WASHINGTON – South Korean President Kim Young-sam was laid to rest in Seoul on Nov. 26. Kim long battled against military rule. In 1992 he was elected president. His reputation suffered when South Korea was engulfed by the Asian economic crisis. But Kim may have prevented a second Korean war.
Early during Kim’s tenure, the first nuclear crisis exploded. North Korea had embarked on a nuclear program, centered at Yongbyon.
U.S. President Bill Clinton, Secretary of Defense William Perry, and Assistant Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, the current Pentagon chief, decided to strike. Kim received a dawn phone call from Clinton. In his memoir Kim recounted that he told his counterpart that airstrikes “will immediately prompt North Korea to open fire against major South Korean cities from the border.”
War was a truly mad idea. Carter and Perry later explained that they had “readied plans for striking at North Korea’s nuclear facilities and for mobilizing hundreds of thousands of American troops for the war that probably would have followed.”
Nevertheless, they expected to limit deaths to “thousands of U.S. troops and tens of thousands of South Korean troops” due to the allies’ overwhelming military superiority.
However, the two underplayed likely civilian casualties. With mass artillery dug in along the Demilitarized Zone, abundant Scud missiles available for attack, and mass armor poised only a few kilometers north of Seoul, the casualties and destruction could be enormous. Nuclear radiation also would threaten.
Perhaps most extraordinary was the Clinton administration planning for war without involving Seoul. Kim argued with Clinton, causing the latter to relent, but only temporarily. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter then visited the North, transmitting leader Kim Il Sung’s offer to negotiate. The Clinton administration was “crestfallen,” said one official. It wanted war.
Ashton Carter continued to propose war against North Korea. In 2002, Carter and Perry coauthored an article for The Washington Post again calling for war.
“Today, just as in 1994, a conventional war would be incredibly dangerous, but not as dangerous as allowing North Korea to proceed with this new [uranium] program,” they wrote. Thus, “North Korea now needs to proceed with the understanding that the United States would not tolerate a North Korean program to build nuclear weapons.”
In 2006, the two were at it again. This time they were worried about the North’s planned missile test. They wrote: “if North Korea persists in its launch preparations, the United States should immediately make clear its intention to strike and destroy the North Korean Taepodong missile before it can be launched.”
He admitted that Seoul would not support such an attack. But if North Korea nevertheless retaliated, he said, no worries: the U.S. could bolster its forces.
Obviously, it is undesirable for Pyongyang to possess nuclear weapons or missiles. However, while the North’s Kim dynasty gives no evidence of being suicidal. Which means it, too, desires to preserve the peace. That should be the number one objective on the peninsula given the costs of a Korean War rerun.
Which Kim well understood.
One problem with well-reasoned military proposals counting on the North’s rational restraint is that Pyongyang would be extremely foolish to rely on any assurances. After all, the U.S. has routinely imposed regime change. North Korea’s Kims may be paranoid, but in this case the paranoids have enemies.
Those who know best doubt Pyongyang’s forbearance. A North Korean defector said the military was determined to take the initiative in any war. Gen. Gary Luck, former U.S. commander in Korea, opined: “If we pull an Osirak, they will be coming south.”
The second problem is that North Korea may well choose a limited military option commensurate with the U.S. attack, while threatening escalation. An hour long bombardment of Seoul, for instance, accompanied by the demand to expel U.S. forces. What then? It isn’t clear whether the South Korean public would be angrier with North Korea or the U.S.
Kim was political hero, but his most important legacy probably was preserving peace. Thousands, at least, and perhaps many more South Koreans and Americans have him to thank for their lives. Kim Young-sam, rest in peace.
Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, is the author of a number of books on economics and politics, including “Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World” and “The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.” He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.
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