-for-action—the bellicose and ultimately desperate North Koreans. Such bombast, unbecoming of a man in charge of the most powerful military instrument on earth, is made the more reprehensible by the reality that North Korea, a much less powerful yet rational state, cannot accept any significant negative change in the balance of power on the peninsula.
Second, Trump is surrounded by officials with little or no experience on matters involving North Korea, and this has deepened the dangers inherent in the current U.S.-North Korean crisis. He has not even put a U.S. ambassador in Seoul, a considerable affront to that key ally.
Third, the president has compelled others to try to backfill his vacuous policy. Some, such as Secretary of State Tillerson, insist negotiations are still possible, even desired. Others, including Defense Secretary Mattis, seek to give some strategic shape to Trump’s bellicosity. Then there is South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham’s unwise statement: “If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here [in the United States]”. Graham seems to imply that any war will be on the Korean Peninsula and not in America, so Americans need not worry. This is an insult to South Korea. Moreover, there are nearly 200,000 American citizens living and working in South Korea, most of them in Seoul, where the war’s worst ravages will be felt. Thus Graham’s remark was utterly wrong as it related to the safety of American citizens.
Finally, the nature of the situation on the peninsula is completely misunderstood. Since 1953, we have had 64 consecutive years of peace in an inherently volatile and complex region. The reason: periodic talking and diplomacy.
Were we to do such talking and conduct such diplomacy today, what might be the game plan? First, we need to put ourselves in our enemy’s shoes. By doing that we would understand what the North Koreans are after—namely, the preservation of their regime.
Second, we must determine what makes North Korean leaders so desperate about their capacity to fulfill that goal? That too is not hard to answer: the military power of the United States, power that has been used to unseat Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi and in the attempt to unseat Bashar al-Assad. Recently, President Trump even threatened Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro with a possible U.S. military intervention in that country.
Third, what can the U.S. do to begin to alleviate that North Korean angst about U.S. military power to the extent that they might reciprocate positively? Here the answer could be any number of actions. Stop military maneuvers in such a provocative manner (we did this before when we cancelled the huge exercise called Team Spirit). Stop the more egregiously threatening overflights of the peninsula by U.S. warplanes and limit the close runs along the peninsula by ships of the U.S. Seventh Fleet. Perhaps we could even suggest less provocative military moves from such locations as Guam and Okinawa.
Fourth, what might we ask from the North in exchange for such U.S. moves? That too is fairly clear: stop testing ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. There should be serious discussions on which nation should move first, U.S. or North Korea—or should such actions perhaps occur near-simultaneously?
What could we do to sweeten the deal? Provide the more substantive things we said we would provide under the AF such as closer relations, economic assistance, embassy openings, sanctions relief, and assistance with the North’s electrical power grid, which is obsolete and falling apart.
Neoconservative figures such as John Bolton will scream that we are dealing with criminals, with devils, and should be ashamed of ourselves. This is nonsense. At various points in U.S. history we have dealt with “devils” such as those who ran the Soviet Union and the Chinese Comintern. No one—certainly not a U.S. president, let alone a U.S. senator—should be willing to trade the hundreds of thousands of casualties that will result from a war on the Korean Peninsula for regime change in Pyongyang. In fact, any president should be willing to negotiate with any leader to prevent such an outcome so long as the resulting situation is manageable, and this one with North Korea is very much so, as history has well-demonstrated.
Deterrence works. North Korea could build nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles for the next fifty years and still not catch up to the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Were North Korea to fire a nuclear-tipped missile at the U.S., Pyongyang would disappear from the face of the earth. Kim Jong-un and all his generals undoubtedly know this.
Moreover, those who say we should fear the sale of nuclear material to other states or to terrorist groups don’t understand the development of nuclear explosion forensics since the revelations of the A.Q. Khan network. The quality of such forensics is excellent today and any nuclear explosion’s ultimate provenance would be 60-90 percent determinable. No American president could fail to act given such surety, even at the lower end. Potential sellers of such weapons know that. To sell a weapon to another state or a terrorist group is a certain death warrant for the seller if the buyer uses the weapon on the U.S. or its allies—and probably on anyone else as well. That also represents deterrence.
If there is any credibility to the recent reporting that elements in Ukraine, deprived of the dollars from Moscow for their ballistic missile engine work, sold such technology to North Korea and thus helped them overcome some of their missile challenges, we need to be more aware of these potentialities and provide the sort of economic and financial support that eliminates such perverse incentives. Or, as with the manner in which we dealt with some elements of the A.Q. Khan network, we need to ferret out such enterprises, criminalize, and eliminate them.
At the same time, we need to stop the international swagger that translates into feelings of being threatened in other nations. Trillions of dollars spent on combating terrorists who have the likelihood of a lightning strike to kill one of us is absurd, as is holding up the specter of North Korea and Iran as existential threats.
As one of my lifelong South Korean friends said recently, “This Kim [Kim Jong-un] is the last of the Kim dynasty. The generals will replace him when he is gone, and we can deal with the generals.” That’s probably right. In a few years, perhaps a generation at the longest, the two Koreas could be unified and a peaceful, democratic nation of some 75 million people would result. All that is required is wise patience and astute diplomacy.
Lawrence Wilkerson is Visiting Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William and Mary. He was chief of staff to secretary of state Colin Powell from 2002-05, with a portfolio that included North Korea; special assistant to Powell as an Army colonel when Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), where he also watched over the Korean Peninsula; deputy director and director of the USMC War College (1993-97,) where he made military visits to Korea—including in 1994 at the height of the crisis there—and he served in the US Army’s Korea forces on the peninsula.