The Panic Gap: Reactions to North Korea's Bomb

The Panic Gap: Reactions to North Korea's Bomb

Mini Teaser: Everyone knows that Americans should pay more attention to events outside their country's borders, especially now that we live in the Interdependent Age. But maybe the reverse is true.

by Author(s): James Fallows

Everyone knows that Americans should pay more attention to events outside their country's borders, especially now that we live in the Interdependent Age. But maybe the reverse is true. Maybe the old, clubby foreign policy establishment had it right when trying to conduct foreign policy out of the public view.

That, at least, was my working hypothesis after traveling to Seoul this summer, during the showdown over North Korea's nuclear ambitions. The more attention the issue received in the U.S. press, the closer to true disaster the whole episode moved. It was only when mainstream Americans--and, even more, the commentators who hector them on tv programs and the op-ed pages--were distracted by other questions that the serious negotiation could begin. Apparently no one has figured out how to interest the American public in international trends without exaggerating, oversimplifying, or warping the reality of events to fit domestic U.S. preoccupations of the moment.

Is this claim itself an exaggeration? Consider the Korean case:

South Korea has plenty of political and economic challenges to cope with in the long run. At the moment the rise of the Japanese yen gives Korean exporters like Hyundai and Daewoo a price advantage over Sony and Matsushita, but over the last decade, while the yen has more than doubled in value, Korea has actually lost technological ground, relative to Japan. (The explanation seems to lie in Japan's much higher investment levels, and the way its companies have used the strong yen to establish a manufacturing base across Southeast Asia.) While much of East Asia seems to conform to the "Singapore model," combining economic prosperity with considerable social control, Korean society often appears to be on the verge of flying apart. The unions have been so aggressive in pressing wage demands--and so successful--that wages have in many recent years risen twice as fast as productivity has. Korea's overall trade surplus climbed steadily during the bad old days of military rule before 1987, but then plummeted with the coming of civilian government. In the 1990s Korea has often run trade deficits, which no matter what economic theorists might say is seen as a disaster in Korea. Conspicuous consumption is on the rise so fast that the government has launched periodic austerity campaigns, designed to crack down on such excesses as imported French brandy or American Lincoln cars. President Kim Young Sam now leads the first truly civilian-elected government ever to rule in Korea, but it is not certain that a stable party structure has taken shape.

During this summer, however, all of these long-term problems were shoved aside by a more fundamental and immediate-seeming concern: that South Korea might be blown up by a North Korean nuclear bomb. Since early 1993, the always-difficult regime of Kim Il Sung had behaved in ways fully consistent with a desire to produce nuclear weapons and conceal them from international scrutiny. In March 1993, North Korea announced that it would withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Through the rest of the year it more and more flagrantly ignored the wishes of the International Atomic Energy Agency, particularly for iaea inspections of North Korea's nuclear-power plants. Outside observers assumed that these facilities, especially at Yongbyon, were producing plutonium that in turn could be used for bombs. By the end of 1993, U.S. intelligence agencies were leaking their belief that North Korea might already have produced one or two crude bombs.

Through early 1994, the Clinton administration made menacing comments about the "unacceptability" of a North Korean nuclear force. In the early spring President Clinton made a show-the-flag gesture of sending Patriot missiles to South Korea. (The chances that these would actually spare the South from nuclear destruction were remote, given the Patriot's spotty performance during the Gulf war and the several-month delay before they would be installed and operational.)

The North Koreans were unbowed, and by the late spring the moment of truth had arrived--at least in the view of many U.S. politicians and commentators. Senator John McCain of Arizona, a Republican and one-time pow in Vietnam who has generally been cautious in supporting military engagements, recommended preemptive air strikes against North Korea's nuclear strikes. Brent Scowcroft, George Bush's National Security Advisor, wrote an op-ed piece also endorsing preemptive strikes. The commentator Charles Krauthammer published a column titled "Get Ready for War Now" in The Washington Post. William Safire took the same approach; the sub-headline on his column was, "Straight War Talk is Needed Now." "As with some of the most insidious forms of cancer, what we are witnessing is not a cure but a remission," Henry Kissinger wrote just after Jimmy Carter met Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang and seemed to arrange a stop-gap compromise. The title of the column was, "No Compromise, But A Rollback," and it too ended with the sober advice that the U.S. must be prepared to attack.

Such was the mood in the United States as of mid-June, 1994--before Kim Il Sung died in early July, before the ensuing turmoil in North Korea, before the package deal arranged by U.S. and North Korean negotiators in October that, for now, has ended the showdown.

