Behind the New Korean Crisis

Against the Current, No. 103, March/April 2003

Martin Hart-Landsberg

FEW MAY KNOW it, but the people of the United States owe South Korean activists a big debt of gratitude. The movement they helped build appears, at least temporarily, to have headed off a new war on the Korean peninsula.

While Koreans, north and south, would have suffered the most, Americans would not have escaped its devastating consequences.

The direct impetus for the movement came from the November 2002 acquittal by a U.S. military court in South Korea of two U.S. soldiers, the commander and driver of the fifty-ton armored vehicle that crushed two South Korean girls to death in June, on a narrow road north of Seoul.

Activists immediately organized demonstrations outside Camp Casey in South Korea, the scene of the trial, and then in early December in Washington D.C., outside the Pentagon and the White House.

Tens of thousands of South Koreans eventually participated in marches, candlelight vigils, and demonstrations whose initial demands were for a new trial of the soldiers by Korean authorities and revision of the U.S.-South Korea Status of Forces Agreement.

Then, as U.S. threats intensified against North Korea for its alleged nuclear weapons program, the protests became increasingly directed against broader U.S. policy toward both South and North Korea.

This was no simple anti-American movement but rather, thanks to years of activist education and organizing, an expression of popular recognition that the U.S. military was not in South Korea to defend Korean interests.

One critical accomplishment of this movement was the December 19, 2002 election of Roh Moo-Hyun, over the more conservative and pro-American Lee Hoi-Chang. The campaign was very close and it appears that the United States hoped its charges against North Korea would encourage support for Lee.

But in the closing days of the campaign Roh courageously added his voice to the growing popular movement, making clear that he shared their opposition to U.S. policy toward the North. It was this stand that was largely responsible for his victory.

There now seems little doubt that war was at stake in this election. Several weeks after the election, Roh explained that “At the time of the elections, some U.S. officials, who held considerable responsibility in the administration, talked about the possibility of attacking North Korea . . .

“I felt so desperate. I couldn’t even say in public what would happen if the United States attached North Korea because that would make the people afraid.”(1)

Significantly, a U.S. military official reacting to the outcome of the election commented that “There is a real sense of mourning here.”(2)

U.S. Movement Needed

Because of South Korean efforts, we in the United States have a window of opportunity to organize our own opposition to U.S. foreign policy towards Korea and in the process build ties with South Korea’s peace movement and activist community.

We should also take advantage of this opportunity to think carefully about the kind of peace movement we are building. To this point it has been narrowly focused on stopping a U.S. attack on Iraq. While important, this narrow focus, as the situation in Korea makes clear, has the potential to blind participants to the broader scope and underlying dynamics of U.S. policy.

The United States claims that current tensions with the North arose because of that country’s October, 2002 admission to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly that it had violated the 1994 framework agreement (that was designed to halt its development of nuclear weapons) by secretly pursing a military-oriented uranium enrichment program.

Washington argued that this program made North Korea a threat to the peace of the region, not only because the country might use nuclear weapons to threaten South Korea or Japan, but also because it might sell them to terrorists. Thus the United States claims that its only interest is in stopping the North’s weapons program so as to keep the world safe from nuclear terror.

For its part, the North has accused the United States of misrepresenting its comments to Kelly. It claims that it had looked forward to the meeting, the first direct high-level contact with the U.S. government since Bush’s election, in hopes that it would lead to ongoing dialogue and normalization of relations. Instead, Kelly came in a threatening manner to accuse the North of violating the terms of the framework agreement.(3)

The Context

A historical perspective on U.S. policy towards Korea offers the best way to see through the thicket of competing claims and make sense of the quickly escalating tensions that have followed this meeting. In broad brush, from the end of the Korean War until the present, the United States has sought to maintain a state of hostility with the North.(4)

An international conference was held in April, 1954 in Geneva, as part of the Armistice agreement ending the Korean War fighting, to promote the peaceful reunification of Korea. The United States successfully worked to ensure its failure, and followed by steadily upgrading its military force on the peninsula, in violation of the terms of the armistice.

