Analysis & Opinions - The New York Times

The Crisis Last Time

| Jan. 19, 2003

Fifty years ago the Korean War ended not with a treaty but with a truce. Just how precarious that truce can be is being demonstrated on the Korean Peninsula — much as it was demonstrated in June 1994, when the United States came to the brink of war with North Korea.

That crisis is forever ingrained in our memories because we were personally involved in preparations for a possible military strike on North Korea's nuclear reactor complex at Yongbyon with conventional weapons, and for the war that could well have followed — a war that would have been disastrous for all sides. Today's crisis is eerily similar to that of 1994. But what happened four years later may be just as pertinent as the Bush administration thinks through its options now.

In August 1998, North Korea conducted an unannounced test firing of a missile, which passed over Japan before crashing into the Pacific. This test led to heated calls in both Washington and Tokyo to abandon the Agreed Framework, the deal that ended the 1994 crisis, under which North Korea had suspended production of weapons-capable plutonium at Yongbyon in exchange for oil shipments.

Between the nuclear crisis of 1994 and the missile crisis of 1998, the United States had turned its attention to other crises in Bosnia and Haiti. But North Korea's ambitions to obtain weapons of mass destruction had not abated. While the freeze at Yongbyon was verified by on-site inspectors, our intelligence community continued to have suspicions about nuclear-related activities elsewhere in the North, suspicions that later proved correct.

Presented with these developments, President Bill Clinton asked us for a comprehensive review of United States policy toward North Korea.

We considered several strategies. One was to attempt to undermine the North Korean government. There was scant evidence, however, of dissent within the Stalinist regime — certainly nothing like the factions in Iraq, let alone Afghanistan. Moreover, we did not have much time. Our concern about weapons of mass destruction was urgent. Finally, our allies would not have supported this option.

Another option was to base our strategy on the prospect of reform within North Korea. Perhaps Kim Jong Il would take the path of China's Deng Xiaoping, opening up his country economically and trying to be a member of the international community.

But hope is not a policy. We needed a strategy for the near term. Summing up the first two options, our report stated, "U.S. policy must deal with the North Korean government as it is, not as we might wish it to be."

Equally unacceptable was buying our objectives with economic assistance. Our report said the United States would not offer North Korea "tangible `rewards' for appropriate security behavior; doing so would both transgress principles the United States values and open us up to further blackmail."

In the end, we recommended that the United States, South Korea and Japan all proceed to talk to North Korea — but with a coordinated message and negotiating strategy.

The verifiable elimination of the nuclear and missile programs was the paramount objective. Our decision not to undermine the regime could be used as a negotiating lever: much as we objected to its conduct, we could tell the North that we did not plan to go to war to change it. We could live in peace. But that peace would not be possible if North Korea pursued nuclear weapons.  Far from guaranteeing security, building such weapons would force a confrontation.

We could also argue that since North Korea had enough conventional firepower to make war a distinctly unpleasant prospect to us, it didn't need weapons of mass destruction to safeguard its security. This relative stability, in turn, could provide the time and conditions for a relaxation of tension and, eventually, improved relations if North Korea transformed its relations with the rest of the world.

After many trips to Seoul, Tokyo and also Beijing to coordinate our approaches, in May 1999 we went to Pyongyang. We presented North Korea with two alternatives.

On the upward path, North Korea would verifiably eliminate its nuclear and missile programs. In return, the United States would take political steps to relieve its security concerns — the most important of which to affirm that we had no hostile intent toward North Korea. We would also help it dismantle its weapons facilities. Working with us and through their own negotiations, South Korea and Japan would expand their contacts and economic links.

On the downward path, the three allies would resort to all means of pressure, including those that risked war, to achieve our objectives.

We concluded the policy review and stepped down from our advisory roles in the summer of 2000. Over the next two years, North Korea took some small steps on the upward path. It agreed to a moratorium on tests of long-range missiles. It continued the freeze at Yongbyon. It embarked on talks with South Korea that led to the 2000 summit meeting of the leaders of North and South.

The North also began the process of healing its strained relations with Japan, making the astonishing admission that it had kidnapped Japanese citizens in the 1970's and 80's. And it allowed United States inspectors to visit a mountain that we suspected was a site of further nuclear-weapons work, a precursor of the intrusive inspections needed for confident verification.  Whether North Korea would have taken further steps on this path is history that will never be written.

Now President Bush faces a situation similar to the one President Clinton confronted in 1994. However he chooses to proceed, he should bear in mind three central principles derived from our experience.

The first is that North Korea must not be allowed to produce a series of nuclear bombs. Nuclear weapons might embolden it to believe it could scare away the United States from defending the South, making war more likely. The North's nuclear program could set off a domino effect of proliferation in Asia and around the world. Or some of its bombs might be sold to the highest bidders, including terrorists, or get loose if North Korea's government collapses.

The second tenet is that United States strategy toward North Korea can succeed only with the support of our allies in the region, South Korea and Japan. Their national interests and ours are not identical, but they overlap strongly. South Korea can provide vital assistance in persuading North Korea's leaders to change course — or it can undermine our position if it is not persuaded we are right. Above all, the South Korean army must stand shoulder to shoulder with our troops to deter North Korean aggression. Keeping our militaries united and prepared is the best assurance that they will not have to be used.

Finally, any strategy must recognize the urgency of the situation. Within a matter of weeks, North Korea could create enough weapons-grade plutonium from the fuel rods at Yongbyon to build about five bombs. Once the plutonium is extracted it could be moved anywhere, making it much more difficult to find and eliminate. That could take us back to the summer of 1994 and the prospect of war.

Yes, this is a serious crisis. But it can be managed. The solution must come from equal parts credibility and courage: the first to make clear our determination to remove the nuclear threat even if it risks war, and the second to pursue creative diplomatic alternatives to war.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Carter, Ashton B. and William J. Perry.“The Crisis Last Time.” The New York Times, January 19, 2003.