Americans were thinking and hearing a lot about Korea in those days. The topic dominated the news columns, the op-ed pages, and the endless political chat shows. Politicians and commentators felt compelled to take sides--and then to rebut, challenge, and belittle those on the opposite side. Relatively few of these people had been to Korea; almost none could have named a member of the North Korean government apart from Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il, or have explained where Yongbyon was relative either to Seoul or Pyongyang. Yet these American arguments proceeded with the tone of absolute certainty that typifies talk-show discourse these days. The whole spectacle, as viewed from the Korean peninsula, was perfectly bizarre.

There was a hint of this oddity in several U.S. newspaper stories, which pointed out that the closer you got to Ground Zero of the North Korea nuclear threat, the less panicked the mood became. While Americans were discussing the timing and collateral damage of preemptive strike, life was humming along in Seoul as it had for several years. The Institute of International Economics in Seoul had hired a foreign editor to come supervise an English-language edition of the institute's reports. The editor called at the last moment, in May, to say he couldn't take the job because the danger was too great. Residents of Seoul told me that relatives living overseas--in Los Angeles, Vancouver, New York--were calling to ask whether at least the children could be sent out of Korea, to a safe foreign haven, so some part of the family would survive the war that, tv assured them, was about to begin.

A panic did eventually overtake Seoul, and people rushed to the stores in early June to buy canned goods and dry noodles to sustain them in their bomb shelters. But that mood was short-lived, and it was almost totally in reaction to the dire sounds coming out of the United States.

The explanation for this difference in tone could not have been that South Korea was "soft" toward North Korea in any conventional sense. Yes, South Korean radicals and student-activists had long urged quick unification with the North. (They typically saw the imperialistic presence of U.S. forces as the only obstacle to this desirable goal.) Discussions among politicians, scholars, and journalists in South Korea had, since the 1980s, begun from the premise that reunification was inevitable once the North Korean regime collapsed. The question was when and under what terms. But the tone of South Korean life had been shaped for decades by the reality (and proximity!) of the North Korean threat. Korea's government bureaucracy is still affected by the loss of more than a dozen senior, influential officials, all of whom were blown up by a North Korean terrorist in Rangoon in 1983. Until the time of the 1988 Olympics in Korea, life in Seoul was interrupted once a month for air-raid defense drills. The De-Militarized Zone (dmz) itself, less than an hour's drive from the capital, is a kind of shrine to the unpredictability of the North Korean regime. Visitors can stroll through the tunnels that North Koreans have attempted to blast through the rock under the dmz. Murals show the way that North Korean soldiers might storm through the tunnels to invade. Guides say, "These are the tunnels we have found," and ask, "How many more might there be?"

Nor was there a huge difference between South Korea and the United States when it came to assessing North Korea's desire to build a bomb. "I ask foreign journalists if they know when North Korea began its long effort to build nuclear weapons," Kim Chang Soon, of the Institute for North Korean Studies, told me in Seoul in June. He seemed crestfallen when I replied, "Oh, the mid-1950s?" "The exact date is June 27, 1955, at a conference on nuclear energy in Moscow," he informed me, as the lead-in to a long chronology of how North Korea had worked with the Soviets and Chinese to acquire the technology they needed. "We have always known that they want this," he concluded. Of the several dozen officials I interviewed in Seoul, not one suggested the slightest doubt that North Korea was in fact trying hard to build nuclear weapons.

A more plausible and substantive reason for the panic gap between the U.S. and South Korea involves non-proliferation policy. From the U.S. government's point of view, a North Korean bomb is ominous not simply because of what it might do to South Korea (or Japan) but for what it would mean for the worldwide fight against nuclear proliferation. If the North Koreans, with impunity, defied international rules to build a bomb, other nations would be encouraged--and terrorists or trouble-makers would have more bombs to buy. (This assumes that for some reason they could not find the bombs they wanted among the tens of thousands floating around the former Soviet Union.) For American policymakers, resisting proliferation was at least as important as defending South Korea; for South Koreans, not surprisingly, saving themselves came first.

Indeed, in a quiet way many people in South Korea actually resisted the anti-proliferation agenda. As eventual reunification came to seem more likely than nuclear devastation from across the dmz, many South Koreans realized that a "North Korean bomb" would someday be a "Korean bomb." A recent best-selling book in South Korea argues explicitly that a unified Korea should have nuclear weapons, in order to stand up to China and Japan. One evening in late June I was discussing the nuclear problem with two former Korean diplomats who had served in the United States and England. They spoke entirely in English except for one brief exchange in Korean, which I do not understand. Later I asked a translator, who had also been present, what they had discussed. "That was when they said both Koreas really need nuclear weapons to survive," the translator, torn between professionalism and a sense that this answer might cause problems, eventually replied.

