History’s Brutal Verdict on the Last U.S. Agreement with North Korea

by Jim Geraghty

From the midweek edition of the Morning Jolt:

History’s Brutal Verdict on the Last U.S. Agreement with North Korea

Are the current tensions with North Korea something new, a harbinger of a new era of nuclear threats and negotiations that feel akin to blackmail? Or just the latest act in a three-decade cycle of almost regularly-scheduled provocations and demands that no longer surprise the United States and its allies?

Let’s go back to June 1994: the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup, The Lion King opened up in theaters, O.J. Simpson was on the run in a slow white Bronco, and the world slowly recognized that North Korea was seriously pursuing nuclear weapons.

A few months earlier, North Korea had declared, during “peace” talks, “We are ready to respond with an eye for an eye and a war for a war. If war breaks out, we will turn Seoul into a sea of fire.” The public didn’t know it at the time, but the United States was quite close to a major escalation that week, one that many in the Pentagon expected would lead to a Second Korean War:

It was a tense scene in the White House on June 15, 1994. Perry and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. John Shalikashvili were briefing President Clinton and other top officials on three options to substantially reinforce the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed on the Korean peninsula since the end of the Korean War.

The Pentagon was advocating a “middle option” — moving 10,000 more troops, along with F-117s, long-range bombers and an additional carrier battle group to Korea or nearby.

“We were within a day of making major additions to our troop deployments to Korea, and we were about to undertake an evacuation of American civilians from Korea,” Perry recalled.

The real fear was that North Korea would read the buildup and evacuations as certain signs of an impending attack, and launch a preemptive invasion of South Korea. U.S. analysts believed the North Koreans took one main lesson from the 1991 Persian Gulf War: Don’t give the United States time to mass its forces.

Perry told Clinton all the options were unpalatable, but that not to pick one of them would be disastrous.

“My recollection is that before the president got to choose — was asked to choose — the door of the room opened and we were told that there was a telephone call from former president Carter in Pyongyang and that he wished to speak to me,” Gallucci remembered.

Jimmy Carter had been meeting as a private citizen with North Korea’s aging leader Kim Il Sung, and was calling to report a breakthrough. The White House session broke up and relieved officials watched television as Carter informed CNN by telephone of the latest development.

In other words, a conflict with non-nuclear North Korea was averted by Jimmy Carter freelancing. By October, Bill Clinton announced the U.S. and North Korea had a deal:

I am pleased that the United States and North Korea yesterday reached agreement on the text of a framework document on North Korea’s nuclear program. This agreement will help to achieve a longstanding and vital American objective: an end to the threat of nuclear proliferation on the Korean Peninsula. This agreement is good for the United States, good for our allies, and good for the safety of the entire world. It reduces the danger of the threat of nuclear spreading in the region.

As with the Iran deal many years later, the deal with North Korea was not a formal treaty and thus never ratified by Congress.

Of course, the North Koreans cheated; the U.S. provided oil, two light water reactors, and a new electric grid, altogether worth roughly $5 billion, in exchange for promises.

U.S. intelligence agencies found evidence that North Korea was up to something; spy satellites detected massive underground excavations and construction. A.Q. Khan, father of Pakistan’s nuclear program, traveled to North Korea several times. A telling anecdote, reported in 2002:

One Western diplomat who visited North Korea in May 1998, just as world attention focused on Pakistan, which had responded to India’s underground nuclear tests by setting off six of its own, recalled witnessing an odd celebration.

“I was in the Foreign Ministry,” the official recalled last week. “About 10 minutes into our meeting, the North Korean diplomat we were seeing broke into a big smile and pointed with pride to these tests. They were all elated. Here was a model of a poor state getting away with developing a nuclear weapon.”

The Clinton administration did not let the intelligence get in the way of a happy narrative of improving relations with North Korea. By 2000, Secretary of State Madeline Albright was traveling to Pyongyang to meet Kim Jong Il and declaring the administration no longer labeled them a “rogue state.”

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright disclosed the change in the official lexicon today when she was asked about “the rogue state” of North Korea and its “rogue leader,” Kim Jong Il.

“First of all, we are now calling these states ‘states of concern,’” Dr. Albright told a radio interviewer on the same day the administration moved to ease trade restrictions against North Korea, a former battlefield foe that is continuing to develop weapons that may one day be capable of striking the United States.

In a long history of naïve foreign policy decisions and deals, the Clinton administration’s approach to North Korea ranks as one of the worst.

By 2002, the Bush administration confronted North Korea with evidence that they had an ongoing program to develop nuclear weapons.

“We need nuclear weapons,” Kang Sok Joo, the North Korean senior foreign policy official, said, arguing that the program was a result of the Bush administration’s hostility.

[Assistant Secretary of State James] Kelly responded that the program began at least four years ago, when Mr. Bush was governor of Texas. The Americans left after one North Korean official declared that dialogue on the subject was worthless and said, “We will meet sword with sword.”

Reading about the 1994 North Korean deal today feels like watching The Usual Suspects the second time. You know who the villain is, and who is not to be trusted, and you shake your head every time you see someone naively trust the villain.

Senator Dianne Feinstein responded to the news that North Korea has successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its intercontinental ballistic missiles by declaring, “our policy of isolating North Korea has not worked. The United States must quickly engage North Korea in a high-level dialogue without any preconditions.”

What does she want to do in that high-level dialogue? North Korea has already demonstrated that they’re willing to lie and cheat. How likely is it that they’ll just give up their nukes and ICBM capabilities at the negotiating table?

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