After 67 Years, It's Time To End the Korean War
December 5, 2017
Robert Alvarez / Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists & Catherine Killough / LobeLog.org
As the threat of military conflict with North Korea looms, the American public is largely unaware of the sobering facts about America's longest unresolved war and one of the world's bloodiest. The 1953 armistice agreement engineered by President Eisenhower -- halting a three-year-long "police action" that resulted in two-to-four million military and civilian deaths -- is long forgotten, along with the Agreed Framework, a bilateral non-proliferation pact, that opened the door to ending the Korean war.
End the 67-year War
Robert Alvarez / Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
(December 1, 2017) -- It's time to find a path to end the 67-year-long Korean war. As the threat of military conflict looms, the American public is largely unaware of the sobering facts about America's longest unresolved war and one of the world's bloodiest. The 1953 armistice agreement engineered by President Eisenhower -- halting a three-year-long "police action" that resulted in two million to four million military and civilian deaths -- is long forgotten.
Struck by military leaders of North Korea, the United States, South Korea, and their United Nations allies to halt fighting, the armistice was never followed up by a formal peace agreement to end this conflict of the early Cold War.
A State Department official reminded me of this unsettled state of affairs before I traveled to the Youngbyon nuclear site in November 1994 to help secure plutonium-bearing spent reactor fuel as part of the Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea.
I had suggested that we take space heaters to the spent fuel pool storage area, to provide warmth for the North Koreans who would be working during winter to place highly radioactive spent fuel rods in containers, where they could be subject to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.
The State Department official became upset. Even 40 years after the end of hostilities, we were forbidden to provide any comfort to the enemy, regardless of the bitter cold interfering with their -- and our -- task.
How the Agreed Framework Collapsed
In the spring and summer of 1994, the United States was on a collision course with North Korea over its efforts to produce the plutonium to fuel its first nuclear weapons. Thanks in large part to the diplomacy of former President Jimmy Carter, who met face-to-face with Kim Il Sung, the founder of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), the world pulled away from the brink.
Out of this effort sprang the general outlines of the Agreed Framework, signed on October 12, 1994. It remains the only government-to-government accord ever made between the United States and North Korea.
The Agreed Framework was a bilateral non-proliferation pact that opened the door to a possible end of the Korean war. North Korea agreed to freeze its plutonium production program in exchange for heavy fuel oil, economic cooperation, and the construction of two modern light-water nuclear power plants. Eventually, North Korea's existing nuclear facilities were to be dismantled and the spent reactor fuel taken out of the country.
South Korea played an active role in helping prepare for the construction of the two reactors. During its second term in office, the Clinton administration was moving towards establishing a more normalized relationship with the North. Presidential advisor Wendy Sherman described an agreement with North Korea to eliminate its medium and long-range missiles as "tantalizingly close" before negotiations were overtaken by the 2000 presidential election.
But the framework was bitterly opposed by many Republicans, and when the GOP took control of Congress in 1995, it threw roadblocks in the way, interfering with fuel oil shipments to North Korea and the securing of the plutonium-bearing material located there. After George W. Bush was elected president, the Clinton administration's efforts were replaced with an explicit policy of regime change.
In his State of the Union address in January 2002, Bush declared North Korea a charter member of the "axis of evil." In September, Bush expressly mentioned North Korea in a national security policy that called for preemptive attacks against countries developing weapons of mass destruction.
This set the stage for a bilateral meeting in October 2002, during which Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly demanded that North Korea cease a "secret" uranium enrichment program or face severe consequences.
Although the Bush Administration asserted the enrichment program had not been disclosed, it was public knowledge -- in the Congress and in the news media -- by 1999. North Korea had strictly complied with the Agreed Framework, freezing plutonium production for eight years.
Safeguards over uranium enrichment had been deferred in the agreement until sufficient progress was made in the development of the light water reactors; but if that delay was seen as dangerous, the agreement could have been amended. Shortly after Sullivan's ultimatum, North Korea ended the safeguards program for its spent nuclear fuel and began to separate plutonium and produce nuclear weapons -- igniting a full-blown crisis, just as the Bush administration was poised to invade Iraq.
