George W.'s Wrong-headed Approach to Korea

News Abroad

Mr. Palais is Professor Emeritus of Korean History, University of Washington.

There was a time after the end of the Korean War (1950-53) when U.S. policy toward Korea was the defense of South Korea from another invasion from North Korea. Since the late 1980s, if not sooner, the situation has changed drastically. South Korea has far surpassed the economy of North Korea, established its own arms industry and has gained access to modern tanks, aircraft, and artillery. Many think that it has the capacity to defend itself, even without the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed on South Korean soil as a trip-wire to bring the U.S. automatically into any war between North and South Korea. In addition to U.S. troops, the South Korean military is backed up by U.S. nuclear-capable submarines, ships, and aircraft.

In the meanwhile, the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union eliminated North Korea's guarantee against a U.S. nuclear attack and cut off its supply of subsidized oil needed to generate electricity and run its factories. China still supports North Korea's existence as a state, but it also has very active trading and diplomatic relations with South Korea and is unwilling to support any kind of aggressive war by North Korea against South Korea. A series of natural disasters have led to long-term famine as well. As a result, North Korea's formidable military has been converted from an aggressive to a defensive force in the face of U.S. nuclear weapons, which the Bush administration has given every hint of using as a first-strike weapon in a preemptive war.

In the late 1980s the U.S. became alarmed when it began to suspect the North Koreans of developing a nuclear weapons program. In 1994 President Clinton came close to war with North Korea, but Jimmy Carter saved the situation when he visited Pyongyang to talk with Kim Il Sung. Carter's announcement was followed up subsequently by the Agreed Framework of 1994, which froze the rods in the nuclear reactor built at Yongbyon and prevented the conversion of the waste to plutonium in return for guarantees to build two light-water reactors and supply 500,000 tons of heavy oil to North Korea.

The Agreed Framework was achieved because Clinton was willing to negotiate with North Korea and engage in quid-pro-quo negotiations. The result was not total transparency of North Korea's nuclear facilities, but the agreement achieved a freeze on nuclear waste that could have been processed to make plutonium for atomic weapons. Just before the end of the Clinton regime, the United States worked out an informal agreement with Kim Jong Il, the new leader of North Korea, that included the abandonment of the north's long-range missile program. But the lame-duck Clinton failed to sign the agreement and left it to the Bush administration to conclude the deal.

No sooner did George Bush become president than he refused to endorse the progress Clinton had made, criticized Clinton's Agreed Framework as a case of appeasement of North Korean nuclear blackmail, listed North Korea as one of the members of the "Axis of Evil," and announced that he loathed Kim Jong Il, whom the president described as a tyrant who starved his own people. Was it any surprise that the North Koreans interpreted this as a shift of U.S. policy to outright hostility and responded by renouncing the Agreed Framework, removing the rods from their nuclear reactor in preparation for reprocessing, and canceling its membership in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)? George Bush responded by threatening to condemn North Korea before the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for abrogating the terms of the NPT and indicated he'd seek sanctions against the regime -- an act that might have led directly to war.

Later U.S. intelligence uncovered work on enriched uranium for the manufacture of a uranium bomb. North Korea admitted building the project; Pakistan revealed that it was responsible for shipping the technology North Korea employed. Even though it is not clear if this enriched uranium project was done shortly after the Agreed Framework of 1994 or not, the response to that challenge would be to negotiate directly with the north to guarantee a return to membership in the NPT, continuation of the Agreed Framework of 1994, cessation of the enriched uranium bomb project, and secure inspections under the IAEA, including the revelation of the past history of nuclear research that was promised to be revealed as part of the Agreed Framework in 2005. The Bush administration should not have threatened sanctions or a preemptive strike.

