Sunday, October 29, 2006



29 October 2006

The North Korean Stand-off

It would appear that like the media driven blow-up over who did less to prevent 9/11 many of our politicians are now running around blaming both the current administration of President GW Bush and the past administration of President WJ Clinton over who is responsible for North Korea attempting to test a nuclear weapon. So who is more responsible for allowing North Korea to attain the status of having medium range missiles and for at least attempting to test a nuclear device? Let’s look at the facts and the history behind this whole event and see what answers we can come up with as it relates to the question.

First we need to understand how North Korea came to exist, up until 1945 there was only one Korea which during WW II was occupied by Japan. As an interim measure the country was to be governed by Russia above the 38th parallel and America below the parallel until they reached an agreement on who would oversee the country. The negotiations were unsuccessful and like Europe quickly falling into two camps the Soviet Block and the Western Block. Remember just like Eastern Europe the people weren’t consulted in any way nor were they given any opportunity to decide who would rule them. In 1948 with negotiations over and no agreement reached Russia began to create the North Korea government in its own image and the American’s quickly followed suit creating an autocratic South Korea with the goal of democracy. Tensions were immediate with people on both sides wanting to move back and forth and not understanding these new borders. As tensions mounted border incidents became more frequent and violent. The Russians were poring surplus tanks, artillery and new jet aircraft into the North while the US did the same in the South. In only two short years the North felt it was ready. With mainly Russians flying their aircraft and Russian advisors down to the Battalion level the North Korea army crossed the 38th parallel on 25 June 1950 and began the Koran War.

The North’s initial successes were dramatic and overwhelming for the South who had not received as much Armor and who had no modern aircraft to speak of. This was the first chance for the UN to intervene in a modern war and it did so almost immediately but turned over command of the war effort to the Americans. The UN Security Council resolution only gave the US the ability to stabilize the situation and return to the recognized pre-invasion borders. The US commander General D MacArthur did not take the resolution literally and after a brilliant amphibious landing at Inchon marched to within spitting distance of the Yalu river on the Chinese border. Ignoring his political masters to not fly aircraft within the border area or to move troops too close he pressed on which led the Chinese Volunteers to enter the war in a huge way.

This changed the course of the war and after refusing to authorize tactical nuclear strikes on the Chinese the UN forces were pushed back to the Pusan perimeter in the South and once again the South Korean capitol was in Northern hands. General MacArthur was recalled and then relieved. UN Forces led by the American Army pushed back hard and by 27 July 1953 had regained the 38th parallel and a cease fire was signed by the UN Command, The Korean Peoples Army and the Chinese Volunteers. This agreement was formally known as the Korean War Armistice Agreement and it created the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which continues to separate the two countries. Although negotiations have periodically occurred the Armistice has never resulted in a peace agreement ending the conflict.

North Korea has only been ruled by two leaders since 1948, Kim Il-sung from 1948 until his death in Oct 1994 when his son Kim Jong-Il took over. In the 1960’s and 70’s the North’s economy was considered better than it’s southern neighbor but in the 80 and more drastically in the 90’s the North’s economy collapsed (note the timing which mirrors the decline and collapse of the Soviet Union). During that same timeframe the South came into its own and its economy began to rival Japans. To distract from the poor economy in the mid 80’s Kim Il-sung began a massive buildup of military might and in the late 80’s began to threaten the South more openly. The response of the West and South was negotiation and offers of aid, which seemed to the West to be an opening to appeal to the North to open its borders, instead the North used the aid to feed the Army and the financial aid to begin the development of a missile program and a nuclear research program. North Korea officially became a member of the UN in 1991.

In 1993 in response to missile tests and the military build up the US began to attempt to negotiate with the North Korean regime offering to build light water nuclear reactors for energy, food aid, international recognition and financial aid. The US showed its level of commitment to the idea of bringing the North into fold by sending ex President Jimmy Carter to negotiate the deal. South Korea also offered to allow movement between the borders and offered food and aid to help the starving population of the North. Kim Il-sung agreed to stop his Nuclear weapons program and stand down his military, he also offered to send envoys to the DMZ to continue the negotiations towards a permanent end to the War.

This noble attempt to solve a potential crisis by President Clinton continued through the 1990’s with limited success, although the West was meeting its side of the agreement the North Koreans were secretly negotiating with the Chinese for better missile technology and with the Pakistani’s for nuclear weapons technology using the financial aid provided by the west. In 1994 Kim Il-sung passed away and his son Kim Jong-Il came to power officially in 1997 after 3 yrs of morning. He suggested with the passing of his more hard line father that he would be open to even bigger reforms at a faster pace. Again responding nobly the Clinton Administration sent the Secretary of State Madeline Albright to meet with Kim Jong-Il in 2000. She brought with her a large number of incentives to help Kim Jong-Il take the next step but at the end of the day she was not able to achieve anything and the administration was left with nothing other than a photo op of the Secretary of State sharing a champagne toast with a dictator whose people were starving.

With the new administration taking over in early 2001 all went quiet on the North Korean front although the new Secretary of State Colin Powell asked for permission to re-open talks the Bush Administration as a whole after reviewing the file and realizing that the North had been cheating on the Jimmy Carter sponsored deal almost before the ink was dry decided to take a harder line and ended the talks immediately until the North agreed to end it’s nuclear weapons program and cease its attempted to develop an inter-continental ballistic missile. The administration also cut off much of its aid except food aid, ceased construction on the light water reactors and imposed some financial sanctions on the regime as it had discovered that the North was counter fitting US currency to pay for many of its programs. Kim Jong-Il responded angrily and worked hard to drive a wedge between the US and it’s European and South Korean allies and turned more to the Chinese to help force the West to return to the good ole days in the 90’s.

