U.S. State Department Geographic Bureaus: East Asia and Pacific Bureau





MAY 3, 1995

What's Going on With North Korea?

Once again, all eyes are on North Korea. The United States, the Republic of Korea, and the world are watching to see how North Korea will behave -- or misbehave -- in connection with its frozen nuclear program. Our good faith efforts to work out the terms of a contract for the Light Water Reactor project, as called for in the U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework, led us to a series of meetings in Berlin. There we contended with a series of North Korean positions, demands, feints, warnings -- some of which may have been frivolous, some of which may prove to be profound. On the eve of the six-month mark of the U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework, which North Korea set up as a de facto "deadline," the DPRK delegation broke off talks. Our view is that the the Agreed Framework is not endlessly negotiable. It now looks like we will talk to the North Koreans at a higher political level, but we will do so on the basis of North Korea's maintenance of its nuclear freeze.

For many of us, this is "deja vu all over again." The past few years have seen North Korea perpetually on the brink of one cliff or another. I find it peculiar that so many people could persist in characterizing North Korea's behavior as "skillful" when an objective look so clearly shows that North Korea's maneuverings have done nothing to alleviate its crushing problem. If they're so clever, how come they are in such dire straits? When you consider that more than three years ago, the Bush administration proposed a relaxation of the U.S. embargo along with improved relations in exchange for a resolution of the nuclear problem, it is hard to make the case that there is anything very clever about the DPRK's tactics.

Whether you think Pyongyang is clever or not, there is no denying that we face very real problems with the North and in implementing the Geneva Framework Agreement to our satisfaction. Although I believe that in the long run we will weather the storm over the Light Water Reactor contract, I have no doubt that there will be other, equally vexing problems ahead. These difficulties in managing North Korea highlight the irony that, in the wake of the Cold War, we face new challenges, requiring new approaches, on the very battlegrounds where the bitterest fights of the cold war were waged.

There is no "silver bullet" that will solve the problems that we face. But we do have some effective techniques for dealing with these challenges. To my mind, one of the important developments of the past two years is the gradual "demystification" of the DPRK. Previously, North Korea was written off as an enigma, "unpredictable," intrinsically unknowable. And the fact is that North Korea is a tightly closed society. Recently, our efforts to deal with the nuclear issue have provided us with more data to work from and, more importantly, introduced a more rigorous scientific method for evaluating what we know and don't know, and what works and doesn't work with respect to the North. The fact is that North Korean behavior is the product of a mix of political, economic, and social forces. To the extent we can gauge these forces, we can then anticipate and, in some instances, influence North Korean behavior. And that, after all, is what we are really trying to do.

The U.S. and Northeast Asia

However much the political landscape has changed since the collapse of the Soviet empire, nothing has altered the geography of Northeast Asia. This is the region where four of the world's major powers intersect. It constitutes the center of economic growth on Earth. As a result, that region has been properly recognized by the Clinton administration as critical to the U.S national interests in terms of security, economy, leadership, and the promotion of American values. In particular, our long-standing alliance with South Korea tethers us to one of the strongest economic engines in the region and to a model for the Third World of the harmony between economic and democratic development.

South Korea's transformation from a war-torn ruin into a major economy with a globally oriented democratic government is so familiar as to have become a virtual cliche. But it would be a mistake for us to pass lightly over the significance and implications of that miracle. Whereas South and North Korea were in rough economic and military parity in the early 1970's, they are now on the furthest possible end of the development spectrum. South Korea has flourished under the protective umbrella of the United States, and Seoul's own military strength has increased accordingly. At the same time, the shortcomings of the North Korean economy, the defects in its highly centralized system, and the disolution of its former allies have eroded the DPRK military threat. South Korea is on the brink of becoming a member of the OECD. North Korea is vying for the dubious distinction of least developed nation. South Korea exports cars, consumer electronics, and sophisticated semi-conductors; Except for a specialized program by its Army to modify and export soviet-designed missiles, North Korea is largely reduced to selling off its natural resources such as metal ores and spring water. It does not take a sophisticated economic analysis to ascertain where the DPRK's current trajectory will take it.

