Korea: A House Divided

Fifty years after the armistice, the two Koreas' legacy of conflict underlies a deepening crisis.

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When I meet with Kim for dinner the following evening, she tells me that she is secretly involved with a professor of economics and wants to give the relationship time to grow. She has agreed to the matchmaking charade only to appease her parents.


make what you will of young South Koreans’ obsession with cyberwarfare and the search for the perfect partner, but these pursuits occur against a backdrop of unrelenting crisis. Tensions with North Korea escalated in 1993, not long after President Clinton’s visit to the DMZ.


Through aerial and satellite photography, the United States discovered in 1989 that North Korea had built a secret reprocessing facility that could turn spent fuel from a nuclear power station into weapons-grade plutonium. The North Koreans turned away international inspection teams from suspected nuclear waste sites at Yongbyon, and then, in 1993, threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In 1994, Clinton ordered the Pentagon to explore a military option against the North Korean nuclear program. “We were dead earnest in the Defense Department both about a strike on Yongbyon and a wider war plan,” recalls Ashton Carter, former assistant secretary of defense. Then, in July 1994, North Korea’s “Great Leader,” Kim Il Sung, died of a heart attack at age 82. He was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Il, then 53, a movie-loving playboy turned despot who is thought to have played a leading role in the secret Yongbyon nuclear program. By October of that year, the United States and North Korea, concluding a series of tortuous negotiations, reached a settlement. Under this socalled Agreed Framework, North Korea would shut down the Yongbyon facilities and stop construction of a nuclearplant at another location. In return, the United States would help the Pyongyang regime build two nuclear power stations for domestic energy production with light-water reactors (whose fuel cannot easily be converted to weapons production). Moreover, Washington also agreed to donate 500,000 tons of fuel oil annually to North Korea until the first lightwater reactor became operational.


Behind North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship was a growing economic despair. Despite an ideology of self-reliance, or juche, as Kim Il Sung called it, North Korea had remained heavily dependent on outside aid, principally from the Soviet Union and, to a lesser extent, from China. As part of juche, the Pyongyang regime aimed for food self-sufficiency. To compensate for a lack of fertile land, the North Koreans spent heavily on pesticides, fertilizers and electrified irrigation. “They were pursuing an irrational, extremely input-intensive form of agriculture,” says Marcus Noland, an economist and author of Avoiding the Apocalypse:The Future of the Two Koreas.


By the early 1990s, North Korea was in dire economic straits. With the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, aid and exports to North Korea shriveled. The country could no longer finance its agricultural practices. Severe floods in 1995 devastated crops, deepening a famine. Estimates of North Koreans who died of starvation in the last years of the 20th century range as high as two million, more than were killed in the Korean War.



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