Yet there was a difference in the American and South Korean world views that went beyond proliferation policy. In three ways the North Korean situation seemed starkly different when viewed from Seoul rather than from Washington or New York.

The first difference concerned the degree of certainty about how dire the situation was. From the South Korean perspective, North Korea's truculence in 1993 and early 1994 merely underscored what had been apparent for forty years: that it was doing everything possible to develop a nuclear force. But South Korean officials argued that there was little hard evidence that North Korea had moved dramatically closer to that goal. "At the most they have one bomb," a Korean diplomat told me. "We know they have never tested a bomb." On the evidence available, most in the South Korean government thought that the situation was "grave but not urgent." North Korea's nuclear desires were a major problem--but not a new one, and not one demanding a now-or-never response. "For forty years the North Korean threat has been there," a former Korean ambassador told me one evening at dinner. "At any point in that period North Korea could have destroyed Seoul if it wanted, with or without nuclear weapons. We have had to assess this problem for years." The nuclear problem would become urgent, in this view, if and when North Korea tested its first bomb (an event that U.S. monitoring equipment in South Korea would instantly detect).

This led to the second difference, one of perceived urgency. American op-ed columns in early 1994 reminded us that the doomsday clock was ticking away. With each passing week, North Korea moved that much closer to its long-sought status as a nuclear power, and the United States (and South Korea) had that much less time to act. The word "appeasement" appeared more and more often on the op-ed page. Together with allusions to Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein, it implied that if the Clinton administration shied from forcing the issue today, the consequences would be even worse tomorrow.

Even the hardest-line anti-communists in Seoul had the opposite impression: that time was on their side. "No one can solve the nuclear problem with North Korea as long as Kim Il Sung is alive," Kim Dae Joong, the very hard-line editor of the newspaper Chosun Ilbo, told me two weeks before Kim Il Sung actually died. (There was at that time every reason to think that the Great Leader might remain in control for years.) "We can never go into the living room of North Korea and look everywhere. They will never give up their nuclear dreams under pressure from other countries. But when Kim Il Sung dies, the new government will need money and cooperation. They will come out and say, let's bargain. It will happen in five years." In the meantime, Kim Dae Joong said, the only option was "just wait"--with adequate troops along the dmz and a stern U.S. warning that any military action would bring instant and overwhelming response.

"Time is on our side," Chang Jae Lee, of the Korean Institute of International Economic Policy, said in early July. "No one really believes that North Korea will attack, since they could have done it at any time. We know they are not 'reasonable' people, but most of us don't regard them as that crazy. Kim Il Sung has a very negative image in Korea but people think that at least he cares about his own survival and his family. If he attacks it is only if he concludes there is no other way out." The more that the Americans urged immediate action, the more the Koreans asked, "What's the rush?"

The third disagreement concerned the best negotiating strategy toward Kim Il Sung. Most simply put, the difference was hard versus soft. American discussion took it for granted that the only possible error in negotiating strategy would be wishy-washiness. Since the stakes were high, the United States could not give an inch. Many Koreans said, on the contrary, that precisely because the issue was so important it needed to be handled as intelligently as possible, which did not mean pushing Kim Il Sung into a corner. The risk of being too weak was that North Korea would get away with building its bombs. But there was also a risk in seeming too threatening, many South Koreans said; the risk was that Kim Il Sung would launch his own preemptive strike, exposing his own country to devastation but along the way obliterating what had taken South Korea forty years to build. Both risks had to be borne in mind. One former South Korean diplomat said he had met Brent Scowcroft just after reading Scowcroft's article endorsing preemptive strikes. "I asked whether Americans had thought about the effects of this on the sixty million people living on the peninsula. I had the feeling that it was an afterthought."

Significantly, the one American who most often emphasized the dual risks was closer to the scene than most politicians and columnists. This was the U.S. ambassador to Korea, James Laney. My discussion with him in June in Seoul was, like most of his other meetings with journalists, conducted on a "background" basis that prevents me from recounting its details. But Ambassador Laney made his views so widely known that they appeared in many papers (most authoritatively in The Wall Street Journal, in an article by Stephen Glain on August 9, 1994, which I will use as an on-the-record source here).

The ambassador was known to feel that politicians and columnists in Washington were talking each other into a brink-of-war mood for reasons that had little to do with Korean realities. North Korea's nuclear program was a "threat to the world" that should be "pulled out by its roots," Laney was quoted as saying in The Wall Street Journal. But he added, "It's important to know the devastation that another Korean war would wreak upon the peninsula, and to move with great circumspection." According to widespread reports, Ambassador Laney contacted General Gary E. Luck, commander-in-chief of U.S. and Korean forces on the peninsula, to ask where the war fever was originating. General Luck is widely reported to have asked, "Mr. Ambassador, did you order this buildup? Because I didn't."