In 1957, the United States introduced nuclear artillery and missiles into South Korea. Over the decade of the 1960s, it added atomic demolition munitions and Nike Hercules missiles with nuclear warheads, both of which were forward deployed near the DMZ “de-militarized zone”).

In the 1980s, the U.S. military adopted a new doctrine for North Korea called Airland Battle. As opposed to past years, when strategy called for stopping a North Korean attack at the DMZ, U.S. plans now involved an immediate counterattack against the North, with special emphasis on the use of nuclear weapons.

Given the continuing “state of war” between the U.S. and North Korea, U.S. policy towards North Korea gradually fell under the control of the military and intelligence community.

This sector saw benefits in maintaining existing tensions, which legitimated the U.S. military presence in South Korea and Japan and also helped strengthen the conservative military governments that ruled the South. The military and intelligence community resisted all attempts to either scale back the U.S. military presence in the South or improve relations with the North.

A case in point: when U.S. President Jimmy Carter sought to withdraw all U.S. troops from South Korea before the end of his term in office, the military/intelligence faction deliberately sabotaged his plan. It generated new and far higher estimates of North Korean troop and weapons strength, which the army used to successfully challenge Carter’s proposed troop withdrawal.

Building the Pressure

The end of the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq brought a steady stream of articles in the U.S. press calling the DPRK the “next renegade state.”

North Korea had a small nuclear power program dating back to the mid-1980s. The military and CIA declared their conviction, challenged by the State Department, that this program was designed to produce nuclear weapons, not power as the North claimed, and that the North was already in possession of one or two nuclear bombs.

The United States demanded International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections of all North Korea’s nuclear facilities; the North, denying it had a weapons program, refused. In March 1993 the U.S. war games began in the South, directed against the North.

The North responded by declaring its intention to withdraw from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty [NPT]. While the North was portrayed as an outlaw state, it was actually hoping that U.S. concern with its nuclear program would force it to normalize relations and end its economic blockade.

With the end of the Soviet Union, the North needed to reorient its trade ties and attract new investment to generate foreign exchange. It therefore announced that all security issues could be resolved to U.S. satisfaction, if only Washington would agree to direct negotiations.

The United States agreed to talks in order to stop the North’s withdrawal from the NPT, out of fear that other countries might follow its example. The talks quickly deadlocked, however, and U.S. efforts resumed to force North Korean compliance.

The United States sought to win UN support for international sanctions. At the same time, the U.S. military began planning for a strike on North Korea’s nuclear facilities, with the expectation that this would likely lead to total war.

At the risk of oversimplifying, we can say that the war drive was fueled in part by a new assertion of U.S. power in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Another critical factor was the U.S. military’s need to justify its cold war levels of spending in the post-Soviet era; it therefore did what it could to puff up the North Korean threat, eagerly seizing on the nuclear issue.

Talk of the threat fed upon itself, quickly leading to a crisis situation. According to then South Korean president Kim Young-Sam, “The Clinton government was preparing a war.”

Kim phoned Clinton and argued against a U.S. attack on the North. “Clinton tried to persuade me to change my mind, but I criticized the United States for planning to stage a war with the North on our land.”(5)

War on the Korean peninsula in 1994 was averted only because former U.S. President Jimmy Carter accepted North Korean president Kim Il Sung’s invitation to come to Pyongyang and act as mediator.

The Framework Agreement

While the military and most opinion makers in the U.S. criticized Carter’s visit, his action opened up an alternative to war. The result was the October 1994 framework agreement.

Because the United States has singled out North Korean violations of the framework agreement to justify its current hostile stance towards the North, it is important to examine this agreement’s terms and compliance status.

The agreement required the North to freeze its one operating graphite-moderated reactor and halt construction of two bigger reactors. It also required the North to store the spent fuel from its operating reactor, under IAEA supervision.

In exchange, the United States was obligated to coordinate the building of two new light water reactors (considered less militarily dangerous), which were to be finished by 2003. Once the reactors were completed, but before they were fully operational, the North would have to allow full IAEA inspections of all its nuclear facilities.