Instead the US managed to convince those concerned to create the 6 party talks (consisting of North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the United States) designed to end the nuclear ambitions of the North in exchange for restoration of the aid package offered under the Clinton Administration plus more. Most of this negotiating was done quietly and by the Chinese and Japanese with absolutely no success. In fact in 2001 Kim Jong-Il threatened to increase production of both weapons and missiles and began to support and minimally finance terrorist organizations throughout the Far East to help further destabilize Pro-western based governments. After 9-11 and during his State of the Nation speech to Congress in 2002 President Bush went public with his administrations feeling about North Korea when he labeled them as a member of the Axis of Evil, this took many American’s by surprise as all eyes were on the middle east and nobody was paying any attention to this growing menace.

The 6 party talks had ups and down over the next 4 yrs announcing agreements followed by further announcements that in fact no agreement had actually been reached. China a member of the group often asked the other members to water down language and continually went to bat for the North Koreans. They masterfully and continually managed to create wedges between the US and the South Koreans who were afraid of being to tough with Kim Jong-Il who they believed was unbalanced and since they would be the direct target and recipient of his wraith they wanted peace almost by any means.

In June 2006 after 4 yrs of back and forth talks the North Koreans took the next step towards being able to threaten the west by testing a 3 stage rocket that would be capable of delivering a nuclear payload to the continental United States. Although the test was a failure it was a clear sign that the North was working towards that goal and would if allowed achieve that capability. In response there were threats of UN sanctions and back and forth shuttle diplomacy between 6 party members with the Chinese again taking the lead asking the US to give them one more chance to solve this without the UN security council being involved. While the 6 party members continued to debate their own strategy the North Korea’s decided to test a 4 Megaton device in October 2006. While the test was what is known as a fizzle, a nuclear trigger fires but the device didn’t fully work as the chain reaction required failed to occur, (only a 500 kiloton blast occurred) it again signaled the world that the North Koreans were making an attempt to move their program along in a dramatic fashion.

The difference this time was all members of the 6 party talks including the Chinese had asked the North not to conduct the test so this time a UN Security Council resolution was prepared and after some watering down passed. The North dismissed it but unlike previous occasions the Chinese agreed and began to implement some very limited inspections of North Korea goods coming into their country and going to the North. These limited sanctions will achieve nothing to turn back the clock and do little to entice the North to stop its weapons and missile program or open up. There has been no credible attempt to over throw the North Korean government from within although a minor rebellion by an Army unit in 1995 was quickly put down so how do we get rid of this mad man who’s running North Korea?

Can we talk to him? That was tried with no success by the Clinton administration on numerous occasions using a very direct and unilateral approach. The Bush administration has tried a very multilateral approach which has been extremely slow and really had the same results, a defiant North Korea moving in the direction they want to go.

So to answer the question of who is at fault, neither President Clinton nor President Bush directly as they both tried using different approaches. During the Clinton administration the regional allies complained about not being included in the talks while during the Bush administration his detractors complain that his refusal to have direct unilateral talks is the reason we are where we are.

I believe that both administrations have refused to acknowledge that you cannot talk with a madman and expect him to respect the rule of law, or any agreement he signs. You also can’t be wishy-washy with a despot. You must lay out the deal you are offering and the consequences of not accepting the deal. You must set a deadline and then you must follow through as promised. Obviously this is easier to write about than to implement but one has to wonder if the Clinton administration had not been distracted in the late 90’s and if the Bush administration had not been almost immediately distracted by 9/11 would either one of the administrations had the nerve to bomb the North Korea missile and nuclear research facilities. Would either administration been willing to bomb the North Korea artillery and missile positions that are in range of Seoul? It really would have meant upsetting China and South Korea but certainly would have prevented a potentially nuclear armed North Korea sitting in the same location with the worlds fifth largest Army and feeling like it can do whatever it wants.

This is how we got to where we are now but what of the future? The future very much depends on North Korea’s next move. If they feel emboldened by the half hearted security council resolution and China’s half hearted attempt to enforce the sanctions while Europe goes back to talking and wishing and America goes back to worrying about mid term elections and Iraq and South Korea remains only half committed to sanctions out of fear of retaliation then I suggest they will conduct a second test before December to prove that they can make a nuclear weapon work properly. They may also be ready by spring 2007 to take another crack at a 3 stage missile. That only leaves the difficult next step of matching up these two technologies together which most non partisan experts believe is another year away at best.

At some point soon (2008-2009) we will have to make a decision do we attack North Korea or do we accept them as the newest member of the Nuclear weapons club with the means to deliver that weapon to North America. Do you think the next presidential election might get into the way of any decision being made or am I just a cynic?


Blogger Hoodlum said...

America did not create a democratic South Korea, they had a dictator named Rhee who ran the country. The South Korean people brought about democratic reform through ther own volition.

12:28 PM  
Blogger Lee said...'re right and I should have choosen my words more accurately. I've corrected that section as I alway strive for historical accuracy in everything I write.

1:22 PM  

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