Washington, DC, June 5, 2014 – During the North Korean nuclear crisis of the 1990s, the United States and South Korea shared blunt concerns about the possible outbreak of military hostilities with Pyongyang, according to newly published internal documentation from the National Security Archive. In April 1994, South Korean Defense Minister Rhee Byong Tae told U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry, "If there is another war, the country will be totally wiped out," and all the progress built since the 1950s would be "turned into ashes." Perry saw no "imminent danger of war on the peninsula," but admitted that if sanctions were imposed on Pyongyang its unpredictability required the U.S. and its allies to be prepared militarily.
As Perry would later tell North Korean officials, his greatest apprehension was that war would erupt because of miscalculation by one or both sides. Despite these vivid concerns harbored by the U.S. and its ally, the documents confirm that the Clinton administration worked to turn the crisis into an opportunity for broader engagement with Pyongyang. But a combination of deep mutual distrust and North Korean intransigence and deception eventually undermined any positive developments, leaving the crisis for future administrations to try to resolve.
These and many other revelations, insights and details about the U.S. relationship with North and South Korea are contained in a major new compilation of U.S. government records just published by the National Security Archive. Today's posting highlights selections of these previously unavailable materials from The United States and the Two Koreas, Part II: 1969-2010, a part of the "Digital National Security Archive" distributed by the academic publisher ProQuest.
The new collection contains over 1,600 recently-released documents, shedding fresh light on the events of 1994 — culminating in the October Framework Agreement to end North Korea's nuclear weapons program — and the ensuing, albeit ultimately abortive, period of more positive engagement with the communist regime. That promising interlude began with the Framework Agreement and continued until the end of the Clinton years, only to fall back into a more familiar phase of tensions and conflict under George W. Bush that continues today. The publication, the second in a series on the Koreas, covers U.S. relations with the two adversaries from Richard Nixon through the early Barack Obama presidency.
Among the new documents that open a window on the events of two decades ago are:
The Clinton administration's ambitious agenda would not survive his presidency, and relations with Pyongyang spiraled back to renewed tensions and acrimonious rhetoric under George W. Bush. The new president's inclusion of North Korea within an "Axis of Evil" in his 2002 State of the Union address was followed that October by the revelation that Pyongyang had been secretly violating its Framework Agreement commitment to cease work on nuclear weapons. While a large part of the historical record remains classified (and the subject of National Security Archive FOIA requests), the new publication sheds considerable light on these developments, as well as on continuing efforts to re-engage North Korea in productive nuclear negotiations under Bush II and Obama.
The collection also provides extensive new documentation on U.S. relations with the two Koreas and efforts to manage the political and security challenges on the peninsula under Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and George H. W. Bush, building on the documents obtained for the Archive's first Korea set. Taken together, the two collections provide an indispensible resource for scholars and journalists interested in understanding the often tortuous history of U.S. efforts to resolve the security dilemmas that are the legacy of an uneasy ceasefire on the Korean peninsula that has lasted over six decades.
Document 1: Cable, Seoul 0331 to Secretary of State, Subject: SECDEF Meeting with ROK Minister of Defense Rhee, April 21, 1994 (Secret)
This cable reports on the first personal meeting between U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry and his South Korean counterpart, Defense Minister Rhee Byong Tae. Despite a developing crisis in Bosnia, Perry felt compelled to come to Seoul to establish a personal relationship with Rhee so that they could work together with confidence on the mounting North Korean nuclear crisis. Despite extensive redactions, this document is important for Perry's clear statements of the U.S. position, the risks involved, and the need for close U.S.-ROK agreement on the threat and the steps to be taken. Perry is at pains to stress that while the U.S. does not believe there was "any imminent danger of war on the peninsula," Washington and Seoul still need to maintain the military deterrent to North Korea as the necessary backstop to negotiations, and then impose sanctions if need be. As Perry summed up the issue, "(1) We will not initiate war' (2) We will not provide a war; but (3) We should not invite a war by being weak." To this end, according to Perry, the U.S. and South Korea must strengthen the deterrent against North Korea, regardless of assertions by Pyongyang that these steps would be provocative. Rhee, while agreeing with Perry, also stresses that war is unthinkable for South Korea, stating bluntly that "If there is another war, the country will be totally wiped out. … during the Korean War, there were two million casualties, with ten million family separations. A war now would be 100 times worse, and South Korean nation-building would be turned into ashes."
Document 2: "DPRK/ROK: Shall We Dance?" in The Secretary's Morning Intelligence Summary, June 27, 1994 (Top Secret-Codeword)
In this, one of the numerous Korea-related entries from the Secretary of State's Morning Intelligence Summaries in the DNSA set, State's INR reports on progress towards a summit meeting between South and North Korea. Among the evidence suggesting reasons for optimism is the fact that the leaders of each country's delegation to talks to arrange a summit, both of whom hold portfolios overseeing relations between the two nations, are viewed as flexible and pragmatic
Document 3: Cable State 183691 forwarding Seoul 05848, Subject: TFKN01: Death of Kim Il Sung Absorbs Both Koreas, July 11, 1994 (Secret)
This document, taken from the Wikileaks database, reports on how North and South Korea are responding to the death of Kim Il Sung. Overall, officials in South Korea expect basic policy continuity under Kim's son, Kim Jong Il, including ongoing plans for a North-South summit, once the succession process plays out in Pyongyang. The cable also points out signs of differences of opinion within South Korea on handling the new North Korean leadership. Some "authoritative" voices had expressed concern that by extending condolences to North Korea, the U.S. may have diminished Pyongyang's respect for Washington in future talks, while others, such as opposition leader Kim Dae Jung, fear the Seoul government may seize the opportunity to test the DPRK in the summit preparations. Public opinion in South Korea also poses a problem: "South Koreans do not hold a soft spot for the younger Kim [Jong Il], and a trip by Kim Young Sam to Pyongyang to meet with someone his junior in both age and leadership tenure would Invite widespread public criticism." In a final bit of gallows humor, the cable reports that "former President Jimmy Carter is now referred to in ROKG circles as 'the angel of death'."