The United States has maintained troops in South Korea over the past decades as a direct consequence of the cold war. Now, as then, deterring North Korea from military adventurism and defending the Republic of Korea from attack are central tenets of our Asian security policy. The North Korean military posture remains threatening, and we take it seriously. Believe me, the United States and the Republic of Korea are well positioned, well equipped, and well trained to meet the North Korean threat and to prevail decisively. Our policies have been fully effective in maintaining peace on the Korean peninsula. Deterrence has worked for over four decades and it is working now. The unprecedented North Korean interest in improving relations with the United States indicates to me that Pyongyang does not place faith in a military option.

The U.S. and the two Koreas

North Korea, however, has no intention of going gentle into that good night. For that reason, Pyongyang's leadership has launched an effort to establish a new relationship with the world -- particularly with the United States, which they identify as the epicenter of capitalist power. The DPRK's only tool seems to be threats. It has raised this technique to an art and employed it to get the United States and the industrialized world to deal with Pyongyang. Let's not fool ourselves -- the technique is crude but it works. North Korea cannot achieve its strategic goals -- or meet its most pressing needs -- by threatening the stability of Northeast Asia, but it can certainly get the world to take notice. North Korea's huge army, its nuclear weapons program, and its development and sales of missiles and missile technology to volatile areas command our attention and concern. Yet these capabilities do not enable North Korea to survive; it cannot use these weapons to fend off irreversible economic and political decay. And, the United States has a profound interest in keeping the North Korean military inside its own borders, holding the North Korean nuclear program in check, and stemming the development or export of missile technology.

What this all adds up to is the need for diplomatic skill and leadership on the part of the United States. We cannot quarantine North Korea and let it rot behind the hermetic seal of its archaic ideology. The DPRK cannot afford to let us simply ignore it. By the same token, overt pressure on North Korea must not exceed that Regime's rather low threshold of tolerance because of the high risk of collateral damage to our South Korean ally. I describe that threshold as "low," not because the North Koreans are sensitive or responsive, but because there is a brittleness to them--a rigidity--that stems from weakness. I am often reminded of De Gaulle's comment early in the Second World War, "I am too weak to compromise." The point is that isolation and threats do not effectively serve our interests. Our task is to draw the DPRK out of its bunker in a way that fosters the reforms necessary to promote peaceful and constructive change. Our goal is to modify North Korean behavior at an acceptable cost and without significant risk. Diplomacy is the tool that civilization has developed for this purpose.

Our principal partner in this undertaking, and our treaty ally on the peninsula, is South Korea. The U.S.-ROK relationship is strong -- it is a working partnership, not a ceremonial one, a dynamic alliance, not a static one. Our responsibilities to South Korea are two-fold: as guarantor of its security we must assist it in dealing with the threat of North Korean aggression. As a political partner, we must respect South Korea's equities and its views on how to deal with the North. At the same time, U.S. security commitments and our global responsibilities require us to pursue practical measures to influence DPRK behavior. Constructing a U.S. policy toward Korea that is acceptable to the South and effective toward the North is a challenge.

South Korea is no longer run by generals. Its newspapers are no longer told what to print. Public opinion is a force to be reckoned with and, not surprisingly, politicians in Korea are every bit as image-conscious as their counterparts in other democracies. For South Koreans, North Korea is not a foreign policy or a security issue -- it is an emotionally-charged domestic political issue. Those are brothers and cousins living under tyranny, not an abstract threat to international peace. At the same time, there is a deep-rooted orthodoxy (some would say mythology) on dealing with the North. So, how the Kim Young-Sam administration handles itself with regard to the North, and how the U.S. administration acts, are matters of direct political importance in South Korea.

