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North Korean End Game



LONDON-- By the day the reports of the magnitude of the famine now overwhelming North Korea become both more vivid and more disturbing.

Yet, as is so often the case, Mao Zedong's dictum that "power grows out of the barrel of a gun" has enough truth in it to ask if the regime's hold on power is in serious question. The regime could well survive whatever the cost in human suffering and devastating economic decline, always using as a stick to beat back the intrusions of the rest of the world the threat of abrogating its nuclear freeze agreement and adding nuclear weapons to its already sizeable arsenal of chemical and biological weapons.

Yes or no. Is this how it will be, or will the regime just collapse one night as it did in East Germany? It is an unanswerable question and one can make a persuasive case either way. Thus it would be unwise, not to say unrealistic, to ask either South Korea or its intimate ally, the United States, to lower its guard. The worst case scenario--a last ditch attack on the south is a possible one and must be prepared for. Indeed, it is continuously prepared for and nothing extra needs to be done.

What is missing, however, is applied energy on the other side of the equation--a set of policies that work on the assumption that internal collapse has started, the institutions that govern North Korea are rotten from the inside out, that the leadership is seriously divided and that, therefore, the outside world, in particular the U.S., can use its influence to bring the end to a quicker close, with less pain to the people of North Korea and with less danger to the world outside, in particular South Korea and Japan.

It is American policy that has to be the pace-setter. yet it is still too much bogged down in a Cold War mind-set. If President Bill Clinton's advisors had had their way North Korea's nuclear installations would have been bombed three years ago--a dangerously counterproductive exercise that would not have damaged the stores of bomb-grade plutonium if they exist, since presumably the North Koreans hide them deep underground.

Only former president Jimmy Carter's private intervention pulled the Administration's chestnuts out of what could have been a terrible fire, one that might have made South Korea's capital, Seoul, a literal ruin. Yet Carter's success in engineering the nuclear freeze agreement has been undermined all along, first by Congress's refusal at a critical point to release the funds to pay for the oil promised in return and, second, by the Administration itself not honouring its commitment to end the economic embargo.

Right now the Administration is having a hard time even implementing traditional U.S. famine policy--when there are hungry mothers and children feed them. So far it has weathered the attacks from the Republican right and from South Korea and has given the United Nations World Food Programme's relief efforts the aid it needs. But now it faces renewed pressures to ensure that future food aid be made contingent on the volatile on again, off again political talks with the North Koreans in New York.

Washington's objective should be kept clear--to diffuse by whatever means are at hand the isolationism of the regime. Food is one means, talking is another but one shouldn't be made dependent on the other.

It would help if Mr. Clinton would spell out how he sees the situation. Once Congressional, media and public opinion understood how down on its knees North Korea is then perhaps they would be more reserved about pushing for another round of knockout blows.

North Korea is essentially friendless. Moscow has terminated its security agreement and now chooses to sell its most advanced military equipment and technology to Seoul. China has switched its main economic and political interest from the north to the south.

Yet it doesn't seem to take much for Seoul and then Washington to react in a Cold War Pavlovian manner every time something upsets them. When last September the North Koreans foolishly sent a submarine carrying 26 armed agents into South Korean waters the previous conciliatory gestures made by the North were simply forgotten, substantial though they were--the curtailment of missile exports, allowing U.S. airlines to cross the North's airspace and agreeing to cooperate in finding the remains of American servicemen killed during the Korean war.

Subsequently, North Korea made an unprecedented public apology for the submarine incident. Surely it is more than clear that at least one powerful faction in the North's divided leadership is seeking some sort of rapprochement.

Mr. Clinton has to be more open to this accommodation if he is to will it along. This means standing up to his Republican critics--and that demands lifting U.S. sanctions--and it means resisting the hardline elements, now increasingly in the ascendancy in South Korea, who seek nothing less than the total collapse of the northern regime.

Boldly ploughing the furrow forward, whilst keeping up the defenses in the rear, is the way most likely to succeed. The present policy of inching forward, as if expecting a booby trap at every turn, could all too easily end up missing the opportunity that beckons. And then the U.S. will have no choices. It may even end up being forced to go to war.


April 30, 1997, LONDON

Copyright © 1997 By JONATHAN POWER

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