There is an eerie case of deja vu in Korea. Nearly nine years ago, President Kim Il Sung expelled international inspectors and threatened to process plutonium from spent fuel at an old graphite-moderated nuclear reactor in Yongbyon. The Clinton administration had rejected negotiations with North Korea, was contemplating a military strike to destroy the nuclear facility and was seeking U.N. Security Council economic sanctions. The North Koreans announced that such sanctions would be considered an act of war. It was clear the United States and South Korean militaries could prevail, but there would be massive casualties from the formidable ground forces of North Korea.
As now, the isolated and economically troubled nation was focused on resolving basic differences with the United States. Deeply suspicious and perhaps paranoid, the North Koreans were demanding assurances against a nuclear attack and opportunities for normal bilateral relations.
At the invitation of Kim Il Sung, and with the approval of the White House, I went to Pyongyang and negotiated directly with the man known as the “Great Leader.” He agreed to freeze the nuclear situation at Yongbyon and permit international inspectors to monitor the agreement. In return, the United States was to pledge that nuclear weapons would not be used against North Korea and that two modern light-water reactors would be built to replace the Yongbyon facility. In the meantime, a monthly supply of fuel oil would help provide electrical power. The subsequent death of Kim Il Sung, who was replaced by his son, Kim Jong Il, interfered with the more rapid timetable that we envisioned, but these nuclear proposals were accepted officially in the Agreed Framework, also involving South Korea and Japan.
Kim Il Sung wanted to discuss long-term issues, with the goal of achieving normal relations between the Koreas and with America. He agreed to an immediate summit meeting with South Korea’s president to discuss cross-border visitation among Korean families and the implementation of general principles adopted in 1992 regarding reunification. His suggestions for future talks with the United States included cooperation in recovering the remains of U.S. soldiers, a step-by-step reduction of Korean armed forces to 100,000 men on each side, with U.S. troops to be reduced in the same proportion, withdrawal of long-range artillery and other aggressive military forces from near the demilitarized zone, and mutual inspections to ensure the de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
Although the promised light-water reactors were not built, substantial progress was made between North Korea and the United States, illustrated by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s successful discussions in Pyongyang.
The Bush administration brought a change in relationship with both Koreas.
Rejection of the “sunshine policy,” which had earned the Nobel Peace Prize for South Korean President Kim Dae Jung; announcements that North Korea, like Iraq and Iran, was part of an “axis of evil”; public statements that the new “Great Leader” was loathed as a “pygmy” who deliberately starved his own people, that America was prepared to fight two wars at the same time, and that our missile defense system was a shield against North Korea — all this helped cause many in that country to assume that they were next on America’s hit list after Iraq.
With evidence that Pyongyang was acquiring enriched uranium, in direct violation of the Agreed Framework, President Bush announced that there would be no discussions with North Korea until after its complete rejection of a nuclear explosives program, and the monthly shipments of fuel oil were terminated.
Now, once again, international inspectors have been expelled, and the North Koreans have announced they will no longer be bound by the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or an agreement to forgo testing of ballistic missiles. This is a serious threat to regional and world peace. North Korea has offered inspectors from the United States access to its nuclear sites to confirm that they are not developing weapons, but only complete international monitoring can determine whether they have decided to develop a nuclear arsenal or are using threats as a ploy to promote bilateral agreements with the United States.
It is clear that the world community cannot permit the North Koreans to develop a nuclear arsenal. They must be convinced that they will be more secure without nuclear weapons, and that normal diplomatic and economic relations with the United States are possible.
The announced nuclear policies of North Korea and the American rejection of direct talks are both contrary to regional and global interests. Unfortunately, both sides must save face, even as the situation deteriorates dangerously.
To resolve this impasse, some forum — perhaps convened by Russia or China — must be found within which these troubling differences can be resolved. The principles of the Agreed Framework of 1994 can be reconfirmed, combined with North Korea’s full and verifiable compliance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and a firm U.S. declaration of nonaggression against North Korea, so long as all agreements are honored.
Then perhaps the more far-reaching proposals discussed with Kim Il Sung can be implemented and a permanent peace can come to the reconciled Koreas.
*Former president Carter is chairman of the Carter Center in Atlanta.