In the end, the Bush administration's efforts to resolve the impasse on North Korea's nuclear program -- aka the Six-Party Talks -- failed, largely because of the United States' adamant support for regime change in North Korea and persistent "all or nothing" demands for a complete dismantlement of the North's nuclear program before serious negotiations could take place.
Also, with the US presidential election nearing, the North Koreans had to have remembered how abruptly the plug had been pulled on the Agreed Framework after the 2000 election.
By the time President Obama took office, North Korea was well on its way to becoming a nuclear weapons state and was reaching the threshold of testing intercontinental ballistic missiles. Described as "strategic patience," Obama's policy was to a large extent influenced by the pace of nuclear and missile development, particularly as Kim Jong-un, the founder's grandson, ascended to power.
Under the Obama administration, economic sanctions and increased-duration joint military exercises were met with intensified North Korean provocations. Now, under the Trump administration, the joint military exercises by the United States, South Korea and Japan -- intended to demonstrate the "fire and fury" that could destroy the DPRK regime -- appear to have only accelerated the pace at which North Korea has stepped up its long-range missile testing and detonation of more powerful nuclear weapons.
Dealing with the Nuclear Weapons State of North Korea
The seeds for a nuclear-armed DPRK were planted when the United States shredded the 1953 Armistice Agreement. Beginning in 1957, the US violated a key provision of the agreement (paragraph 13d), which barred the introduction of more destructive armaments to the Korean peninsula, by ultimately deploying thousands of tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea, including atomic artillery shells, missile-launched warheads and gravity bombs, atomic "bazooka" rounds and demolition munitions (20 kiloton "back-pack" nukes).
In 1991, then-President George H.W. Bush withdrew all the tactical nukes. In the 34 intervening years, however, the United States unleashed a nuclear arms race -- among the branches of its own its own military on the Korean Peninsula! This massive nuclear buildup in the South provided a major impetus for North Korea to forward-deploy a massive conventional artillery force that can destroy Seoul.
Now, some South Korean military leaders are calling for the redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons in the country, which would do nothing but exacerbate the problem of dealing with a nuclear North Korea. The presence of US nuclear weapons did not deter a surge in aggression by North Korea in the 1960s and 1970s, an era known as the "Second Korean War," during which more than 1,000 South Korean and 75 American soldiers were killed.
Among other actions, North Korean forces attacked and seized the Pueblo, a US Naval intelligence vessel, in 1968, killing a crew member and capturing 82 others. The ship was never returned.
North Korea has long pushed for bilateral talks that would lead to a non-aggression pact with the United States. The US government has routinely spurned its requests for a peace agreement because they are perceived as tricks designed to reduce the US military presence in South Korea, allowing for even more aggression by the North.
The Washington Post's Jackson Diehl echoed this sentiment recently, asserting that North Korea is not really interested in a peaceful resolution. While citing a statement by North Korean Deputy UN Ambassador Kim In Ryong that his country "will never place its self-defensive nuclear deterrence on the negotiating table," Diehl conveniently omitted Ryong's important caveat: "as long as the US continues to threaten it."
Over the past 15 years, military exercises in preparation for war with North Korea have increased in extent and duration. Recently, Trevor Noah, host of Comedy Central's much-watched The Daily Show, asked Christopher Hill, chief US negotiator for the Six-Party talks during the George W. Bush years, about the military exercises; Hill declared that "we never have planned to attack" North Korea.
Hill was either ill-informed or dissembling. The Washington Post reported that a military exercise in March 2016 was based on a plan, agreed to by the United States and South Korea, that included "preemptive military operations" and "'decapitation raids' by special forces targeting the North's leadership." In the Washington Post article, a US military expert did not dispute the plan's existence but said it has a very low probability of being implemented.
Regardless of how likely they are to ever be implemented, these annual wartime planning exercises help perpetuate and perhaps even strengthen the brutal coercion by the North Korean leadership of its people, who live in constant fear of an imminent war. During our visits to North Korea, we observed how the regime inundated its citizens with reminders about the carnage caused by napalm that US aircraft had dropped during the war.
By 1953, US bombing had destroyed nearly all structures in North Korea. Dean Rusk, Secretary of State during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, said several years later that bombs were dropped on "everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another." Over the years, the North Korean regime has developed a vast system of underground tunnels used in frequent civil defense drills.
