North Korea: The unintended consequences of past mistakes

The policies of the Clinton administration made a nuclear North Korea inevitable

Photo: Missles North Korea / AP

SEOUL, South Korea, March 10, 2013 ― When the Clinton Administration became aware in the early nineties of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, it reacted by engaging with it bilaterally, excluding South Korea and Japan from the proceedings, despite their being the most affected by its results.

Such unilateralism would have made more sense if it was being applied in a region where the countries are decrepit, and incapable of securing themselves on their own. But Northeast Asia is home to dynamic states with deep histories and grand ambitions; and for the United States to tell their allies in the region that ‘we, the USA, will handle this problem for you’ – this was more interference than help. It was also exactly what the North Koreans wanted; and since that time, Pyongyang has always tried to settle matters directly with Washington, excluding Seoul and Tokyo from the process.

The more I think about Clinton’s policy during those early years (1993 to 2000), the more I am convinced that it is to blame for the troubles that afflict us now.

Mistakes in foreign policy often go unnoticed because their effects are not always immediate and only appear after a long delay. Clinton’s folly was of this type – it appeared at first to be succeeding; it led, in 1994, to the Agreed Framework, in which North Korea promised to suspend, but not abandon, its nuclear enrichment.

From these meetings, a relationship grew between the world’s greatest superpower and the last vestige of Stalinism. It was not without difficulties: the North Koreans turned from nuclear enrichment to the development of missiles, one of which they shot across the mainland of Japan. But such mishaps were not allowed to spoil the relationship, which lasted into the very last days of the Clinton presidency. In 1998, the Agreed Framework was reaffirmed by both sides; Madeleine Albright was sent to Pyongyang in 2000, and a North Korean general to Washington.

The loser of this whole transaction was South Korea, which was excluded from the process and made to suffer from the constant jabbing of the North Koreans – from those random acts of violence that the world has come to know so well and which, in those days, served as painful reminders of the friendship that was blooming between their northern enemy and their closest ally. Such a state of affairs would not have been tolerated for long, by any country; and it was a matter of time before the South Koreans would seek their own relationship with the North.

When the Kim Dae-Jung Administration came to power in 1998, it did just that. It launched what became known as the Sunshine Policy, according to which the South would seek cooperation with the North, while sending them massive amounts of aid.  The North Koreans were in no position to spurn so ardent an embrace, especially when it came with shiploads of free food; and only two years in, the Sunshine Policy received a dramatic welcome in the form of an inter-Korean summit.  

June 2000, the two Kims meet in the first inter-Korean summit.


An idealistic man, Kim Dae-Jung was naturally inclined toward a journey powered by hope. According to the memoirs of Condoleeza Rice, he truly believed that the Sunshine Policy would bring about a transformation in the North. In reality, what it brought was a more pleasant ambiance and progress of the emotional type, which is not nothing; but when it came to substance, the Sunshine Policy achieved little: the DMZ remained, as ever, heavily guarded, and the nuclear program continued.

The true transformation took place not within North Korea, but outside it, on the diplomatic scene. Countries from all over the world – from Russia to Japan to the European Union – began to try their own hand at sunshine policy, and much-needed aid began to flow toward North Korea’s shores.

When Kim Dae-Jung was succeeded by Roh Moo-Hyun, an even bigger prize would land in North Korea’s lap; for Roh would take the Sunshine Policy toward a new extreme. It became, in his hands, a nationalist project, according to which South Korea would free itself from U.S. influence and become a sort of “balancer” between China, the U.S., and Japan (a role for which it is pitifully ill-equipped).

Such a policy required more proximity to Pyongyang and more distance from Washington. Roh announced early on that North Korea should no longer be seen as the “principal enemy,” that the policy of the United States had become “unpredictable,” and that South Korea was no more “a puppet of the United States.” The American reaction was swift and from the mouth of Rumsfeld came threats, barely disguised. The United States would refuse to play the role of “tripwire.” It would move its troops southward, to less vulnerable areas, while retaining its own military option against the North – an option that, if exercised, would likely turn Seoul into a bloody mess.

