War in ’94

When We Almost Went to War With North Korea

Last time tensions on the Korean Peninsula got this high, President Carter jetted in to Pyongyang. This time North Korea is a much bigger threat.


You can smell war.

China, according to a U.S. defense official speaking to CNN, has put cruise missile-capable bombers “on high alert” and brought up other planes to a full state of readiness. The moves are meant, according to the official, to “reduce the time to react to a North Korea contingency.” Moreover, Beijing, according to various dispatches, is deploying troops and mechanized units to areas bordering the North.

Russia reportedly is transporting forces close to its 11-mile border with North Korea. Moscow says the movements, part of previously scheduled exercises, have nothing to do with tensions on the peninsula.

U.S. and South Korean troops, tanks, and planes, still participating in regular spring exercises, are at a high state of readiness, and the Carl Vinson strike group is sailing to waters off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula, where it will arrive this week. The USS Michigan, a submarine that can carry 154 cruise missiles, arrived in the South Korean port of Busan on Tuesday, soon to join the Vinson strike group. There are rumors, now denied, that two other carrier groups, centered around the Nimitz and the Ronald Reagan, are ready to rush to the area if needed.

“The United States is not looking for a fight, so don’t give us a reason to have one,” America’s ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, told Pyongyang on Monday.

The last time the U.S. almost had a fight with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was in 1994. In early May of that year, North Korean workers began unloading spent fuel rods from their small reactor in the Yongbyon nuclear complex, apparently in preparation for reprocessing the plutonium. The rods contained enough fissile material for about a half dozen bombs. In the middle of June, the Kim regime heightened the sense of crisis by announcing it was pulling out of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog.

In response, the Clinton administration said it would push for UN Security Council sanctions, which North Korea insisted would be a “declaration of war.” Even Beijing, the North’s long-time protector, was in favor of punitive measures—and had warned Kim Il Sung, then the North’s ruler, that it might side with Washington.

The U.S. took Pyongyang at its word when it said sanctions meant war. The Pentagon began marshaling assets for conflict on the Korean Peninsula, and the Air Force updated contingency plans for air strikes on Yongbyon.

Enter Jimmy Carter. At the height of the crisis, the former president told the then-current one, Bill Clinton, that he would meet Great Leader Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang to find a resolution. A wary State Department had blocked the attempts of the 39th president to travel to the North in 1991, 1992, and 1993, but in 1994 he insisted, and a Clinton White House in crisis—and in obvious disarray—could not bring itself to prevent the trip.

Seoul, which did not want to see Carter go there either, fumbled attempts to block the visit.

Carter, in talks with Kim in Pyongyang in mid-June, worked out a tentative deal that in main outline followed a suggestion that Korea analyst Selig Harrison had made to the Great Leader a week before. North Korea, according to the Carter plan, would suspend reprocessing. In return, Kim would get “proliferation-resistant” light-water reactors.

James Earl Carter Jr., as wily as Kim Il Sung in some ways, then made sure Clinton could not repudiate the deal by giving what became a famous live interview from Pyongyang to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.

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The aged Kim Il Sung died three weeks later from a heart attack, but Carter’s arrangement survived to be incorporated into the Agreed Framework, signed in Geneva the following October.

North Korea pursuant to the Agreed Framework froze its nuclear reactors in Yongbyon and “related facilities” and agreed to dismantle them when they were replaced by light-water reactors. Before the new reactors went online, Washington agreed to provide 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil annually. The North’s fuel rods from the old reactors would be disposed of “in a safe manner.”

Pyongyang also committed to remain a part of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the global pact that it had threatened in 1993 to leave. The North also agreed to permit IAEA monitoring of facilities.

As important, both sides pledged to take steps to build an enduring relationship by reducing barriers to trade and investment, opening liaison offices in each other’s capital, and moving toward “full normalization of political and economic relations.” Washington and Pyongyang promised to provide a raft of “assurances” to each other.

The Agreed Framework by its terms could have led to a lasting peace. Washington and Pyongyang, however, made sure that didn’t happen by repeatedly violating the comprehensive arrangement. “There is blame on both sides,” Carter pronounced in late 2002 as he tried to defend his achievement.

Carter was correct in this assertion, but his even-handed treatment completely missed the point. Yes, America failed to live up to the deal. Construction of the reactors fell far behind schedule, Washington did not lift some sanctions as promised, and it ended others years late. The U.S. failed to give a promised no-nuclear-attack pledge. Clinton was also slow on commitments to establish relations.

What Carter failed to say was that, while America was guilty of infractions, Pyongyang committed a rash of felonies. Pyongyang not only failed to honor various pledges but also, at the time of the signing, was covertly attempting to enrich uranium for weapons. Although the deal focused on the North’s plutonium efforts, the uranium program was still a violation of the Agreed Framework because in that document Pyongyang agreed to abide by two comprehensive agreements, the global nonproliferation pact and a 1991 denuclearization agreement with South Korea.

The secret uranium program was one of the most breathtaking betrayals of an international agreement in our time. The North Koreans had, in all probability, started uranium enrichment efforts in the 1980s and had certainly gone beyond the planning stage by the beginning of the following decade, in other words, while inking the Agreed Framework.

Yet for all its faults, the Agreed Framework stopped the North Koreans from producing plutonium. As Ambassador Joseph DeTrani, who played a pivotal role in its negotiation, told The Daily Beast, the deal succeeded in halting a frightening “downward spiral” and got North Korea to put more than 8,000 spent fuel rods in cooling ponds indefinitely. That bought the world’s most precious commodity, time.

That the Clinton and Bush administrations did not use the time well was not the fault of the original deal itself.

Yet the 1994 agreement has one legacy that we still live with today: It rescued the Kim family at a critical moment. “At the time of the Agreed Framework negotiations, the Kim regime was in bad straits,” says Robert Collins, a veteran Defense Department adviser based in South Korea. “Kim Il Sung had very recently died, and the great famine was affecting all segments of society. The regime needed room, not to mention all of the heavy fuel oil we gave them.”

At a time when Kim Il Sung’s son, Kim Jong Il, had just succeeded his father and therefore needed legitimization, the Agreed Framework provided it. By nothing more than signing the agreement, the Clinton administration essentially signaled America’s acceptance of Kim family rule, not only to the outside world but also to the internal regime figures unsure about Kim Il Sung’s heir. No wonder South Korean President Kim Young-sam vociferously opposed the Agreed Framework.

There’s an eerie resemblance to today, when another Kim family member, Kim Jong Un, is also trying to consolidate power after the death of his father. From all appearances, the current Kim is having a hard time. So far, to ensure his rule, he has ordered the killing of more than a 150 senior regime figures and at least two family members, his elder half-brother and his aunt’s husband.

Almost 26 million people live in the Seoul metropolitan area, which is only about 30 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas. Casualties in a general conflict on the peninsula could number in the hundreds of thousands—in the first hours. That was the case in 1994, and that is even more true today when the North’s weapons are far more destructive.

Therefore, many say at this time diplomacy is the only way forward. Nonetheless, we have to make sure that any new agreement, deal, or bargain does not perpetuate the horrific rule of the Kims. There will never be peace in Korea as long as they rule half—or any part—of it.

“The crisis is over,” Carter declared in June 1994.

No, the crisis did not end then. It was just deferred to now, when the North Koreans have used the time they won in 1994 to build long-range missiles and the nuclear warheads to put atop them.