Cooler heads seem to have prevailed in the Bush administration when it announced that the U.S. did not have any plans to go to war with North Korea and would settle the North Korea nuclear problem through "negotiations." George Bush, however, defined "negotiations" as a willingness to talk to North Korean representatives but not to discuss any "quid pro quos." Quid pro quo means bargaining, a willingness to offer the other side something in return for something received. Using direct negotiation to obtain a return to NPT, the Agreed Framework, and cessation of both long-range missiles and the enriched uranium bomb project in return for a non-aggression pact, aid, and open commerce would preclude war and destruction and obtain security for North Korea, the U.S., South Korea and surrounding nations. Yet Bush denounced such arrangements as succumbing to North Korean nuclear blackmail, suggesting that the naïve Democrats and Bill Clinton had been taken in. Bush claimed he was continuing to negotiate, but that meant he was only talking to South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia to persuade them to adopt his hard line against the north.

Trading one thing to get another is the very essence of diplomatic negotiation, and to agree to "talk" without agreeing to negotiate seriously indicates that the Bush administration has no intention of negotiating at all, but seems to be postponing the day of reckoning until after the U.S. goes to war against Iraq. He proved it when he rejected the North Korean offer to meet U.S. demands on the nuclear weapons in return for the conclusion of a Non-Aggression Pact between North Korea and the U.S. What better proposal could the U.S. have received if it really wanted to solve the nuclear question peacefully? Bush's rejection of the proposal must have indicated that the U.S. is preparing to use force against the north. In the face of this threat, the only purpose for North Korean nuclear weapons would be as a deterrent against the U.S.

Unfortunately for South Korea, Bush's current policy places not only North Korea, but South Korea as well at risk of the deaths of millions of its people and the massive destruction of property, for I doubt that North Korea will go down without wreaking as much havoc as it can against South Korea. Instead of the U.S. acting as savior and protector of South Korean security, the U.S. under George Bush appears as South Korea's greatest threat. Bush ridiculed President Kim Dae Jung's Sunshine Policy, which was designed to open the path to peaceful resolution of problems with the north. His denunciation of Kim Jong Il only served to block Kim's peace initiatives. The result of Bush's opposition and his hard line on North Korea was to energize a large segment of the South Korean population against the U.S. for endangering the Korean people and to swing the recent presidential election in South Korea to Roh Moo Hyun (No Muhyon); Roh is committed to continuing the Sunshine Policy. If Bush continues his current policy against the North, he might well force South Korea to reconsider its current subordination to U.S. leadership in the conduct of its own foreign affairs.

If, by chance, George Bush does keep his word and does not go to war, he will continue to put enough pressure on the north to cause its collapse because his advisers seem to think that North Korea is so weak its collapse is only a matter of time. I doubt that the north will weaken or crack, and South Korea will not support the pressure. China, Russia, and Japan are also unlikely to go along. George Bush's reckless policy is playing with the lives of the Korean people.

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More Comments:

former student - 1/18/2004

I didn't realize the words "negotiation" or "compromise" were in Prof. Palais' vocabulary, not to mention something he would consider an applicable concept, at least on the micro scale.

Matthew Shapiro - 4/21/2003

Having read all of the responses, I have concluded that I've just wasted five minutes. The only coherent points that have been made began and ended with Professor Palais... points which none of you failed to highlight. For example, Palais seems to dwell on the impact of the NK crisis upon the South Koreans.

I suggest you all stop thinking up new names for Kim Jong-il and focus on the argument.


Matthew Shapiro

AMIR - 2/13/2003


Steve Brody - 2/7/2003

Gus, I'm not "blithely basing my entire argument on one article". The information contained in the WSJ article has been well reported for years in many different journals. The article merely summarizes this long publicized information in an interesting and persuasive way.

Gus, this is an old story with you. You make some provocative and unlikely assertion or implication and then get huffy when someone asks for some proof or suggests that you might be wrong.
I might point out that you are never the least bit bashful about demanding proof from others.

If you have some evidence for your implication that the consortium that operates the KEDO project is somehow to blame for the delay and that North Korea is not to blame then produce it. Until then, I have no intention of withdrawing my comment.

doyne dawson - 2/7/2003

First Mr. Moner objected to the stories about North Korean noncompliance purely on the grounds that these stories had appeared in the Wall Street Journal, a periodical he apparently regards as untrustworthy. Most informed readers hold a much higher opinion of the credibility of the WSJ, but in any case these events were widely reported in the world media, and Mr. Brody obviously cited the WSJ article because it was a convenient summary of well known facts. Now Mr. Moner claims he had a lot of other evidence testifying to the purity of Kim Jong Il. Well, like what? Yours, Doyne Dawson.