It's probably too late to expect the DPRK to relinquish its nuclear arms. That bridge was destroyed when the Agreed Framework was discarded in the failed pursuit of regime change, a pursuit that not only provided a powerful incentive but also plenty of time for the DPRK to amass a nuclear arsenal.
Secretary of State Tillerson recently stated that "we do not seek a regime change, we do not seek collapse of the regime." Unfortunately, Tillerson has been drowned out by coverage of belligerent tweets by President Trump and sabre-rattling by former military and intelligence officials.
In the end, a peaceful resolution to the North Korean nuclear situation will involve direct negotiations and gestures of good faith by both sides, such as a reduction or a halt of military exercises by the United States, South Korea, and Japan, and a reciprocal moratorium on nuclear weapon and ballistic missile testing by the DPRK.
Such steps will generate a great deal of opposition from US defense officials who believe that military might and sanctions are the only forms of leverage that will work against the North Korean regime. But the Agreed Framework and its collapse provide an important lesson about the pitfalls of the pursuit of regime change.
Now, a nuclear arms control agreement may be the only way to bring this over-long chapter of the Cold War to a peaceful close. It's difficult to persuade someone to make a deal, if he is certain you're planning to kill him, no matter what he does.
A senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, Robert Alvarez served as senior policy adviser to the Energy Department's secretary and deputy assistant secretary for national security and the environment from 1993 to 1999. During this tenure, he led teams in North Korea to establish control of nuclear weapons materials. He also coordinated the Energy Department's nuclear material strategic planning and established the department's first asset management program.
Before joining the Energy Department, Alvarez served for five years as a senior investigator for the US Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, chaired by Sen. John Glenn, and as one of the Senate's primary staff experts on the US nuclear weapons program. In 1975, Alvarez helped found and direct the Environmental Policy Institute, a respected national public interest organization. He also helped organize a successful lawsuit on behalf of the family of Karen Silkwood, a nuclear worker and active union member who was killed under mysterious circumstances in 1974.
Alvarez has published articles in Science, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Technology Review, and The Washington Post. He has been featured in television programs such as NOVA and 60 Minutes.
Let the Record Show:
Negotiations with North Korea Work
Catherine Killough / LobeLog.org
Jimmy Carter and Kim Il Sung. (Picture: KANCC.org)
(November 29, 2017) -- President Trump has consistently misrepresented the negotiation record between North Korea and the United States. In his speech before the South Korean National Assembly, he derived one conclusion from a complex history of hard-earned diplomatic achievements: "The North Korean regime has pursued its nuclear and ballistic missile programs in defiance of every assurance, agreement and commitment it has made to the United States and its allies."
It is neither new nor uncommon to berate North Korea for its imperfect negotiating record, but it has never been more dangerous. In a series of tweets last month, Trump not only discredited past diplomatic efforts for "making fools of US negotiators," but also concluded with alarming ambiguity, "Sorry, only one thing will work!"
If not diplomacy, then that "one thing" sounds like a military strike, a serious proposal that has been reverberating throughout Washington's foreign policy establishment. As Evan Osnos noted in his article for the New Yorker, "Is the Political Class Drifting Toward War with North Korea?" the idea of a preventive war has become so pervasive that even a former Democratic Cabinet secretary confided, "if he were in the government today he would support attacking North Korea, in order to prevent it from launching a strike on America."
For those seeking to prevent a war that could result in millions of casualties on the Korean Peninsula, there are no military options. But for many Democrats, promoting diplomacy runs the risk of signaling weakness. Unsurprisingly, economic measures that straddle the line between being punitive and not-quite-war receive the widest bipartisan support.
Given this political environment, correcting the distorted history on US-North Korea negotiations is imperative -- especially as the tendency to view talks as appeasement, or deals as concessions, grows stronger. Much of that stems from the way critics have framed the first US-led bilateral agreement with North Korea and its eventual collapse.
The Deal that Froze North Korea's Nukes
In 1994, the United States and North Korea were at the brink of war. It was the first time that the relatively unknown regime north of the 38th parallel threatened to go nuclear. After expelling all international inspectors from the country, North Korea prepared to extract six bombs' worth of weapons-grade plutonium from the fuel rods in its Yongbyon research reactor.