During the period of construction, the United States also agreed to provide the North with annual shipments of heavy oil for heating and electricity production.

Perhaps most importantly, the agreement also called for the United States to “move toward full normalization of political and economic relations” with the North and “provide formal assurances to the DPRK against the threat or use of nuclear weapons by the United States.”

Tragically, the Clinton administration did not meet the terms of the agreement. Republicans swept into office in 1994 and repeatedly threatened to hold back needed funding for the promised oil deliveries to the North. One consequence was that these were not always made on schedule.

Under pressure from the military and intelligence community (and its allies in Congress), Clinton also maintained economic sanctions on the North. Moreover, the U.S. military continued to target and threaten the North with nuclear attack.

In short, the North has every reason to fault U.S. compliance with the agreement. The reactors were supposed to be built by 2003. Yet, in large measure because the U.S. hoped that North Korea would collapse from economic problems before that date, it did little to ensure a timely construction schedule. In fact the concrete foundation for the first reactor was not poured until August 2002.

The U.S. has also taken no meaningful steps to normalize relations. As a result, the heavy military pressure and economic embargo greatly add to North Korea’s considerable economic difficulties.(6)

In fact, the U.S. failure to live up to its side of the agreement is highlighted by the fact that North Korea’s current demands are no different from what it was promised in 1994: normalization of relations and a guarantee that it will not be threatened with U.S. military attack.

The “Axis of Evil”

One of the Bush administration’s earliest and most important policy objectives was the creation of a national missile defense system, an objective strongly endorsed by the military industrial complex. He justified the building of this expensive system largely with reference to the existence of a North Korean threat.

The Bush administration has worked hard to maintain the North as an enemy because it serves U.S. policy interests to do so. Immediately upon coming to office, Bush made it clear that he viewed North Korea as a terrorist state and felt no obligation to comply with the terms of the framework agreement.

He also strongly rebuked South Korean president Kim Dae Jung for his reconciliation efforts, which had produced an historic June 2000 summit meeting in Pyongyang with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

While a national missile defense program was an important objective in the early days of his administration, Bush’s agenda expanded dramatically after September 11, 2001: He launched what he called “a war on terrorism” that was in fact designed to reassert U.S. international dominance, promote new free trade agreements, and support a domestic agenda that included new tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy, greater spending for the military and security agencies, and new legislation for repressing opponents of his agenda.

The war on terrorism needed opponents, and to support such a sweeping political agenda the enemy could not be limited to al Qaeda or even Afghanistan. Thus, in his January 2002 State of the Union speech, Bush raised the specter of the “axis of evil.”

According to David Frum, Bush’s speechwriter, his original assignment was “to provide justification for a war, specifically a war with Iraq.”

Frum came up with the phrase “axis of hatred.” Higher ups changed it to the axis of evil, and added Iran. Then, according to Frum, at the last minute, North Korea was added.(7)

This incident captures perfectly the spirit of U.S. policy towards North Korea. James Kelly’s visit to the North and the tensions that followed can only be understood in this context.

What Lies Ahead?

The U.S. elite, notably the military-industrial complex, continues to find the North Korean threat an excellent vehicle for promoting its aims regardless of the cost to the Korean people, or the American people for that matter.

Following the October meeting discussed above, the United States government announced that the framework agreement was dead. In mid-November, it canceled its scheduled December shipment of heavy fuel oil to North Korea.

In December, the U.S. government ordered a Spanish navel vessel to stop and seize a North Korean ship carrying missiles. It later authorized its release when Yemen declared that it had legally purchased them, but issued no apology to North Korea.

Soon afterwards, a newly announced U.S. military doctrine called for preemptive military strikes and covert actions against nations possessing nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. The doctrine also allowed for the use of nuclear weapons as an option in any conflict.

North Korea was listed as one of the targeted nations. The North Korean government has, in turn, taken steps to restart its nuclear power operations and once again declared its intention to withdraw from the NPT.

At the same time, the North continues to seek direct negotiations with the United States in an effort to end its isolation and attract needed investment.