Many of the conventional views of North Korea have been upset by recent developments, including the U.S.-DPRK negotiations. The fall of the Soviet empire, Seoul's normalization with Moscow and Beijing, German unification, the entry of the Koreas to the UN, the death of Kim Il-Sung, and the end of military rule in the South have all dramatically affected South Korean thinking about the North. As the notion of Korean unification evolved from a romantic dream to a realistic prospect, many Koreans found that slogans and propaganda were not enough. The realization dawned that unification, even under the best of circumstances, would entail wrenching social and economic costs. Within the short span of perhaps a year, the notion of peaceful coexistence was transformed from an unutterable heresy into a recognized national goal. Thus, the South Korean government today is committed to promoting gradual reconciliation with the North and has publicly foresworn the goal of subverting and absorbing the DPRK.

The Geneva Agreement

We navigated our way through the tricky shoals of South and North Korean attitudes during and immediately after the U.S.-DPRK Third Round negotiations in Geneva last year. The U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework is very much a product of the multiple, and sometimes conflicting, imperatives of the three principal players. It addresses primary U.S. concerns by mandating a freeze of the DPRK nuclear program; it addresses South Korean concerns by carefully limiting the scope of what the North can achieve without direct engagement with the South, and it provides the North with tangible evidence that it can achieve a constructive relationship with the United States.

I am convinced that the Agreed Framework is not merely the best that could have been accomplished under difficult circumstances--I believe that it is intrinsically a good agreement. It strikes a necessary balance between the interests of the three central parties and designs an approach that reinforces and rewards good behavior by the North. A lot of grousing and partisan complaining followed the agreement. A lot of people seemed to feel sure that they could have done a better job by getting more from the North, sooner, in exchange for less. And I would venture to say that nearly every one of those people made it a point to communicate his or her views to the U.S. Ambassador to Korea.

I can tell you in all honesty that I simply have not been able to find a single formula that significantly improved on the agreement and that also stood a chance of working in practical terms. This is not partisanship or defensiveness. The fact is that the agreement was the product of more than eighteen months of serious negotiating by professional diplomats from the U.S. and South Korea on the one hand and North Korea on the other. This is not a partisan deal, it's an American deal or -- to be more accurate -- a Korean-American deal, since the South Korean government was our partner every step of the way.

What's the Problem, What's the Answer?

Implementation of the agreement has hit its first serious snag, and we can't yet tell how the differences will be resolved. At issue is the nature and extent of South Korean participation in the Light Water Reactor project. The details of the dispute over the ROK model Light Water Reactor are sufficiently well known (and sufficiently arcane) that I don't think it necessary to spell them out. The bottom line is simply that no nation on Planet Earth is prepared to make a large investment in North Korea -- except South Korea. And while South Korea is prepared to be tolerant and patient in its dealings with the North, the DPRK ultimately has no choice but to accept that, in effect, its bitterst rival will play a crucial role in its salvation. This truth, unwelcome as it might have been, was clear to the North Korean negotiators in Geneva and was implicit in the Framework document itself.

I would not understate the genuine fear with the DPRK leadership must view the prospect of an extensive and intrusive South Korean involvement in the Light Water Reactor project and implementation of the overall Framework. To call this a matter of "face" for the North Koreans is to trivialize the problem. The privations of the North Korean people are perhaps tolerable against the bleak scale of what life has been like there for the past century. Their sacrifices may appear necessary or even worthwhile in defense of the motherland and sovereignty. Surely, there can be no greater threat to the social fabric in North Korea -- particularly without the adhesive charisma of Kim Il-Sung -- than evidence that those privations had been unnecessary and those sacrifices had been in vain. Uncontrolled exposure to the truth about South Korea would have a corrosive effect on the edifice of the DPRK regime, since the simple truth is that South Korea is rich, independent, stable and free. Thus, while the Regime's leaders have surely grasped the reality of South Korea's central role, they are struggling both to limit and to camouflage it to their people and to the world.