At the time, a fresh-faced President Bill Clinton considered taking military action, including a plan to conduct surgical strikes on North Korea's nuclear facilities. Many of his top officials doubted that they could persuade the North Koreans from developing nuclear weapons. As Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Ashton Carter said, "We were not, by any means, confident that we could talk them out of taking that step."
However, as former Secretary of Defense William Perry recalled, the risks of precipitating a second Korean War compelled the administration to pursue a diplomatic path. A meeting between former President Jimmy Carter and North Korean leader Kim Il Sung led to serious bilateral talks that culminated with the US-North Korea Agreed Framework on October 21, 1994.
In this landmark deal, North Korea agreed to freeze and eventually dismantle its graphite-moderated reactors in exchange for fuel and two proliferation-resistant light-water reactors. These reactors could produce power, but could not, practically speaking, be used to make nuclear weapons.
For nearly a decade, the United States sustained a direct, open line of communication with a paranoid and insecure regime. That level of engagement made it possible for two adversaries to commit to an agreement with a significant, material outcome: North Korea stopped producing plutonium for eight years.
As former US Ambassador to South Korea Thomas Hubbard concluded, the Agreed Framework "proved to be imperfect . . . . But it did prevent North Korea from producing as many as 100 nuclear weapons by now."
Unfortunately, these achievements are overshadowed by the Agreed Framework's collapse, wherein "collapse" has become synonymous with "failure." But to say the deal failed too narrowly defines what success could realistically entail with a country carrying as much historical baggage as North Korea.
Poor media coverage, including omissions of shortcomings on the US side of the deal, is partly to blame. But hawkish conservatives, who have long exploited the agreement as a cautionary tale of liberal appeasement, are largely at fault.
Both the United States and North Korea played a part in the Agreed Framework's collapse, but the assertion that North Korea cheated obscures that fact. Soon after the Clinton administration brokered the deal, Republicans gained control of Congress, resulting in "a lack of political will," according to chief negotiator Robert Gallucci, and led to significant delays in the delivery of US obligations.
Congressional opposition peaked again in 1998 amid accusations that the North was hiding an underground nuclear facility at Kumchang-ri. Instead of taking a punitive approach, the Clinton administration communicated its concerns directly to the North Koreans and, seeking to salvage the agreement, negotiated a new deal that permitted the United States regular inspections of the suspected site, where it failed to find any evidence of nuclear activity.
This diplomatic approach persisted even as North Korea's advancing missile program sounded new alarms. Following North Korea's launch of a long-range ballistic missile over Japan in 1998, the Clinton administration tasked a small team of inside and outside government experts with a North Korea Policy Review that would encompass the goals outlined in the Agreed Framework.
Former Secretary of Defense William Perry collaborated with the governments of North Korea, South Korea, China, and Japan in what became known as the Perry Process.
Several rounds of negotiations culminated in 1999 with a report that outlined recommendations for the United States to pursue a verifiable suspension and eventual dismantlement of the North's nuclear and long-range missile activities. In turn, the policy review team found that the United States must take steps to address the North's security concerns and establish normal relations.
North Korea responded positively by not only agreeing to freeze its missile testing for the duration of talks, but also sending its senior military advisor to Washington to discuss the details of Perry's proposal with President Clinton. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright reciprocated the visit by traveling to Pyongyang for a meeting with Kim Jong Il later that month.
However, momentum for what former Special Advisor to the President Wendy Sherman called a "tantalizingly close" proposal stalled the next month with the election of George W. Bush. Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell stated that North Korea policy would continue where Clinton left off, but Bush, who decided to cancel all negotiations with North Korea for the next two years, overruled him.
The Bush administration veered far off the diplomatic course that the Clinton administration took pains to maintain. Bush added North Korea to his triad of "axis of evil" states. Dick Cheney rejected diplomacy for regime change, asserting, "We don't negotiate with evil. We defeat it."
Then-Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton used intelligence reports about a suspected secret uranium enrichment program to kill a deal he never favored. In his own words, "This was the hammer I had been looking for to shatter the Agreed Framework."
