- The Washington Times - Friday, July 28, 2000

If we accept the recent history that the Stalinist command economy of North Korea was in immediate trouble with the breakup of the former Soviet Union in 1989, we understand the general background of what is going on in North Korea now.

How badly North Korea was hurt by the loss of Soviet subsidies emerged in statements made to me by North Korea's President Kim, Il-sung in a three-hour private meeting that Charles Vollmer, president of VII Inc., and I had with him in June 1992: "The world is changing all around us with the collapse of the Former Soviet Union. For example, we have lost 100,000 metric tons of oil per year from Russia." He went on to explain that his country's industry was in great difficulty.

Other private conversations with senior North Korean officials in 1991 and early 1992, for example with Kim Yong-sun, secretary of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers' Party, led me to believe the two major North-South Korean agreements of 1991 (Non-aggression, Cooperation, Reconciliation and Exchanges) and early 1992 (denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula) were based on Pyongyang's understanding that there was no way out of its economic malaise except to move toward peaceful coexistence with Seoul. Those two years were full of promise in reducing the probabilities of a mutually devastating war on the Korean Peninsula.

All the good things turned sour with the growing "nuclear crisis" of 1993-94. U.S. policy toward North Korea went into great confusion. The White House sought a way out, but was stymied repeatedly by well-intentioned, but wrong, conservatives in the U.S. Congress who advocated a tougher policy of "carrots and sticks" toward Pyongyang, as if the government of North Korea were a mule. It would have been nice if those members of Congress had looked President Kim in the eyes, as I did, when he said, "We never respond positively to outside pressure."

Even during the crisis, Kim, Il-sung met with former President Jimmy Carter, then signaled to South Korea's President Kim Young-sam that he was prepared to hold a North-South summit a signal interrupted by the sudden death of Kim Il-sung in summer 1994. The crisis subsided with the Nuclear Agreed Framework of October 1994.

Then, starting in 1995, Mother Nature began to compound North Korea's already severe economic problems with alternating floods and droughts, causing mass starvation. Food aid from South Korea, Japan, the United States, China and a number of nongovernmental organizations could only ameliorate, not eliminate, widespread famine. The situation in the North was becoming increasingly desperate for a regime determined to preserve itself in power. It should have become apparent to all observers that policies needed to be developed to prevent times of high North-South tensions.

A case in point was the North-South crisis generated in September 1996 by an incompetent North Korean submarine commander who crashed his vessel into the rocks during a routine infiltration mission. Such crises could lead to war by accident or miscalculation, the ways most wars have started. And, even though the U.S.-South Korean Combined Forces Command would quickly win a North-South war, it would be a Pyrrhic victory, given the terrible destruction the North would wreak on the South with conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction, many of them delivered by missiles against which there is no defense in the South.

Clearly, an alternative to "carrots and sticks" diplomacy was in order.

Enter the new president, Kim Dae-jung, of South Korea. His Inaugural address in February 1998 was a bombshell the "Sunshine Policy" toward North Korea. This involved a strong defense; a pledge that the South did not seek to absorb the North; the separation of politics and economics; an offer to help North Korea rebuild its economic infrastructure; a stated objective of peaceful coexistence; an invitation for Free World nations to establish relations with the communist North, and more.

The Clinton administration bought the new approach and placed the highly respected, former Defense Secretary Bill Perry in charge of developing a new U.S. approach to North Korea. Mr. Perry quickly endorsed major aspects of President Kim's Sunshine Policy, wrapped them in the mantle of a comprehensive U.S. policy of Constructive Engagement, and began coordination with: (1) the U.S. Congress, (2) our allies South Korea and Japan and (3) the major powers in Northeast Asia we must deal with, China and Russia.

So where are we now? It is not post-hoc reasoning to suggest that the beleaguered North Korean leadership sees its only salvation in dealing with Kim Dae-jung, a leader whose Sunshine Policy has won the endorsement of every major actor in Northeast Asia, and a man they just may be learning to trust. How else explain North Korea's recent "Charm Offensive?"

Here is the recent record:

• A new search for normalized relations with several countries.

• The moratorium on missile testing, with a new hint North Korea may be willing to abandon its missile development program altogether.

• The historic North-South Summit last month with a five-part set of general agreements.

• Movement on visitations for separated families in the North and South.

• Agreements on North-South ministerial meetings; planned North Korean foreign ministerial meetings with South Korea, Japan and the United States next month.

• Proposed meetings of North-South legislators and more.

What next? The more difficult steps such as arms control, arms reductions, and confidence-building.

Three weeks ago in Seoul, I was privileged to have a 45-minute, one-on-one session with President Kim, the man who removed the veil from the eyes of the North's Chairman Kim Jong-il. He described his conversations at the North-South Summit in Pyongyang, noting that he found Chairman Kim a reasonable man with whom he could do business, a man who changed his mind on some issues when presented new facts or concepts. A careful and thoughtful leader, President Kim cautioned against euphoria but clearly displayed cautious optimism about the new diplomatic process in Northeast Asia.

After a decade and several crises, Pyongyang is ready to deal again. How should we proceed from here? Steady as she goes. Don't rock the boat. Go with the flow.

William J. Taylor is senior adviser for international security affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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