So, Pyongyang used its nuclear facilities as a bargaining chip. “Basically, we had to bribe them with food and oil in order to get them to negotiate over their nuclear weapons program,” says Noland. Under the Agreed Framework, the United States, Japan and South Korea funneled rice and other foodstuffs to North Korea, which relies on outside humanitarian aid to provide as much as one-quarter of the food it consumes.
As it happened, the near outbreak of hostilities between the United States and North Korea in 1994 coincided with a movement in South Korea to promote a more conciliatory relationship between the two Koreas. “For the young, the war and poverty of their parents’ generation are very abstract concepts,” says Yoon Tae-hee, president of Seoul University of Foreign Studies. “Many kids don’t feel any gratitude to the United States and don’t view the American troops here as protectors.” They rallied behind a new president, Kim Dae Jung, who after winning election in December 1997, launched a “Sunshine Policy” to engage the North peacefully. In 2000, President Kim traveled to Pyongyang and met with Kim Jong Il. Agreements followed, with the South pledging economic assistance and the North permitting some citizens to meet with relatives in South Korea for the first time since the Korean War. The unstated hope in the South was that peaceful co-existence and renewed economic growth in the North would eventually lead to unification. In the meantime, “the great majority of South Koreans would prefer to have the North stagger along, allowing more family visits, maybe improvements in human rights,” says Stephen Bosworth, who was U.S. ambassador in Seoul during the early stages of the Sunshine Policy.
A sign of the relaxing of the South’s wariness of the North was the 1999 movie Shiri, which chronicles the experiences of an elite team of North Korean commandos who infiltrate Seoul, trying to provoke another war in the misguided hope that it will precipitate unification and end famine in the North. The film broke all box-office records. “I wrote the script trying to imagine myself living in a neutral country, not emotionally involved with either side,” the film’s director, Kang Je-gyu, had told me in an interview a few days before.
But the new policy hasn’t made the Pyongyang regime any less erratic. It suspended, then reinstated, then suspended again such symbolic gestures as family reunions, and connected North-South rail systems. Far more frightening, the North has precipitated a full-blown security crisis, again involving a nuclear threat.
In January 2002, President Bush, in a speech to Congress, categorized North Korea, along with Iraq and Iran, as part of an “axis of evil.” The showdown intensified last October, when U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly visited Pyongyang to present evidence, gathered mainly by spy satellites, that North Korea was secretly engaged in a nuclear arms program and also in testing long-range missiles, in clear violation of the 1994 Framework. The North Koreans shocked the Americans by admitting the existence of a weapons program on which they had been working even before Bush came to office.