October 25, 2000

October 25, 2000 | Commentary on Asia

North Korea: Too much, too soon

Sensing, perhaps, that his foreign policy "legacy" does not lie with the Israelis and the Palestinians, President Clinton is looking farther east-specifically, to North Korea, the land of missiles and mass starvation. He plans to go there later this year to follow up on the "historic talks" started by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

This would be a mistake. North Korea is the last place a U.S. president should visit at this time.

For one thing, Kim Jong-il, the current leader of North Korea, has done nothing to repudiate the terrorist policies of his father, Kim Il-sung, who started the Korean War in 1950-a conflict that claimed the lives of 33,000 American soldiers.

Under Kim Il-sung, for example, North Korea bombed and murdered part of the South Korean cabinet in Burma and provided safe haven to terrorists from the Japanese Red Army who blew up an airliner in 1987. Over a period of decades, it also kidnapped women from Japan and citizens from South Korea.

Kim Il-sung died in 1994, but these policies didn't stop when Kim Jong-il took over the country. Consider:

  • Even after Japan began providing food, fuel and financial aid to North Korea, the kidnapping continued. In 1997, for example, Tokyo accused agents of the North of kidnapping a middle-school girl missing from Niigata, Japan.
  • In September 1996, North Korea tried to sneak armed agents into South Korea via submarine. When the submarine hit a reef and sank, several North Korean commandoes committed suicide, while others killed several South Korean soldiers and fought to the death to avoid capture.
  • When Hwang Jang-yap, the number-three man in the North Korean government, defected and sought asylum in the South Korean Embassy in Beijing, Kim Jong-il dispatched security personnel from his Beijing embassy to kill or kidnap him. The Chinese government foiled the attempt.
  • North Korean leaders are still providing refuge to the Japanese Red Army bombers and have yet to return them to Tokyo for trial.

More importantly, though, from an American standpoint, North Korea is an enduring military threat. Its long-range missile program is one of the driving forces behind the initiative to build a U.S. missile defense system. Its army continues to deploy some 4,000 tanks, 2,000 armored personnel carriers, 13,000 artillery pieces, and no fewer than 1.16 million troops against democratic South Korea. These formidable forces face about half that number of South Korean soldiers and weapons, backed by 37,000 American troops stationed in the South.

Despite years of famine and economic hardship, in which as many as 1 million North Korean citizens have perished from starvation, the Korean People's Army continues to be well-fed and to run robust military exercises. Although North Korea has told foreigners that it might accept a U.S. presence on the peninsula after some form of unification with the South, its internal publications show that its major goal in improving relations with South Korea is gaining the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

The administration should also think hard about the timing of the president's visit. The Middle East peace process has fallen apart, and 17 American sailors lay dead because of an act of terrorism in Yemen. The November visit administration officials are contemplating-coming only one month after the memorial service for the Americans killed in Yemen-is too soon for President Clinton to depart on a visit to North Korea.

The president and the Secretary of State should remember that exactly 50 years ago, in November 1950, the 1st Marine Division and other United Nations forces were fighting for their lives around the Chosin (Changjin) Reservoir in North Korea, being badly mauled by attacking Chinese and North Korean forces. Today, even though an armistice is in place, the Korean War is not over, and North Korea's forces remain deployed on a war footing against United Nations, South Korean, and United States forces across the 38th parallel.

The memory of the Americans slain in Korea and the memory of the Americans just killed in Yemen demands that President Clinton use memorial services in the United States or South Korea to honor allied and American dead and affirm the U.S. security commitment to the region-not rush to create some new "legacy" with a dictator that could blow up as quickly as the Middle East peace process or the USS Cole.

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Note: Larry M. Wortzel is director of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org).

About the Author

Larry M. Wortzel, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy

Related Issues: Asia

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