OCTOBER 23, 1997
Elizabeth Farnsworth talks with Don Oberdorer, journalist and author, about the Koreas.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Behind the fortifications of the so-called demilitarized zone dividing the two Koreas nearly 2 million troops, including 37,000 Americans, stand ready for war at a moment's notice. It almost happened just three years ago according to a new book by former Washington Post correspondent Don Oberdorfer. He joins us now. Thanks for being with us.
DON OBERDORER, Journalist/Author: Glad to be here.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: President Clinton, when he visited the DMZ, called it the "scariest place on earth." And it's been that way for a very long time, hasn't it?
DON OBERDORER: I was a soldier in 1953 at the end of the Korean War, and it was like that then. And it's been that way ever since. And nobody who served with me in 1953 at the end of the war could ever have imagined that as the century was coming to a close, it would remain as it is.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It's the place on earth where the most military--the largest concentration of military face each other, right?
DON OBERDORER: Since the Berlin Wall came down this is the big dividing line. Clinton also said last January in his State of the Union that this is the Cold War's last divide, and it is.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You've spent several years on this book. You've been covering this since 1953, since you were there. Is it because so much has been at stake that you've stayed so interested in Korea?
DON OBERDORER: Well, it's hard not to be interested. I mean, this is life and death for a lot of people--big armies facing each other. And across this divided peninsula one people fundamentally divided in 1945 by the great powers--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, remind us how that happened, by the--
DON OBERDORER: Well, the United States had many preparations for the occupation of Japan but not for the occupation of the Japanese colony of Korea. As the war was ending, the Soviet Union declared war in Japan and began moving its forces from Siberia down through the Korean Peninsula toward Japan. Suddenly, the United States government woke up in the last week of the war and assigned two colonels in the War Department, one of whom was Dean Rusk, our future secretary of state, to draw a line across the peninsula where the U.S. would take the surrender of the Japanese up to that line, the Russians would take it down to the line. It was supposed to be a temporary expedient but as the Cold War got underway and as the war hardened, as the Cold War hardened, and as the Korean War got underway and millions of people were killed, this became a more or less permanent dividing line across the peninsula of a people who had been united for 13 centuries before that.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Remind us how many people died in the Korean War. It's easy to forget this.
DON OBERDORER: Well, millions of people died on both sides, including 13--I'm sorry--including 54,000 Americans and American soldiers. And it was a devastating war. It left both places kind of in ruin, from which they both then built up themselves--the North Koreans in a Stalinist Soviet-style regime, the South in a more democratic but very dicey regime back and forth with democracy and repression and finally now democracy. South Korea became and is today the 11th largest economy in the entire world. People in the North are starving. They don't know where their next meal is coming from, and the regime is slowly sinking.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: There have been many crises between North and South, which you recount in your book, but the one you cover most extensively began when it seemed that North Korea had joined the ranks of nuclear powers. Tell us about--give us a little background on that before we get to the point when war might have broken out.
DON OBERDORER: Well, North Korea had from the late 70's and certainly by the early 80's, working on a nuclear facility North of the capital, Pyongyang, which was capable of making plutonium, which is the raw material of nuclear weapons. This is a regime which has not shied away from terrorism and lots of other kinds of activity. And the United States and others were very much afraid that if these people got the capacity to make nuclear weapons, they would sell them all over the world; they would provide them to Middle East nations; and basically they would have an impact not only in Korea but far beyond Korea in a way that was going to be extremely difficult, extremely dangerous for the entire world. So the U.S. and its allies set out to stop them from doing that.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Did you--after all the research you did, have you determined whether you think they did have--they had a peaceful nuclear power program, they said, and they were removing the spent rods, and the U.S. was afraid they were extracting plutonium that could be used in bombs, or that they had before, did you decide that they may have had a capability to make bombs?
DON OBERDORER: Elizabeth, I am not capable of making that as a definitive judgment. I personally doubt that they had that capability. The CIA estimated that at the maximum they might have extracted enough plutonium for one or two nuclear weapons, but there's no good evidence that they actually did so. However, you have to--I guess, if you're in the intelligence or military business--take the worst case scenario, and that was theirs.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us what happened in May and June 1994 when they had extracted rods; they refused to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and in Washington, leaders are beginning to plan for war basically, and then tell us what happened, and how it was defused.
DON OBERDORER: The international community decided that because North Korea had refused to cooperate, it would seek sanctions at the United Nations. North Korea announced that sanctions mean war, or equivalent to war. In response, the U.S. military drew up a plan to reinforce the American forces in Korea. On June 16, 1994, President Clinton was sitting in the cabinet room of the White House with the Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State and Vice President and Chairman of the Chiefs and others getting ready to order more than 10,000 additional troops, huge numbers of planes, warplanes, bombers, and fighters, and a new heavily armed aircraft carrier battle group to the vicinity of Korea in case the North Koreans really meant that this was war and also as a means of deterrence.
The problem was that no one knew how the North Koreans were going to react to seeing the tremendous reinforcements come at a time of high tension. And a North Korean colonel at the demilitarized zone told an American officer we are not going to let you build up. So there was the possibility of preemptive strike. As Gen. Shaliksashvili was right in the middle of explaining the forces that were to be sent, a telephone call came in from Jimmy Carter, the former President, who was in North Korea and who had met with the North Korea leader, Kim Il Sung, and Carter said, "We have made an agreement with Kim Il Sung. They will freeze the nuclear program. You don't have to go on to these sanctions. You don't have to send the troops. And I'm going to make an announcement in 10 minutes on CNN to this effect."
Well, this was havoc in the cabinet room. A thing they had been working on and discussing suddenly took a completely different term because of Carter. They de-camped to another room, and the President had to make a speech but Vice President Gore, the members of the cabinet and others are sitting there, watching Jimmy Carter make this announcement on TV. They were furious at Carter at the time, but in my opinion I think in the reflective opinion of many people involved in this, he saved the United States and everybody else from the possibility of a very, very serious crisis in the Korean Peninsula.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I was really struck by that part of your book because you quote several people, including top officers in Korea, who said we really thought we were going to war. Was it closer than it had ever been before?
DON OBERDORER: People who were involved in this have said to me that they think there was no other moment during the Clinton administration where the United States came as close to being involved in a major new military conflict as on that day and the days that would have followed had we sent those troops.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What about the future? There's famine in North Korea. It's in terrible shape economically. In the brief amount of time we have left, do you think that there's still this sort of danger?
DON OBERDORER: There's always a danger in the peninsula, but now you have a new condition. It's not just the food. The food crisis is terrible, and people are starving, but the whole economy is just going down, down, down in North Korea. And in my opinion there's a limit to how long that this can continue going down without some kind of sudden or explosive thing happening. I don't know what that will be. I don't know when it will be, but I think that the new regime in North Korea and the leader Kim Jung Il just within the last couple of weeks has taken over formally the titles of head of the Workers Party, the Communist Party. They have an opportunity now to make some major changes. If he does not do so, I don't think the regime can survive, and we don't know what the upshot of this--what will happen on the Korean Peninsula as you get into a new crisis of a different kind than the one I've covered in the past couple of decades.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Don Oberdorfer, thanks very much for being with us.
DON OBERDORER: Thank you.