Aggressive rhetoric from the current US administration has raised the question of whether the US will consider using force as an option to address the North Korean nuclear threat. Unlike previous US presidents, some observers are predicting that the Trump administration is willing to carry out such actions without prior consultation and coordination with South Korea.
In order to assess this possibility, it is helpful to revisit the 1994 nuclear crisis, when the U.S. seriously considered a unilateral strike on the North.
The 94 crisis in retrospect
The first nuclear crisis occurred in June 1994 and plunged the peninsula into an emergency, with the threat of war looming as a real possibility. The U.S. and North Korea were engaged in difficult negotiations to begin implementation of the “Super Tuesday” agreement, but this fell apart when North Korea crossed a red line by refusing to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection team to take samples of spent fuel from the Yongbyon facility. In his memoir “My Life,” President Bill Clinton recalled that he was determined to block the North’s nuclear development, even if it meant risking wider conflict.
On May 18, 1994, American four-star generals convened at a secret meeting room in the Pentagon and debated the possibility of a second Korean War. In a June 14 Cabinet Secretaries meeting, military options against Yongbyon were discussed. Three options were considered. First, attacking only the Yongbyon facility’s reprocessing plant. Second, taking out the reprocessing plant and the facility’s other nuclear installations, including the 5 MW nuclear plant. The third method involved taking out all of Yongbyon and also striking the North’s major military installations. Although the kinetic options did not rise to the level of policy alternatives for Clinton at that time, the fact that the options were mentioned at the meetings and developed over time is testament to the fact that they were under serious consideration.
Former President Carter’s visit to North Korea offered Pyongyang a chance to back down. The former president entered North Korea via the Panmunjom facility in the demilitarized zone between the countries on June 15th. He did so as a private citizen, rather than as a representative of the US government. Despite this, the shadow of war had spread over the peninsula, prompting urgent action in Seoul.
The U.S. Ambassador’s introduction
On June 16, 1994, U.S. Ambassador James T. Laney met with Jeong Jong-uck, South Korea’s Senior Secretary to the President for Foreign Affairs and National Security. Laney explained that they were poised to evacuate all American citizens from South Korea. With diplomatic efforts exhausted, the US would turn to economic sanctions. Standard Operating Procedure would require the evacuation of all American citizens who were not serving in a military capacity. Laney also explained his intention to announce such measures to the public.
As soon as Secretary Jeong received the news, he immediately relayed it to South Korean President Kim Young Sam. President Kim was upset because such a withdrawal would normally take place in the immediate run-up to a war. Kim called Laney to the Blue House and announced, “America cannot use our land to rage a war,” and insisted, “I will not mobilize a single South Korean soldier out of the total 60,000.”
Laney relayed the content of this conversation to Washington after meeting with President Kim. Since the meeting took place on the afternoon of the 16th, the message arrived in Washington DC in the early morning hours, meaning that the National Security Council or State Department would not be able to deliver the report to President Clinton until later that morning.
High level military and diplomatic officials gathered at the White House to discuss ways to handle the crisis on the Korean peninsula. Secretary of Defense William Perry and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili presented President Clinton with three options for launching a preemptive strike at the meeting. The first option entailed dispatching 2,000 non-combat troops to assess the prospect of sending in additional reinforcements. The second option involved sending in an aircraft carrier, 10,000 additional ground forces, and additional combat planes. The last option would have reinforced the American presence in the South with an additional 50,000 ground forces, 400 aircraft, launch pads, Patriot missiles, and other heavy weapons systems. It was also reported that it would likely be necessary to call up reservists as well.
The ultimate decision was up to Clinton, but Perry and Shalikashvili both recommended option 3, meaning that Clinton likely would have chosen that route if not for special circumstances.
In the end, special circumstances did, in fact, arise. The White House received a phone call from Pyongyang. It was former President Carter with a proposal for Clinton. Carter reported that Kim Il Sung had agreed to a nuclear freeze and would permit the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigators to remain in North Korea in return for suspension of sanctions and renewed dialogue.
Carter said that he was awaiting the administration’s response and would soon appear on CNN. The officials convening in the White House conference room remarked that, aside from the promise to allow IAEA investigators in the country, Carter’s deal was not exactly groundbreaking. Carter then appeared in a CNN interview, praising his own accomplishments, and pushing the Clinton administration to resume dialogue with the North. After Carter’s visit, the White House agreed to reopen talks on the grounds that the North refrain from refueling its 5-megawatt nuclear reactor and reprocessing spent fuel. This signalled that the crisis was beginning to subside.
Would the U.S. have launched a military initiative against the North without coordinating with the South?
If diplomacy did not end up being the preferred route in the 1994 crisis, would America really have gone to war without the agreement of South Korea? If we consider the following three points, it becomes clear that this would have been a difficult prospect.
First, a strike against the Yongbyon Facility could have resulted in a full scale conflict on the peninsula. This would require contingency planning for the 37,000 American military personnel stationed in Korea. It would require reinforcing American troops and weapons to be able to counter a full North Korean counter-offensive. However, in February of 1994, America’s attempts to install Patriot missiles in Korea were rebuffed by Seoul. This highlights the reality that arms reinforcement and upgrades require coordination with South Korea. Further, because President Kim Young Sam pledged that he would not send a single South Korean soldier to participate in such a conflict, it was extremely unlikely that America would have waged war against the North alone.
Second, if the US was truly determined to launch a strike against the North, it would have needed to evacuate American nationals in Korea. This would have been difficult without the cooperation of South Korea. In the early 1990s, there were approximately 100,000 Americans living in Korea. Most of them lived in Seoul, an area of particular vulnerability with regards to North Korea. America’s plan was to use trains provided by the Korean government to move their citizens south to cities like Busan, where they would be taken by boat or plane to Japan. The smooth functioning of this operation would have required close cooperation with South Korea.
Third, unilateral military action against the North would have probably ruptured the US-ROK military alliance. In such a state, waging war would be quite difficult for the US. Acting unilaterally would have had negative repercussions for America’s other alliances. Thereafter, allied countries would likely suspect that America may act similarly in other scenarios, damaging the global alliance network.
Diplomatic muscle, not military strikes, needed to overcome nuclear crisis
Similar to the situation in 1994, it remains unlikely that the US would go to war with the North without consulting and cooperating with the South. Going to war would require the US to reinforce its current troops and arms on the peninsula. Just as the US and South Korea coordinated over the installation of the THAAD missile defense battery, similar coordination would take place concerning arms reinforcements. If the South Korean President does not agree to mobilize the nation’s troops, it’s unlikely that America will choose to go it alone.
The number of American citizens living in South Korea has now surpassed the 300,000 mark. It is almost inconceivable that America would go to war without first withdrawing its civilians, as no American administration could survive the domestic fallout of fatalities resulting from such a failure.
In some sense, there’s no need to engage in exaggerated debate about the likelihood of military strikes against the North. As North Korea accelerates towards its stated goal of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the US, these tensions are set to continue for a significant period of time. American military pressure should be used judiciously to prompt North Korea to resume denuclearization negotiations. At the same time, diplomatic overtures should be used to persuade China to assist in the process.
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