20 years later, commemorating a war averted

Editor’s Note: A U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework, signed 20 years ago Tuesday, was intended to replace North Korea’s nuclear power plant program with light water reactor power plants in the interest of nuclear nonproliferation, but the deal eventually broke apart.

Across Europe and scattered parts of the old British Empire, 2014 has been a centenary year in books and commemorations that ask yet again how great nations sleepwalked into the catastrophe of World War I. More happily this week, in an auditorium in Washington, former officials took note of how the U.S. and North Korea barely avoided slipping into a major war 20 years ago.

The conference came with a title much less resonant than “The Guns of August”, perhaps the most widely read book on the outbreak of World War I. Indeed the conference title was so veiled, “The 20th anniversary of the 1994 U.S-DPRK Agreed Framework,” that many graduate students walking past at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies had no idea what was being discussed inside.

Unlike the 25,000 or so books on the start of World War I, the U.S.-North Korean crisis of 1993-94 has produced barely one book (“Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis”) and remains mostly wrapped in the fog of nuclear physics and some unorthodox diplomacy with a country largely isolated from the rest of the world, the province of a handful of specialists and diplomatic historians.

Even so, as the conference participants repeatedly noted, the U.S. efforts to stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons came close to a war that could have killed as many as a million people on the Korean peninsula. Many of them would have been South Koreans who were not directly involved in the standoff, 40 years after their country had been reduced to rubble in the Korean War. Yet, by 1994 and despite heavy coverage by the PBS NewsHour and other major news outlets, the Clinton administration had made no major effort to warn the American public that the two nations were on the edge of war. Only a last-minute diplomatic mission to North Korea by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who traveled with a CNN crew, brought the story out of the realm of specialists and into the universe of 24 hour cable television

Months later, a pact emerged in which North Korea agreed to freeze a program that produced bomb-grade plutonium, and the allied nations would provide the country two light water reactors to serve its power needs. That deal, the Agreed Framework, has become wrapped in domestic political controversy in the 20 years since and led to more years of diplomatic negotiations that seemed as endless as they were fruitless.

The Framework eventually collapsed in 2002 amid U.S. charges that the North Koreans were cheating. North Korea is now believed to have material for as many as 10 nuclear bombs. It has conducted three nuclear tests as well as test firings of missiles that might carry nuclear warheads at increasingly long distances, though not yet as far as the continental United States.

With that mixed legacy, the conference participants who all played key roles in the original drama insisted the U.S. decisions of 1993-94 averted a war and could have led to more diplomatic breakthroughs had events broken the right way in Washington and Pyongyang at the turn of the century.

Once again, the speakers demonstrated that the most vivid history is told through anecdotes and sometimes in self-deprecatory humor. Providing much of both was Robert Gallucci, an assistant secretary of state then and since an academic and foundation executive. Even his key role was an accident.

The crisis erupted in the spring of 1993, when the International Atomic Energy Agency accused North Korea of secretly trying to develop weapons grade plutonium and threatened to go to the U.N. Security Council. North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

From the beginning, the U.S. and its Asian allies of South Korea and Japan saw the crisis as a nuclear proliferation issue. But Gallucci and other speakers said North Korea’s real aim was to use the nuclear issue as a wedge to create a diplomatic opening and relationship with the United States. The recently installed Clinton administration agreed to talk with the North Koreans but did not want to give them a high-level or well-known American interlocutor, such as Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord. Hence, as Gallucci acknowledged, he got the nod, an official totally unknown to the North Koreans and who had only been to the peninsula once in his career.

From the beginning, the talks in New York came with bizarre touches. The Korean delegates decorated their ill-fitting suits with lapel pins bearing a picture of their leader Kim Il Sung. Gallucci said he never went into a negotiation with such a slim briefing book, an indication that Washington thought Pyongyang would quickly accede to the idea of joining the Asian economic miracle in exchange for intrusive inspections and an American promise not to invade their country. The Korean negotiator cited an obscure passage from “Gone with the Wind” — the wagons roll but the dogs keep barking — that totally baffled the Americans. Both sides finished off the first round of talks at an elegant French restaurant. The Koreans poured Tabasco sauce over their food.

Not surprisingly, the talks in New York and later Geneva went nowhere and in following months the U.S. stepped up preparations to end the North Korean nuclear program by force, an airstrike on the Yongbyon nuclear plant and/or even an invasion of the North. A military buildup, as many as 140,000 American military in or around the peninsula, moved apace. By spring 1994, Americans in Korea were quietly sending their school age children home, weeks ahead of their final exams.

Gen. Gary Luck, the top American commander in Korea, recounted a conversation with President Bill Clinton. The general assured the president U.S. forces could reach the Yalu River in six months but suggested he keep two figures in mind — one million, one trillion. “What do you mean?” the president asked. “One million killed and one trillion spent,” the general responded. The president said, “No one told me that before.”

James Laney, the U.S. ambassador to Seoul, described how he and Luck were growing increasingly worried, and Laney kept his fellow Georgian Jimmy Carter up to date on developments. Gallucci also was briefing Carter, a nuclear engineer who understood the technical issues involved.

Carter had a standing invitation to visit North Korea, and with mixed feelings, President Clinton and his top officials decided he should go.

Gallucci described the situation in the Cabinet Room of the White House, the secretaries of state and defense and other top aides awaiting word from the former president on his meeting with Kim Il Sung. Secretary of Defense William Perry made a reference to “The Guns of August”, and insisted the U.S. could not fail to do the right thing just because North Korea might do the wrong thing. An aide entered the room, announcing President Carter was on the line. Everyone there expected he wanted to talk to President Clinton. Instead, the aide said, “He wants to talk with Gallucci.”

Gallucci said he saw his career dissolving in front of him. “At least I had the money to take a cab home.”

Gallucci reported to the room what Mr. Carter told him: North Korea would allow international inspectors back if the U.S. agreed to continue negotiations. Some in the room said that was not good enough. And then Gallucci added, Carter said he is going on CNN.

“You told him not to go on CNN,” someone said, and Gallucci responded he did not make such suggestions to a former president. There was much moaning and groaning. Secretary of State Warren Christopher said to Gallucci, half a question, half a statement: “You did say something to him.”

The meeting broke up to watch Carter on CNN, with Vice President Al Gore saying it was time to turn lemons into lemonade.

And it was Gallucci who was sent to the White House press room, to a corps of reporters clamoring for administration reaction to the Carter statement. He expected the reporters to ask if war had been avoided or was imminent; instead the first questions were whether President Clinton had subcontracted American policy to a former president.

The Carter trip and the subsequent Agreed Framework came in for much criticism, especially from Republicans. When they took control of Congress after the 1994 mid-term elections, they refused to appropriate money to carry out the U.S. obligations of the deal.

But Gallucci said Mr. Clinton has not been “given enough credit for being courageous and flexible to solve this situation short of war.”

Gallucci also reminded that two constants remain over the decades. The U.S. agreed to a less than ideal arrangement 20 years ago, partly in the belief that the North Korean regime would soon collapse. Now, after three generations of rule by the one family, the same predictions for North Korea are still voiced in Washington.

Finally, Gallucci added: “One thing is the same now and in 1994. We were really ignorant of North Korea then, even though we have some real experts. We are still ignorant of North Korea.”

Michael D. Mosettig was the PBS NewsHour’s foreign affairs and defense editor from 1985 to 2012. He now watches wonks push policy in Washington’s multitude of think tanks and writes occasional dispatches on what those scholars and wannabe secretaries of state have in mind for Europe, Asia and Latin America.