Many Russian, Chinese and South Korean defense analysts argue that North Korea has no weapons and is far from developing them even if was committed to doing so. They also acknowledge that it appears that the North has sought to keep the United States in the dark concerning its military capabilities, because this uncertainty is its best bargaining chip to encourage negotiations — the diplomatic equivalent of high stakes poker.

Despite three consecutive years of growth, the North Korean economy remains in bad shape. A severe shortage of energy, largely caused by the end of barter trade with the Soviet Union and a series of natural disasters, has crippled the country’s transportation system, industrial production, and agriculture.

North Korea’s GDP declined by half over the decade of the 1990s; millions of people are without employment, adequate food and public services. The North Korean government has redoubled its efforts to establish ties with the capitalist world in order to obtain the foreign exchange it needs to revive its economy.

On the political front, it has normalized relations with most western European countries and Australia. In September 2002, Kim Jong Il met with the Japanese prime minister and acknowledged past wrong-doings, including the kidnapping of Japanese citizens; he also renounced compensation claims for Japanese colonialism.

The South Korean people, who have also paid a high cost for the division of their country and the resulting tensions, want to improve relations with the North. In this context, activists face many challenges, including promotion of a reunification strategy that encourages direct contacts between working people in the North and South and the creation of new social visions.

We in this country have a responsibility to help create space for their efforts by demanding a change in U.S. foreign policy. Further, given that the U.S. government’s demonizing of North Korea helps to legitimate the war on terrorism with its enormous domestic social costs — costs that would rise rapidly in the case of a new Korean war — such an effort represents an act of solidarity in the truest sense.

In focusing on Korea, and the dangers of war on the Korean peninsula, I do not mean to suggest that the peace movement in the United States should make Korea a higher priority than Iraq. Given the current emphasis of the Bush administration, war in Iraq remains the more likely outcome.

The situation in Korea, however, highlights the fact that the U.S. government’s stance towards Iraq is not an aberration. Rather, the drive to war, whether in the Middle East or Korea, reflects and is a consequence of state efforts to advance a political agenda that is responsive to capitalist rather than popular needs.

Therefore, to build an effective peace movement, our organizing efforts must encourage people to see the connections between what appear to be distinct crises as well as their root cause.


  • Doug Struck, “S. Korean Says U.S. Considered Attack on North,” Washington Post, January 19, 2003, on-line.
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  • Howard W. French, “Bush and the New Korean Leader to Take up Thorny Issues,” New York Times, December 21, 2002, on-line.
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  • In response, the North told Kelly that it was the U.S. that had violated the framework agreement, and that if the U.S. continued to threaten the North with nuclear attack, it had every right to have nuclear weapons to defend itself. While it acknowledged having purchased uranium enrichment technology, it said this was not a violation of the agreement. Moreover, it had not yet used it. Significantly, and in contrast to U.S. statements, the North claims it never said it had nuclear weapons or was seeking to develop them. For more on the exchange see Gregory Elich, “Targeting North Korea,” Center for Research on Globalization (, December 31, 2002.
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  • A more detailed discussion of the following history can be found in Martin Hart-Landsberg, Korea: Division, Reunification, and U.S. Foreign Policy, Monthly Review Press, 1998, especially Chapter 6.
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  • Agence France Presse, “South Korea Stopped US Strike on North Korea: Former President,” Seoul, May 24, 2000.
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  • North Korea’s economic situation and political options are discussed in Gavan McCormack, North Korea in the Vice,<170> <MI>New Left Review<D>, 18, November-December 2002; and Elich, “Targeting North Korea,” op. cit. On the economic front, the North has dispatched officials to other countries to study their economic experiences and tried to establish a special capitalist zone in Sinujiu. In July 2002, it introduced a package of major economic reforms that include an end to rationing, charges for housing and utilities, and a devaluation of the currency. It is also working with the South to establish a special economic zone in Kaesong, and repair railway lines linking the South and North.
    However, it is doubtful that any of these efforts will produce significant results as long as the state of hostilities remains between North Korea and the United States.
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  • Hendrik Hertzberg, “The Talk of the Town,” The New Yorker, January 13, 2003, on line.
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  • ATC 103, March-April 2003