The North Korean Conundrum

The news stories about Korea seem to veer from saber-rattling toward negotiations and back again. Despite the latest agreement on multiparty talks, mutual misperceptions and, on the part of the United States, avoidance of the issue may yet risk an unnecessary war, whose victims will be the civilian populations of North and South Korea. Mutual name-calling has long characterized the dialogue between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. As all sides prepare for talks, now is the time to stop dismissing Kim Jhong Il as irrational and consider the realities faced by all parties concerned with the Korean peninsula.

Calm assessment of the Korean conundrum depends on dispassionate analysis, which is often lacking in news reports and official statements. President Kim’s reputation for irrationality, for example, stems from his reported fascination with leggy blonde women, Hollywood films and expensive alcoholic beverages. Other leaders, including U.S. politicians, have indulged similar tastes. Another charge leveled against the leadership of North Korea is that its policies have led to starvation and malnutrition for millions. This is true, and the suffering those policies have inflicted are reprehensible. Still, before stigmatizing the North Koreans we should perhaps consider the impact of the current and previous U.S. administration’s policies on the American poor.


Ill-informed or incomplete perceptions make for bad foreign policy decisions. The perception of North Korea’s leadership as sinister seems well supported by facts and should inform U.S. dealings with it. But the perception that it is not capable of negotiation or, more importantly, of adherence to negotiated agreements is undercut by the history of the 1953 armistice agreement and the 1994 Geneva agreement. Many Americans mistakenly believe North Korea has broken those agreements. In fact, North Korea stepped back from the Geneva Agreement only after the United States failed to live up to its commitments under the accord. It would seem that mutual distrust and ignorance of how the other side perceives one’s speech and actions are major obstacles to resolution of the Korean nuclear problems.

U.S. Noncompliance

Concern about North Korea’s nuclear program led to the 1994 Geneva accord, often referred to as the Agreed Framework. Briefly, North Korea agreed to freeze its program, open its nuclear facilities to International Atomic Energy Agency monitors and dismantle the problem facilities upon completion of two nuclear power generating facilities that the United States agreed to build by 2003. In addition to building two nuclear generating plants with nonproliferating technology, the United States agreed also to provide 500,000 tons of fuel oil annually (to make up the energy deficit caused by freezing the existing nuclear power facilities) and to give assurances against the threat or use of nuclear weapons by the United States. Both countries agreed to work toward full normalization of political and economic relations and to open liaison offices in each other’s capitals as a preliminary step toward establishment of full diplomatic relations. Until December 2002, North Korea seems to have fulfilled its obligations under the Geneva agreement. Unfortunately, the United States failed to do the same.

To meet its commitment to provide fuel oil, for example, the Clinton administration relied on the cooperation of other governments, since the Republican-controlled House of Representatives would not authorize purchase of fuel oil for North Korea. At times, particularly during the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990’s, the annual search for fuel oil was harrowing. Although some moves were made to improve relations between the two countries, notably the visit of then- Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang in late 2000, no progress was made. No assurances that nuclear weapons would not be used against North Korea were ever offered before President Bush named North Korea as part of an axis of evil, along with Iran and Iraq. There never were sufficient funds for construction of the two safer, light water reactors the United States promised to build by 2003. In November 2002, the Bush administration announced it would suspend shipments of fuel oil. Then in December North Korea announced that it would reactivate its existing nuclear facilities, expelled the International Atomic Energy Agency monitors and withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

A Korean View of U.S. Involvement

Most discussions of the North Korean problem begin with the discovery in the early 1990’s that Pyongyang’s nuclear program included facilities capable of producing weapons-grade material. A decade of sensational media reports and government spin have further complicated common-sense perception of the issues. On the Korean sideand this applies to both the D.P.R.K. and the Republic of Koreathe history of interaction with the United States scarcely supports Americans’ self-perception as the good guys.

Roughly 100 years ago, Japan emerged as the dominant power from a cluster of nations, including Russia and China, that were vying for influence in Korea. In a conversation in 1904 between the then-U.S. Secretary of War William Howard Taft and Japan’s Count Katsura, the United States recognized that the Japanese sphere of influence included Korea. Many Koreans view what they call the Taft-Katsura Agreement as a formal arrangement ceding the peninsula to Japanese imperial ambitions, abrogating an 1882 treaty that recognized Korea as an independent nation and pledged mutual defense. Most American historians view the agreement as an acknowledgement of the realities of the moment and make no reference to the earlier treaty with Korea.

When Japan formally annexed the Korean peninsula in 1910, the act went unchallenged by the world community. At the end of World War I, Koreans expected the victors to press Japan to honor the Wilsonian principle of autonomy and even managed to send advocates, including American missionaries, to Versailles. Their hopes were disappointed, and Japanese rule lasted until the end of the Second World War.

In 1945, the United States drew a line (at the 38th parallel) across the middle of the Korean peninsula, dividing it into zones occupied by the Soviet Union to the north and the United States to the south. This division seems to have happened casually, and perhaps in recognition of the entry of a Soviet occupying force immediately after the Japanese surrender. Later both General Douglas Macarthur and Dean Acheson, then assistant secretary of state, excluded Korea from the U.S. security perimeter in the Pacific. For Koreans, the United States, which by accepting the Japanese surrender assumed responsibility for ensuring a just settlement in Korea, created the division of what had been for centuries a single political, cultural, ethnic and linguistic entity.