Stepping back from the specific set of problems that face U.S. negotiators at the moment, let's remember that the history of efforts to deal with North Korea, whether by South Korea or America, is marked by dramatic ups and downs. The current problem, like many others in recent memory will surely pass and surely be followed by another, triggered by any one of a hundred areas of potential conflict. We may find ourselves in a confrontation over another aspect of the Agreed Framework or over other unresolved issues such as the Military Armistice Agreement or North Korean human rights. Our ability to thread our way through problems that occur, and to prevent them from becoming real crises, lies in our ability to communicate with North Korea.

By "communicate," I mean to understand and to make ourselves understood. The knowledge we really need to deal effectively with North Korea does not come from spies or satellites, it comes from face-to-face engagement in the diplomatic arena. And I do not say that out of a naive faith in people or the belief that diplomacy is the answer to every problem. After all, many nations have Embassies in Pyongyang without any meaningful access, and we ourselves have spent countless unproductive hours in rhetorical battles with the North Koreans in international arenas or, for that matter, across the table at the DMZ in Military Armistice Commission talks. But at the present time, and under the present circumstances, I am convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that diplomacy is the right prescription.

North Korea wants to deal with the U.S.; it clearly feels that it needs to reach terms with the leader of the Western World in order to fend off all the pressures that are buffeting. Now, I don't happen to believe that there is anything that the DPRK regime can do to save itself in the long run, but apparently the regime itself does -- and that is what is important. We can use to our advantage the DPRK's own conviction that the time has come to broker a truce with the "forces of imperialism," through us, in order to survive. Through this process we can draw the North deeper into engagement with the world. By giving it a stake in the world, we give it something to lose. By providing the North with limited benefits in exchange for good behavior, we also build leverage to use in discouraging misbehavior. Moving beyond containment is the basic strategy we used with China and other authoritarian governments, and it works.

If I thought for a moment that this policy would artificially prolong the dictatorial regime in North Korea, I could not advocate it. This approach is not a life support system; the provision of heavy fuel oil, the construction of a South Korean Light Water Reactor, or food and other humanitarian aid will not give the North Korean regime the means to survive. What we are talking about here is managing the collapse of the system built by Kim Il-Sung, and managing it in a way that poses the least risk to our national interests and those of our allies in South Korea and Japan. Engagement is the only responsible method for managing -- and I believe expediting -- the transition from a totalitarian dictatorship to a society able to cooperate constructively with South Korea.

Through all of this, a serious dialogue between South and North Korea will be essential because the problems of the Korea Peninsula ultimately can only be solved by the Korean people themselves. Experience has proven that North Korea cannot be manhandled into dialogue against its will, and past efforts to make North-South dialogue a precondition for talks with the U.S. have failed. However, U.S.-DPRK talks themselves are an important tool for engineering the type of North-South engagement that we consider essential. The United States will never play the role of an "honest broker" between the two Koreas because we are not neutral -- South Korea is our ally, North Korea remains our adversary. But our alliance does not disqualify us from playing a crucial role in promoting constructive dialogue between the parties in Korea any more than it prevents us from playing a similar role in the Middle East.

The lesson I have learned from my service thus far in Korea, and the insight I would like to leave with you, is: "beware of the 'quick fix.'" There is no place for political posturing or seat-of-the-pants decision making in a land that combines the North's potential for causing military destruction with the extraordinary economic achievements of the South. The problems of the Korean Peninsula require careful therapy, administered over time. North Korea will not endure long in its present form. But it is not enough simply to recognize that time is on our side. The job of the United States, as I see it, is to influence events on that peninsula towards an outcome that we and the Korean people welcome, through a controlled process that minimizes risk. Guided by this vision and acting on this basis, we will advance the transformation of Korea into a strong and stable platform for prosperous democracy.

Thank you.


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