North Korea and the Goblet of Fire

North Korea looks perilously close to reliving ugly history, the nightmare that came true in the spring of 1994, a year that people now call the 'North Korean Sea of Fire: Part One.'

Given the astonishingly inflammatory language that came out of Pyongyang in recent days, with threats to use nuclear weapons against the United States, we may be in for North Korean Sea of Fire: Part Two.

Some history: On March 22 of 1994. South and North Korean negotiators were meeting at the border town of Panmunjom to resolve nuclear tensions on the Korean peninsula in the wake of the North's refusal to give International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors full access to facilities in Yongbyon, North Korea. The scenes were being monitored live via a closed circuit TV in South Korea's presidential office. Key presidential foreign and national security aides had gathered at a small room to watch the negotiations.

Unfortunately, the inter-Korean dialogue ended in a quarrel. Complaining of South Korea's continual demands for full inspection of the suspicious facilities, the North Korean chief negotiator, Park Young-su, said fiercely: "If you act like that, collision is inevitable and war is unavoidable. We are ready either for dialogue or war." Then Park, annoyed by continuing requests for more transparency, shouted: "Seoul is not far away from here. If a war breaks out, Seoul will turn into a sea of fire." We were all stunned and a few hours later people on the street were shocked when the videotape of the closed meeting was publicly released to television stations.

A U.S. Air Force general in South Korea recalled later, according to Don Oberdorfer, a veteran Korea watcher and author of the book The Two Koreas, "Inside, we all thought we were going to war." It was reportedly the first time that an explicit reference to war had been made in the inter-Korean contacts. A 1995 defense white paper reflected the strained relations, portraying North Korea as the 'main enemy' of the South.

Eventually, there was no war, of course. There will be none this time either. But it will take considerable diplomacy and steel nerves in Seoul and Washington, DC over the next months to ensure that that doesn't happen. Some pundits and political commentators have publicly called for intensified planning for a possible air strike against the North in case Pyongyang ignores newly-passed United Nations Security Council resolutions, the hard truth is that North Korea, masterful at finding loopholes in sanctions, does not yet consider these resolutions as redlines. Then, will the latest resolution work better?

I can't be one-hundred-percent sure, but I can assure you that the inexperienced leader is by no means suicidal, unless he has a greatly inflated sense of his own prospects for success. History reveals that not all dictators necessarily suffer from mental illness. They just think and act in accordance with what they believe they can get away with. In this sense, it's not easy to say that the young Kim is an exception. The 29-year-old Swiss-educated Jong-Un has much information on the globalized world.

He will be too prudent to take a nuclear gamble against the US. Kim also knows for certain what regime change is. To the untested commander on the eve of a warlike situation, regime change is not a kind word. On the contrary, it would be significantly welcomed by some take-no-prisoners war-mongers in the South and the US on military grounds.

Either way, things are now more uncertain than before the North's increasingly advanced nuclear tests. If US military facilities and personnel stationed in South Korea were to be attacked, the Obama administration almost certainly would be compelled by domestic opinion to respond with its own escalation against North Korea. From the US perspective, this would be compound escalation because it involves a new conflict or crisis other than the original one directly related to North Korea's nuclear program.

The conventional wisdom is the North's increasingly advanced nuclear weapons can no longer be disregarded because of the tests of possibly highly enriched uranium-based weapons, although the regime's threats are nothing new. Providing that North Korea has built nuclear facilities underground which may be difficult to target even with the American penetrating weapons, we are not sure where the fire would start and where it would stop. If so, seemingly hopeless North Korea might decide to go ahead with a sudden strike after weighing various alternatives.

Still, large numbers of pundits on the left are skeptical about the possibility of such a strike, asserting that North Korea also declared in 1994 that "sanctions are a declaration of war," which led the US to accelerate a military build-up in and around the peninsula. It is unrealistic optimism. It is also true that there are people in Seoul who would be unhappy if we found a solution. They are still in favor of regime change. It is optimistic irrationalism. In either case, whatever the pros or cons of a pre-emptive attack and counter-attack, what's certain is that we are approaching a branch point on the peninsula.

It is a point at which we need to look back at history. The summit meeting between former South Korean president Kim Young-sam and Kim Il-sung was dramatically arranged by the former US president Jimmy Carter, who wrote to then US president Bill Clinton to get a permit for his visit to Pyongyang, as the acute phase of the sanctions against North Korea would deteriorate over time. Had not Kim Il-sung died of a heart attack on July 8 1994, just about two weeks before the planned meeting on July 25, the abortive summit meeting would have been the first one ever, possibly dwarfing the 2000 rendezvous between the late leaders Kim Dae-jung of South Korea and Kim Jong-il.

Assuming that North Korea's nuclear weapons program carries a death threat for the future of the two Koreas, the Korean peninsula would likely become a more dangerous place than ever before. Seoul and Washington thus need to get advice from a circle of experts who know better than to talk too much about regime change. That is important because the military situation on the peninsula would not be under control, only if the US and China sit on their hands.

All things considered, it is clear that North Korea itself would be the fire in the event that it spins the worst-case scenario nobody wants. North Korea should learn some lessons from the aftermath of the 1994 crisis, which eventually led to the compromise of the historic summit meeting. We now have a strong clue about the sources of the nascent regime's nuclear bluster. In short, one lesson from Carter's mission is that quiet diplomacy, albeit it will not resolve all our problems, can be effective, more so than many people believe. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, a former South Korean minister of foreign affairs, could be a sincere interlocutor between the two Koreas.

Mutual confidence-building remains the key factors in driving the speed and direction of stability and peace on the peninsula and determining whether denuclearization of the North will be accomplished. No attempt to prevent North Korea's bellicose behavior can succeed if it treats the North Korean leadership as 'irrational.' To this end, we need to stop telling cash-starved North Korea, "Drop nukes and you will get rich." Instead, we need to tell them, "Be rich and you will find new opportunities for you and your people." History, if it moves in the right direction, should repeat itself like that.

(Lee Byong-Chul is a senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul, South Korea.)