Though analysts say the chances of a war remain tiny (as North Korea expert Robert E. Kelly told The Post: “North Korea now has a long history of restraint, actually. … So all of this hysteria, this ‘World War III is around the corner’ kind of stuff, is highly unlikely”), it's worth looking back at the last time that the United States and North Korea were on “the brink of war.”
That's how President Bill Clinton's administration described a series of provocations and escalations between the two countries in 1994.
The precipitating incident: North Korea was preparing to remove some nuclear fuel rods from a research reactor in Yongbyon. Those rods contained five or six bombs worth of weapons-grade plutonium. In short, the country was getting ready to seriously pursue the making of nuclear weapons. As Ashton B. Carter, then assistant secretary for defense, put it to Frontline: “We felt that [this] would bring a potentially hostile nation to the United States across the nuclear finish line and that ... wasn't acceptable to us.”
Things were so serious that on June 15, 1994, Clinton called Defense Secretary William Perry and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman John Shalikashvili into his office. They offered the president three options. Clinton could push for tougher United Nations sanctions (risky, because the head of the North Korea delegation said that sanctions would be seen as an act of war). He could move 10,000 more troops, long-range bombers and carrier battle groups to Korea in case a strike would be necessary.
Or, he could authorize a preemptive strike. The plan, known as “Op plan 5027,” would have sent cruise missiles and F-117 stealth fighters to strike the small nuclear reactor in Yongbyon. The hope was that the action would make it impossible for North Korea to turn raw material into bombs.
The Clinton administration felt confident that it could successfully fulfill that mission. But it also knew there would almost certainly be collateral damage. North Korea would have likely deployed its weapons against South Korea. “I believe it would have resulted almost certainly in war,” Robert Gallucci, the State Department's point man on Korea in 1994, told CNN in 1999. At the time, analysts estimated that 1 million people would die.
As Clinton was mulling, someone came into the Oval Office and told those gathered that former president Jimmy Carter was on the phone. Carter was in Pyongyang meeting with North Korea's aging leader Kim Il Sung as a private citizen. And he had, without authorization or authority, negotiated something of a peace deal. He told Clinton that North Korea had agreed to freeze its nuclear program. In exchange, it would receive new nuclear reactors that don't produce weapons-grade plutonium. It would also be given millions of dollars worth of oil to help meet energy needs.
Clinton accepted, and that initial conversation laid the groundwork for the 1994 Agreed Framework, in which, Frontline explained, “the North promised to freeze and eventually dismantle its graphite-moderated reactors and related facilities in exchange for alternative energy supplies, and eventually, normalization of political and economic relations with the U.S. It was, in effect, the North's first agreement with the outside world.”
At the time, defenders of the deal argued that it had averted a devastating war. But Congress hated it, and President George W. Bush took office highly skeptical of the deal. But by 2002, the framework was declared a failure. North Korea admitted that it had been developing nuclear weapons, violating the terms of the agreement. In response, the United States stopped supplying the fuel central to the agreement. North Korea then kicked the U.N. inspectors out of the country.
We're still living with the fallout.