I often refer to North Korea as “the longest running failure in the history of US intelligence.” I can say that because as a CIA officer, I fruitlessly pursued the North Koreans for many years. As a diplomat, I can also say that North Korea has been almost a total failure of our diplomacy.
As U. S. ambassador to South Korea from 1989 to 1993, I worked hard to lay the basis for improved diplomatic relations between North and South Korea, and between North Korea and the United States. All this was undone due to a lack of coordination between our Departments of State and Defense. Today, the US posture of “strategic patience” toward Pyongyang still confounds those of us who believe in dialogue.
I have gone over in my mind the varying interactions I have had with “the two Koreas,” beginning in 1952 during the Korean War, when I trained young South Koreans for crude and ill-conceived CIA operations against the North, from which few survived.
In January, 1968, serving in Tokyo, I was the CIA representative on a task force formed to determine how best to retaliate against Pyongyang after its seizure of the USS Pueblo, an intelligence-gathering ship operating off the east coast of North Korea. We decided that an attack on North Korea would probably result in the crew being killed, and the re-starting of military hostilities, so did nothing. The crew was returned 11 months later. The Pueblo sits on the shore of the Taedong River in Pyongyang, a popular tourist attraction.
Station Chief Seoul
I was sent to Seoul as CIA chief of station in 1973, with a top objective of gathering human intelligence on North Korea, of which we had practically none. North Korea was clearly an active enemy at that point, digging invasion tunnels under the DMZ, and in 1974, sending an agent from Japan who shot at President Park Chung-hee, missed, and killed his wife. North Korea proved to be an extremely difficult target, and I returned to Washington in 1975 with virtually nothing to show for my intelligence gathering efforts against Pyongyang.
On the plus side, the CIA had played a central role in keeping opposition politician Kim Dae-jung alive after he was abducted by the Korean Central Intelligence Agency from a hotel in Tokyo in October 1973.
In September 1989 I returned to Seoul as ambassador. The United States had become deeply concerned by North Korea’s clear intention to develop a nuclear weapons capacity. The US still had tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea, left over from the Korean War. This was widely known, though never admitted by Washington. I knew that as soon as we began to pressure the North on the nuclear issue, they would raise the fact that we had nuclear weapons in the South. A year after my arrival, with the full support of President Roh Tae Woo and the commander of USFK, a recommendation was sent to Washington that our nuclear weapons be withdrawn from South Korea.
Denuclearizing the Peninsula
This was accomplished a year later, and on December 18, 1991 President Roh announced that there were no nuclear weapons in South Korea. On December 31st, North and South Korea signed the “Joint Declaration,” calling for a denuclearized peninsula, and promising to allow inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Earlier in 1991, the commander of US forces in Korea and I had got the Pentagon and the Korean Ministry of Defense to cancel the annual “Team Spirit” training exercise for 1992. This was a yearly re-enactment of America’s rushing to South Korea’s aid in response to the surprise attack from North Korea in 1950. Pyongyang hated the exercise, and always put itself on an extremely high military alert level in response.
Broken reconciliation under Bush 41
These two decisions paved the way for eight prime ministerial meetings between the North and South in 1992, and the prospects for a general reconciliation were higher than ever before.
Unfortunately, under the leadership of Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, the “Team Spirit” exercise was reinstated in March 1993. Neither the State Department nor I were consulted, and I was taken totally by surprise by a decision that undid all the progress made between Seoul and Pyongyang in 1992. In March 1993, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and resumed its march toward nuclear weapons.
A year later, I was working in New York City as chairman of The Korea Society. On May 19, 1994, my first Op-Ed appeared in The New York Times. It was entitled “Offer Korea a Carrot.” In it I said: “North Korea does not want to be taken over by South Korea as East Germany was taken over by West Germany, and South Korea does not want North Korea to collapse economically, imposing a staggering burden that the South cannot assume.”
The fact that over 21 years later the same words clearly apply is a sad indicator of the lack of progress in dealing with a stubborn remnant of the Cold War, though efforts toward reconciliation continued.