The decade 1998-2008, which comprises two liberal administrations in Seoul, must therefore be seen as a time of triumph for North Korea. They achieved everything they ever wanted and more – diplomatic ties, economic aid, a severe weakening of the U.S.-ROK Alliance, and not least, the bomb.  Few countries have achieved so much, so quickly, and with so little. It pains me therefore to hear it said of the North Koreans that they are “irrational.” They may be evil; but their actions over the past two decades betray no lack of rationality, or nerves. That distinction rests with the United States and South Korea, who after twenty years of furious diplomacy have nothing to show for it but a North Korea with the nuclear bomb.

No policy, however, can be indicted on its results alone; I have no right to criticize Clinton’s approach if I cannot show that there was an alternative to it, and that it would have led to better things.

Clinton once defended the Agreed Framework by saying that it delayed the nuclear program of North Korea. This is not without value; a few more years of a nuclear-free Korea is not nothing, especially if its nuclearisation was inevitable. But I hesitate to entertain so fatalistic a view. Had the United States responded in 1993 and 1994, not by talking to North Korea, but by tightening our ties with Seoul and Tokyo; by conducting military exercises with them, in case of provocation; and by demanding of South Korea that progress be measured by substance and not ambiance - in short, had we done then what we do now - events would have taken a different and more pleasant turn.

In the years 1994-1998, South Korea would not have been isolated from the process, and a Sunshine Policy would have been unnecessary. Any approach to the North, the South would have led, and we would have stayed in the background, though in full support. No dramatic breakthroughs would have greeted such a course – no Agreed Framework, no inter-Korean summit. In all likelihood, it would have led to a period of confrontation and a tense war of nerves, but it would not have led to a nuclear North Korea.

For in those circumstances, North Korea would have had nothing to gain from a nuclear program. Could they have braved the isolation and the hunger (for no aid would have been forthcoming) – just for the pleasure of being called a nuclear power? If they are rational (and all the evidence points to them being so), they would have stopped their nuclear ambitions, and it is even likely that a crisis of power at the very top would have brought down the whole regime.

Sometimes we forget just how weak North Korea was in the early nineties. During the Cold War, North Korea had depended heavily on funding from the Soviet Union, and when the latter disappeared, so went the funding. The Chinese were flimsy allies compared to the Soviets; they normalized relations with South Korea while the North was reeling from all this; and to make matters worse, Kim Il-Sung was facing death, and the transfer of power to his son was by no means assured.

Those experts who predicted in the early nineties that North Korea would soon collapse were not delusional. Reason was on their side; but how could they have known that a mere nuclear program was all it took to extract an Agreed Framework, the Sunshine Policy, and massive amounts of aid? It is likely that the nuclear program may have been nothing more than a desperate gamble from a state which had run out of options, and had we more patience and stronger nerves, we could have easily defeated such a reckless move. Instead the nuclear program became the very basis of North Korea’s existence, and for that, we must blame ourselves.

In 1994, we had no business taking on the responsibility of solving this problem when in the region there were states that were more affected by the issue and able enough to take care of themselves. During the Cold War, did we ever approach East Germany directly and exclude West Germany, France, and Britain? Such a policy would have split the Atlantic Alliance, as it did the U.S.-ROK alliance for much of Bush’s term. Only in 2008, when Lee Myung-Bak came to power (and North Korea had already got the bomb), was the alliance restored; and now we are doing what we should have done two decades ago: we are sticking to the six-party talks, refusing bilateral talks, and allowing South Korea to take the lead. Hopefully, the North Koreans will learn that keeping nuclear weapons is not as profitable as making them proved to be. 


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Benjamin Ra

Benjamin Ra is a recent graduate of Sciences Po Paris. He writes mainly on foreign policy and is currently residing in South Korea. 

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