When two leading hard-liners who had helped engineer a buildup, Republican Senators McCain and Phil Gramm, came to Korea, Laney is said to have reminded them that North Korea still had never tested a nuclear bomb. This came as news to the senators. Laney was (reportedly!) astonished that war talk could have gone so far in ignorance of this basic fact.

Robert A. Manning, who served as a consultant to the Office of the Secretary of Defense during the Reagan administration, pointed out that several other basic facts were omitted from most of the American discourse:

The likelihood that we do not know where the necessary targets are, the high probability that...a preemptive strike would spew radioactive fallout all over Northeast Asia and in any case trigger a North Korean military response, and the reluctance of South Korea, Japan, and China to pursue such a course all suggest that the risks of a preemptive strike outweigh the benefits.

These views were published in a quasi-governmental publication, The Korean Journal of National Unification--not The Washington Post or The New York Times.

What accounted for the difference in perception? One possibility, of course, is that the Americans were wiser, braver, and more clear-headed than were the Koreans, who lost sight of the big picture because of their petty local concerns. But it seemed to me that it was actually the Americans who were wrapped up in petty local issues. The debate over North Korea had less to do with Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, Kim Young Sam, or the many other Kims than with purely American concerns about the character of the Clinton administration and of America itself.

An article by Andrew Sullivan of The New Republic, published in The Times of London this April, perfectly illustrated this mindset. Its argument was that the U.S. has gone in wholesale for appeasement, most dramatically in Bosnia. North Korea mattered only as a case study of this larger point. ("In North Korea, the sabre-rattling has been almost always accompanied by an obvious desire to risk nothing.") By extension Clinton would have been less craven and Chamberlain-ish, more manly and admirably Thatcher-like, if he had lowered the boom on North Korea--whether or not that made the slightest tactical, strategic, or moral sense.

In his article for the Korean Journal of National Unification, Robert A. Manning described such arguments as part of a "political hothouse atmosphere, one in which facts--in this case with a disturbingly narrow information base to begin with--are of decreasing relevance." American politicians and commentators were using North Korea as a mere prop for "political posturing." "Calls grow louder for preemptive action... along with urge for an instant denouement.":

The history of North Korean international behavior suggests that when squeezed into a corner it will not make concessions but will lash out....If there is any hope of a diplomatic solution, its likelihood is increased when Pyongyang's concerns and legitimate interests are taken seriously.

This sounds weak, horrible and appeasing--but it turned out to be right. Despite various complaints about the deal struck in October between North Korea and the United States (Senator McCain reappeared to call it, officially, "appeasement"), it was an outcome that most Americans would have welcomed a year earlier. North Korea agreed, in principle, to dismantle its system for reprocessing nuclear fuel, which was the basis of its nuclear threat. In exchange, North Korea will get financial and technical help in building two new reactors, at a potential cost of as much as $8 billion. But much of the cost will be borne by South Korea and Japan, and a military strike would have brought costs of its own. Only people who wanted a showdown for its own sake, as a demonstration of toughness and a willingness to "risk" something, can regret the outcome.

And why was a deal possible at all? Thanks go most of all to Kim Il Sung, who by dying at just the right moment broke the negotiating logjam. Jimmy Carter also played an important part, by delaying the showdown for the two weeks it took Kim Il Sung to die. But credit also goes to O.J. Simpson. Thanks to him, America got bored with Korea--and suddenly there was time and space to work out a deal.
Through April, May, and early June, Korea held the featured role in America's information machine. A few months earlier, Rwanda had briefly occupied this position. A few months later, Haiti would. Whatever subject was momentarily in the limelight was analyzed and sized-up around the clock. Op-ed pieces in the morning, talk shows late at night, Rush Limbaugh in between--all combined to create the impression that something had to happen right now to resolve the issue. Once an issue began to drift from this central position, of course, it was no longer quite so urgent to do anything right away. (Four years ago, America could barely stand the idea of the vicious Saddam Hussein in power. Now we rise each morning and go to bed each night indifferent to his continued presence on the throne.)

Sooner or later North Korea would have become boring in any case, but the O.J. Simpson trial ensured that it would be sooner. "You could feel the weight of cnn come off us then," a Korean diplomat told me in Seoul (as I have also recounted in The Atlantic Monthly). The issue no longer had to be solved immediately--and over the next few months, slowly, without daily analysis and the need for muscle-flexing, it was solved.

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