In the end, the Bush administration alleged that a North Korean official confirmed the existence of the suspected uranium enrichment program. North Korea denied the admission, which led to back-and-forth accusations that each side was in violation of the deal. Instead of working to overcome mounting distrust, the United States backed out of the deal in 2002.
The Agreed Framework Redux
Bush's refusal to engage with North Korea came back to haunt his administration in 2003. North Korea quickly resumed its plutonium program and announced it possessed a nuclear weapon. Convinced of the need to re-enter negotiations, the United States joined China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea in the Six Party Talks.
Several rounds of dialogue led to a breakthrough two years later with the 2005 Joint Statement, which pledged the North to abandon "all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs." But no sooner had the six parties announced the agreement than the US Treasury froze North Korean assets in the Macau bank, Banco Delta Asia.
For the North Korean leadership, choking off their access to $25 million in capital was a grave offense and suggested that the United States was not serious about making a deal. Even those working for the administration, such as chief negotiator Ambassador Christopher Hill, saw the act as an attempt "to sidetrack the negotiations entirely."
Whatever the US Treasury's intentions, the freeze had the effect of unraveling years of hard-earned progress to rebuild trust. North Korea retaliated in 2006 by not only test-firing eight missiles, but also detonating its first nuclear device.
The United States just barely salvaged negotiations by lifting the freeze and removing North Korea from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list in 2007. In return, North Korea readmitted nuclear inspectors and disabled its Yongbyon reactor, exploding the cooling tower in a dramatic televised event.
But enough damage had been done that by the time new disputes arose over verification measures, the Six Party Talks landed at a stalemate and failed to move into the final phase of dismantling North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
The Limitations of Strategic Patience
Like the administration before him, President Obama was slow to broker negotiations with North Korea. Though Obama made clear from the onset that he would take a pro-diplomacy approach and "extend a hand" to those regimes "willing to unclench your fist," North Korea fell low on his list of foreign policy priorities.
Instead, a policy of "strategic patience" stood in for any targeted effort to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table. Although the door for talks remained technically open, the United States pursued sanctions and pressure campaigns not unlike the Trump administration's current posture. North Korea fired back its share of provocations, including a second nuclear test and two deadly skirmishes on its border with South Korea.
It was not until 2011 that the Obama administration restarted denuclearization talks. After a brief hiccup following the death of Kim Jong Il, the two countries announced a "Leap Day" deal in February 2012. North Korea agreed to a moratorium on its long-range missile and nuclear tests in exchange for 240,000 metric tons of food aid.
Sixteen days later, North Korea announced its plans to launch a satellite into space. The United States held to the view that such a launch would violate the terms of the agreement, while North Korea claimed, "the satellite launch is not included in the long-range missile launch" and proceeded with its plans.
The administration immediately scrapped the deal, a perplexing move given past US efforts to address the risks of dual-use missile technologies. For example, for decades the United States denied South Korean requests to extend the range of their ballistic missiles out of fear that it would start a regional arms race.
Amid growing pressure, the United States reached an agreement in 2001 that broadened the scope of South Korea's missile activities while including specific constraints on its space launch program, such as the expressed use of liquid fuel.
Instead of revisiting the deal to more clearly distinguish what is acceptable in terms of a satellite or missile launch, the United States let negotiations with North Korea, once again, fall to the wayside.
The Only Option
If Bush had kept the Agreed Framework, if hardliners had not sabotaged the Six Party Talks, and if Obama had clarified the terms of the Leap Day deal, North Korea might not be the nuclear nightmare that grips the United States and its allies today.
But broken promises and burned bridges are no excuse for abandoning diplomacy. There are plenty of lessons within the cracks of an uneven negotiation record that are worth extracting, including the need to address North Korea's security concerns head-on and the critical importance of US interagency coordination.
There is still an opening for compromise with North Korea, but Trump threatens to close it every time he underestimates the value of negotiations. As every president since Clinton has eventually come to understand, if the alternative with North Korea is war, every diplomatic option has to be explored to its fullest. Millions of lives hang in the balance.
Catherine Killough is the Roger L. Hale Fellow at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation. She earned her MA in Asian Studies from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Follow on Twitter @catkillough.