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Towards the End of Confrontation In Korea



The disintegration of the last Stalinist redoubt continues apace--and is still way ahead of schedule. That is if one assumes, as the world did a mere ten years ago, that even the "liberal" Soviet satellite states, such as Poland and Hungary, would not turn to democracy for another generation. The fall of one man communism before the end of the millennium, now probably imminent in North Korea, could not have been supposed until we learnt by living experience how friable the Berlin Wall really was.

Yet both South Korea and the U.S. behave for far too much of the time as if North Korea is still a behemoth to be feared, a piece of reinforced concrete that is impenetrable to the ideas and influences of the outside world. No one in their right mind, remembering the Korean War and the subsequent years of terrifying sabre rattling and terrorism by the Pyongyang leadership, is advocating a lowering of the guard but that does not excuse the chances missed for diminishing the intensity of the conflict. On many occasions there were possibilities for diluting the paranoia of paramount leader, Kim il Sung, and his son, the present leader, and for edging North Korea into a more liberal minded world. Often, in fact, policy has served to exacerbate the differences, harden North Korea's intransigeance and close the door to dialogue and the opportunities for evolution.

The outside reporting that has been allowed in North Korea the last 12 unusual months seems to come to a unanimous conclusion: here is a state on its knees. It is Orwell's "Animal Farm" transmuted into Orwell's "Down and Out in Paris." Both industrial and agricultural production are on the edge of oblivion and even the much feared military is depleted of modern weaponry and demoralized by lack of training and resources. Its nuclear industry that had western strategists screwing themselves into contortions to prove that it was able to produce bombs and missiles that would wreak havoc far and wide is, in reality, in the infant stage. At the most, North Korea can produce only basic bombs (and even that is unclear) and certainly not ones that could be delivered any significant distance accurately, say to Japan, on the nose of a rocket.

Incredible though it now seems, it is only three years ago that the U.S., frightened out of its mind by this crumbling pygmy, went to the brink of war. President Bill Clinton ordered the dispatch of substantial military reinforcements to South Korea and the Pentagon prepared plans to attack the North's nuclear facilities. From the wings, former presidential national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, and former CIA director, Robert Gates, advocated a quick bombing of the North's nuclear reprocessing plant.

Only former president Jimmy Carter's last minute intervention pulled Clinton's chestnuts out of what could have been (if Robert Gates was correct) a nuclear fire. He went to Pyongyang, met Kim Il Sung face to face, denounced his country's own attitudes and persuaded Kim to freeze his nuclear programme.

If Clinton had been wiser he would never have permitted the situation to spin so out of control that Carter's rescue mission became necessary. He allowed himself to be maneuvered by the more intransigent, confrontational elements in the American body politic and by South Korea's national security apparatus, still stuck in its 1950s time warp, into grossly misreading Kim's intentions. As Leon Sigal makesplain in his new book, "Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea," "at any time from 1992 on North Korea could have extracted enough plutonium to make five or six nuclear weapons. It did not. For a country supposedly hell-bent on bomb making its self-restraint seems difficult to explain."

North Korea's bluster was probably no more than an attempt to trade in its putative nuclear weapon program for what it needed more--security and political and economic ties with the U.S. For a while under President George Bush, the White House appeared to understand this and began to woo the North. It withdrew America's nuclear weapons from the South and it cancelled for a year the large-scale military exercises it regularly conducted with the South. But Seoul's military president, Roh Tae Woo, kept the pressure on Washington to go no further and even compelled Washington to back track just as the White House had braced itself to make some useful pledges to Pyongyang. With Clinton newly installed in Washington and the Roh presidency entering its last days South Korea stepped up the tactics of confrontation, precipitating the nuclear crisis.

The hard liners in Seoul have continued most of the time to set the pace, apart from the brief interlude of Carter's magnificent diplomacy. Roh's successor, Kim Young Sam, although democratically elected, won only 40% of the vote and has never felt strong enough to loosen the bonds with the military and security services. Now, however, with elections only two months away it looks as if the South may produce in Kim Dae Jung, the front runner, a president who would end the conservatives' neck-lock on South Korea's foreign policy.

This, together with the continuous deterioration of the North's economy and, hopefully, the maturing learning curve of the Clinton foreign policy team, offers at long last light at the end of the Korean tunnel. The reward for clever diplomacy will be the end of Stalinism and militarism in the North even quicker than is bound to happen anyway.


November 5, 1997, LONDON

Copyright © 1997 By JONATHAN POWER

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