Gus Moner - 2/7/2003

Mr Brody, I haven’t a clue how you can blithely base your entire argument on one WSJ editorial and at the same time assume I have read nothing else on the matter! It’s weak, sir, but you needn't withdraw the comment; it speaks volumes more than I can write.

Steve Brody - 2/5/2003

Gus, sorry I don't have the article. However, you can do what I did and go down to your local library and read it.

Gus, I know this article from the the WSJ doesn't fit your pre-conceived notions of whose to blame for the reactors not being completed on time, but it was really kind of reckless of you to blame the delay on the anyone without some research.

If you do have some evidence for your position, please present it and I'll withdraw my comment.

Doyne Dawson - 2/5/2003

The article by Professor Palais, which should have been titled "Appease Kim Jong Il at All Costs," is a disgraceful and grossly misinformative apologetic on behalf of what is arguably the worse tyranny on the planet (yes, worse than Saddam in its treatment of its own people, though not so immediately dangerous to other countries). But Mr. Moner also bends over backward to find excuses for the North Korean dictator. He dismisses the facts presented by Mr. Brody on the grounds they appeared in the Wall Street Journal, which of course never tells the truth. That's not the only place they appeared, Mr. Moner. He blames the Bush administration for not making a preemptive strike. This was hardly a viable option even before North Korea acquired nukes, because it could destroy Seoul with conventional weapons alone, and now that the North probably has nukes military action is out of the question. The same logic that calls for preemptive action against Iraq before Iraq can acquire nukes calls for restraint toward North Korea, which already has them. The essential point that must be grasped about the Korean situation is that there are no good options. The only comfort is that time is on our side, which it is not in Iraq, because the Communist regime is collapsing and entirely dependent on foreign aid, hence the best course is to keep talking and make no concessions. (The advice of Palais, that Kim Jong Il must be rewarded every time he breaks his promises, is of course the worse option possible. Palais seems to have the bizarre notion that you can't enter into negotiations without making concessions. Has he ever bought a used car?) Incidentally, here in Seoul last week 40,000 Koreans marched to support the United States and to demand the continued presence of American troops in Korea. Apparently this was not considered worth reporting by the American media. I mention it because one of the fallacies you will find in articles like Palais's is that Bush's hard line against the North has turned South Korea against the United States. Yours, Doyne Dawson, Professor of International Affairs, Sejong University, Seoul

Basil Duke - 2/5/2003

Mr. Morgan is correct. In October '02, North Korea confessed that it had - in direct violation of the '94 'Agreed Framework' -been secretly developing a uranium-enrichment program for several years - while Bill Clinton was still in office (January 2, '03 Wall Street Journal). Thus, the entire framework was nothing short of a sham - a sham that exposed as such yet another of the previous president's frantic lunges for a legacy. I find the author's effort to blame Bush for the current crisis an insupportable conjecture. Kim Jong Il has proven that negotiations mean nothing to him. His nation agreed to abandon its uranium-enrichment efforts in exchange for all manner of goodies from us, Japan and South Korea. And what did THAT yield? A uraniun-enrichment program for North Korea - along with heavy oil, cash and reactor machinery. Jimmy Carter's own National Security advisor, Zbigniew Brzensinski, agreed that Clinton over-reached with an optimism that was founded on nothing but hope for good intentions from a lunatic regime. "It seems to me that perhaps [the Clinton administration] was somewhat too eager to accommodate," Brzensinski said on the October 20, '02 edition of "Late Edition." "And that may have given the North Koreans the impression that they can have their cake and eat it too. Namely, get some benefits of accommodation while pursuing this surreptitious nuclear program."

Bush is left with nothing but unattractive options when confronting the Korea issue. A threat of economic sanctions would mean nothing to Jong Il. His people are starving in their millions as it is. As long as he and the rest of the 'elite' are fed, what's another few hundred thousand corpses? And war would probably play nicely into his hands. He's got a million man army - well nourished, thanks to American food aid ostensibly sent for the support of the aforementioned starving peasants - and well-armed. Armed conflict against the hated American imperalist running dogs would detract the masses' attention from the fact that their leader is a murderous sociopath.

