Polls taken after Pyongyang tested a nuclear device indicate most Americans favor direct talks with North Korea. But would such a policy change reduce tensions? The answer lies in reviewing North Korea’s conduct over a half-century. Such a review is very telling as to Pyongyang’s disposition toward rational and peaceful resolution.
A father/son leadership team devoid of concern for world opinion has enabled Pyongyang to perfect the art of committing egregious acts designed at heightening international tensions. It has done so for so long, we tend to lose sight of the picture these individual acts collectively paint of Pyongyang’s provocative nature. A 2003 report titled “North Korea: Chronology of Provocations, 1950-2003” provides individual brush strokes of various incidents, painting just such a picture.
Launching a surprise invasion into South Korea on June 25, 1950, only six days after proposing the two Koreas take measures to effect a peaceful reunification, Pyongyang signed an armistice in July 1953. Almost immediately, it initiated a covert program to infiltrate thousands of infiltrators into the South.
It embarked as well upon a campaign by which hundreds of South Koreans were abducted from South Korea and other countries and taken North. These were professionals possessing special skills needed by Pyongyang in its spy activities or propaganda efforts. Included were a famous South Korean actress and her director husband who spent eight years in captivity before escaping in 1986.
It dug tunnels under the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) into the South, four of which have been discovered. Many more are believed to exist — large enough to allow 30,000 fully armed troops, accompanied by light artillery, to pass through every hour.
It hijacked South Korean passenger planes — two successfully (1958 and 1969) and one not (1971). Passengers were held many weeks — some never were returned. Resorting to bombing attacks, in 1987 Pyongyang blew up a South Korean passenger plane in midair.
It undertook repeated assassination attempts against South Korean presidents, both inside and outside that country. A 1968 attack on Seoul’s presidential palace by North Korean commandos failed; a 1974 attack failed but killed the president’s wife; in 1983, the president escaped a bomb attack by North Korean agents in Rangoon, Burma, which instead killed 17 South Korean and four Burmese officials.
It dispatched mini-submarines, with commandos embarked, repeatedly into South Korean waters to conduct special operations. Its denials of such activities were undermined when, in one instance, a sub became entangled in a fishing net and, in another, the body of a North Korean frogman was recovered.
It has murdered South Korean citizens and North Korean defectors. These included a South Korean diplomat in Russia who had threatened South Korean retaliation for a North Korean submarine incursion incident and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s own nephew, who had defected to Seoul in 1982. The latter occurred in 1997, three days after a high-ranking North Korean official, Hwang Jong Yop, defected, as a warning to him.
It has issued numerous threats of death and destruction against South Korean officials and media officials for making simple statements of opinion or truth. A 1997 television production by a South Korean network depicting a life of repression and corruption in North Korea caused Pyongyang to threaten “to kill everyone involved.”
South Korea has not been the only recipient of North Korean aggression. The North has attacked U.S. planes, ships and personnel. The most egregious involved the 1968 capture in international waters of the USS Pueblo and the torturing and incarceration for 11 months of her crew (Pueblo was never returned); the 1969 shooting down of a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft in international airspace, claiming 31 lives; the 1969 ambush and murder of four U.S. soldiers at the DMZ by North Korean intruders; and the 1978 unprovoked ax attack against a U.S. work party in the DMZ. It has sought to extort the U.S. by threats such as its 1998 demand for $500 million annually lest it develop, test and deploy missiles and sell them to Iran — a threat which it has now carried out.
Japan too has suffered from Pyongyang’s aggression. In 1998, it fired a new three-stage Taepodong-1 missile in a provocative arc over Japan. In 2001, after initially denying so, it admitted abducting 11 Japanese citizens during the 1970s and 1980s, but then refused Tokyo’s demand for detailed information on all victims.
These by no means represent all Pyongyang’s aggressive acts. Fifty-six years of provocations — including armed invasion, border violations, infiltration of armed saboteurs and spies, hijackings, kidnappings, terrorism (including assassination and bombings), threats against political leaders/media personnel/institutions, and incitement aimed at overthrowing the South Korean government — have made stability on the peninsula impossible. The U.S. finally concluded in 1988 North Korea was a country that had “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism,” resulting in Washington’s decision to impose certain sanctions on it.
In 2006, after North Korea’s nuclear test, South Korea finally has come to question its own failed, decadelong “Sunshine Policy” of nonthreatening engagement. It has taken decades of outrageous conduct by Pyongyang for the U.S. and South Korea to finally understand the North’s psyche for what it really is — totally devoid of peaceful intent.
With such a long history of violence, how can any rational person now think direct talks between Pyongyang and Washington will reduce tensions?
James G. Zumwalt, a Marine veteran of the Persian Gulf and Vietnam wars, is a contributor to The Washington Times.