Syngman Rhee, who had been president of a Korean government in exile for two decades, became president in the U.S.-occupied south of Korea, while Kim Il Sung, a leader of armed resistance to the Japanese, became premier of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948. U.S. forces began withdrawing from Korea even as the armies of both Korean governments skirmished and probed along the 38th parallel, until Kim Il Sung’s army came south in June 1950. Rhee’s troops and the remaining U.S. soldiers in Korea fell back, and the United Nations, at the urging of the United States, joined in defending South Korea. Although a number of U.N. member states contributed combat troops and other forms of support to South Korea, most withdrew in the aftermath of the ceasefire and armistice agreement signed in 1953. The U.S. contingent, however, remained under the U.N. flag and has hovered, since the Nixon administration, around a total of 40,000 Army and Air Force personnel.

Post Cold-War Developments

While the military situation seemed to resist change for decades, other developments substantially transformed the Korean environment. These include the rapid development of the south’s economy and the democratization of its politics; the end of the cold war and consequent changes in the relationships of both the D.P.R.K. and the Republic of Korea with China and Russia; and the death of Kim Il Sung and the accession to leadership of his son, Kim Jong Il. Economic prosperity has allowed the south to equip and train a large, modern military establishment with an impressive inventory of ammunition and weapons and to extend trade and diplomatic relations to former supporters of the D.P.R.K., like Russia and China.

As the cold war ended, the United States and other nations were content to leave the Koreans to sort out their own affairs. Yet the Korean peninsula remains a point of intersection for the interests of the world’s most powerful nations: China, Japan, Russia and the United States. A Korean proverb born of historical experience runs, When whales battle, the shrimp get crushed. The shrimp are not the two Korean governments, but rather the people of the peninsula. They have had powerful sponsors during periods of great power rivalry, but now have none. In the south, the client-patron relationship of the cold war no longer works. The north’s former sponsors have deserted the north, whose development of nuclear capability, while most directly threatening to the people south of the D.M.Z., also threatens its neighbors in China, Russia and Japan.

Self-Reliance and the Nuclear Option

These changes in the political and military situation may well have impelled the North Koreans to explore development of a nuclear weapons capability. Economic realities also required that the north develop a nuclear energy generating capacity. Because the Japanese developed a substantial industrial infrastructure north of what became the Demilitarized Zone, the north initially developed its industrial base faster than the south. Beginning in the 1970’s, however, the south began to catch up and then to pull ahead. Where the south moved in the direction of a largely open market economy, the north remains dedicated to its own version of a centralized economy based on the concept of chuje, usually translated as self-reliance. Also beginning in the 1970’s, South Korea built a functioning network of nuclear power stations through trade deals and contracts. True to its philosophy of chuje, the north tried to create its own nuclear power network to replace imported energy sources.

Since the beginning of the 1990’s, North Korea’s efforts to maintain independence from other economies have devastated its people and its infrastructure. Although capable of producing short-range and medium-range missiles for export, North Korea cannot feed its population, provide power sufficient for its energy needs or even pave its roads. (According to an Australian government estimate, less than 10 percent of the road system is paved.) As most readers are aware, many North Koreans died during years of famine in the 1990’s; food shortages continue. The causes of the famine are complex but include the People’s Republic’s lack of resources or cash with which to purchase needed agricultural goods from abroad. The United Nations Development Program has estimated that over 13 million people, more than half the country’s population, are malnourished. The U.S. government has consistently capped emergency food assistance to the people of North Korea, and in the spring of 2003 substantially reduced the level of its assistance.

Dealing With the Democratic People’s Republic

This history explains some of the reasons why Kim Jhong Il is so difficult. But it does not follow that he is impossible to deal with. The D.P.R.K. has long made its desires clear: direct talks with the United States leading to normalization of relations and an end to the state of war on the Korean peninsula. Various proposals for such talks have been on the table since Henry Kissinger suggested six-party talks during the Nixon administration. Only in recent years have both halves of the Korean peninsula supported direct talks, and the U.S. position has changed over time, most recently in the Bush administration’s shifts between confrontation and dialogue.

Of course, talks alone will not solve the underlying problem, which is North Korea’s isolation and distrust of the outside world on the one hand, and, on the other, the U.S. dismissal of Korean points of view. Additional measures are needed: confidence-building measures carried out by all parties involved, i.e., the United States and the two Koreas; strict monitoring regimes conducted by a neutral international actorthe United Nations is not neutral on the Korean peninsula, since the U.N. forces commander is the American general who commands U.S. forces thereto verify any agreement; resumption of fuel-oil shipments to North Korea; and resumption of construction of the light-water reactors promised under the Agreed Framework. All these ideas have been discussed for many years, certainly throughout the years the North Korean nuclear program became a concern. What has been lacking is the will to implement them.

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11 years 11 months ago
While Nicholas Mele makes some important points in his article “The North Korea Conundrum” (9/8), he begins with a comparison that fundamentally weakens his overall argument. In the second paragraph of his essay, he states that while the policies of the North Korean leadership have resulted in the starvation or malnutrition of millions, which is reprehensible, Americans should “perhaps consider the impact of the current and previous U.S. administrations’ policies on the American poor” before “stigmatizing the North Koreans.”

While the American people and their elected officials have often ignored the principles of social justice in legislating policy that affects the poor and marginalized, in no way can one seriously compare America’s past and present faults with the crimes against humanity perpetrated by Kim Jhong Il, his father and their cronies. Such a comparison does violence to the memory of the millions of North Koreans who have died at the hands of the monsters who have led their nation for the past decades, whose atrocities can rightly be compared to those of Hitler, Stalin and the Khmer Rouge.


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