Gus Moner - 2/5/2003

Thanks for the suggestion. I would be keen to read it, however, I haven't got it, have you?
Nevertheless, the article as you summarise it seems to leave the blame entirely with N Korea. Human nature and the WSJ being what they are, I seriously doubt the failure to build the reeactors issue is all N Korea's fault, as the WSJ would undooubtedly have one believe.

Steve Brody - 2/5/2003

Thanks to Jerry Sternstein for pointing out the existence of the WSJ article and summarizing the salient points in a different string

Steve Brody - 2/4/2003

Gus, your implication that the US is to blame for the slow progress on the light water reactors is not born out by the facts. The facts, as they appeared in the 1/30/03 issue of the WSJ, appear to indict North Korea as the prime impediment to the construction of the reactors. To wit:

In 1996 a North Korean submarine grounded itself of the South Korean coast. After violating South Korean waters, the crew was unable to free the submarine, thereafter abandoned it, and attempted to make their way back to North Korea on foot. A number of South Korean citizens were killed by the crew before they were stopped. Construction came to a stop for months while South Korea threatened to pull out of the consortium.

In 1998 North Korea fired a long range missle over Japan, which held up a financing agreement.

Many suppliers were forced to pull out of the project because NK was not a member of international conventions which insulate these suppliers from liability in the event of a nuclear accident.

In 1997, a South Korean worker tore up a picture of Kim Jong Il. NK shut off the electricity and water, and confined the workers to quarters when the consortium refused to turn over the worker. This went on for several weeks and made the recruitment of foreign workers difficult. The North Koreans termed this "the most serious incident in North Korean history".

NK demanded and was refused a six fold increase in the wages of the NK workers. NK then withdrew the workers, requiring more than a year for the workers to be replaced.

Gus, this is a fascinating and informative article and I recommend that you read it.

Gus Moner - 2/4/2003

Messrs. Morgan and Lloyd raise reasonable questions about N Korea and their behaviour. It’s difficult to refute. However those factors alone are not the entire issue. The question remains how big a role the failure to make progress in the alternative power plants played in bringing us to this point. I think it needs to be acknowledged and discussed as part of the equation. Otherwise we are being shallow and failing to deal with reality. It must be part of all the debate on N Korea. Lest anyone think I am blaming the current administration, I am not. That situation developed during the prior one and responsibility belongs to all the signatory nations of that failed agreement.

However, since coming to power the current group ignored N Korea’s demands for compliance and that is their part of the blame- not being preemptive to forestall the situation. Everyone has to own up to their errors and face them before they can be corrected. We are not yet doing that and it could lead to more errors and serious situations in future.

Alec Lloyd - 2/4/2003

Assuming North Korea is a rational actor is a huge assumption. Game theory would suggest they abide by the agreed framework (or at least stop starving their own people for the sake of a monomanical military buildup). Yet they persist.

If history has told us anything, it is that prevarication in the face of provocation leads to aggression. The original Korean War was an example of this. You'd think the history professor might have picked up on this.

Richard Henry Morgan - 2/4/2003

You don't need to frighten N. Korea into bizarre acts. And N. Korea never held up its end of the Agreed Framework. So there you have it. N. Korea complies with the Agreement just to the point where it allows itself to conduct business as usual, and Bush is the bad guy for for calling them to account, and failing to roll over like Clinton and Carter.

Gus Moner - 2/3/2003

Well the author has touched on a number of relevant issues, and has offered a good overview. Nevertheless there is a huge hole in his presentation.

Where are the two nuclear reactors promised by 2003? This has been cited by the leaders of N. Korea’s as the primary reason for re-starting its nuclear programme. The fact that neither has even started to be built is extremely relevant yet unfortunately missing from the analysis.

This problem is not all GW's fault, although he did ascerbate the delicate situation and frighten N Korea's bizarre leaders into these mad acts. The issue has longer and deeper roots dating to the previous administration failure to live up to its commitment and the current administration's failure to identify the looming disaster and act preventively, or pre-entively, as they prefer to do elsewhere.