Document 4: "DPRK: Not Much Movement," in The Secretary's Morning Intelligence Summary, July 23, 1994 (Top Secret Codeword)
In this Morning Summary, INR assesses the interplay of the succession process in North Korea with the parallel tracks of talks with Pyongyang - one relating to the planned North-South summit, the other to the bilateral talks with the U.S. in Geneva on the nuclear issue. While North Korea has criticized Seoul for its treatment of Kim Il Sung's death, the INR analysts say that Pyongyang realizes that any deterioration in North-South relations could hamper the talks in Geneva, which places a brake on the North's reactions.
Document 5: "ROK: Anxiety Attack", in The Secretary's Morning Intelligence Summary, August 18, 1994 (Top Secret Codeword)
This INR assessment focuses on the delicate balancing act Washington faced in trying to push forward with the talks in Geneva on North Korea's nuclear program and avoiding alarming South Korea that the U.S. is moving too quickly in these talks. South Korean leader Kim Young Sam's concern that there be "no daylight between Washington and Seoul" on North Korea is viewed in the context of press criticism of the U.S. for giving away too much in the Geneva talks and failing to take ROK interests into account, and of Kim for promising to pay for light-water reactors to Pyongyang without gaining firm concessions from the North. Kim's response to these criticisms is to try to increase his influence over the U.S.-DPRK talks, seeking to slow down moves towards normalization of U.S.-North Korean relations and linking the LWR issue to resumption of North-South talks, both steps that could hinder the bilateral U.S.-North Korean talks.
Document 6: Cable US Mission Geneva 008198 to Secretary of State, Subject: Amb. Gallucci's opening statement at September 23 U.S.-DPRK Talks, September 24, 1994 (Secret)
This cable provides Ambassador Robert L. Gallucci's opening statement at session two of the third round of U.S.-DPRK talks in Geneva. While this round would eventually result in the Agreed Framework signed on October 21, Gallucci's statement indicates that as the talks opened significant issues continued to divide the two sides. A number of these issues, some new, some the U.S. believed resolved, had been raised by the North Koreans during the technical talks in Berlin held in the interim. The points included financing and roles regarding the Light Water Reactors, and the timing of the proposed construction freeze on North Korea's nuclear facilities. Ambassador Gallucci proceeded to lay out the U.S. position on the necessary steps to be taken regarding the construction freeze, LWR financing, and North Korea's return to the IAEA with safeguards obligations and commitments to permit inspections of North Korean facilities prior to the provision of the LWR technology. Gallucci also stressed U.S. opposition to any steps that would reopen the possibility of North Korea producing plutonium, the need to remove any spent nuclear fuel from the DPRK as soon as possible, and the need for any bilateral improved ROK.-DPRK agreement to accompany progress on the U.S.-DPRK agreement.
Document 7: State Department Memorandum, Winston Lord to Secretary of State, Subject: Your Visit to Seoul, November 8-10, 1994: Scope Paper (Secret)
In this memorandum, Winston Lord lays out for Secretary of State Warren Christopher the goals of his upcoming trip to South Korea, where the key items on the agenda will center on reassuring Seoul. Lord describes a "demanding and exhausting collaboration with the ROK" to reach agreement with North Korea on the Agreed Framework to halt Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program and provide LWRs to North Korea. Lord advises that a "no-illusions" message assuring South Korea that Washington is working on the challenges that lie ahead should bolster Seoul's confidence and help counter political and public ambivalence about the agreement, which will require funding on the order of $3 billion from South Korea to implement. To this end, Christopher should underscore how successful collaboration between the two countries has strengthened the bilateral alliance, and reassure Seoul that the U.S. commitment to its security remains firm. These reassurances are designed to counter South Korean fears that the U.S. "will now be friendly with the North to the South's detriment, and that we will relax our guard against the North Korean military threat." Lord also cautions Christopher to avoid saying anything that might play well in Washington but could lead Seoul to "fall into a zero-sum view" of the relationship. As an example, Lord suggests emphasizing Seoul's leadership role, rather than praising it for agreeing to provide the "lion's share" of the LWR funding.
Document 8: Cable, State 305317 to Amembassy Seoul, etc., Subject: Status Report: Korea, November 10, 1994 (Secret)
This cable demonstrates the sense of optimism and new engagement with North Korea that has surfaced in the wake of the Framework Agreement reached the previous month. As the embassy reports, Secretary of State Christopher's recent visit to Seoul was seen as an "unqualified success," with the secretary hitting all the points laid out for him by Winston Lord in the memorandum above. Adding to the sense of positive movement, the day before Christopher arrived in Seoul, ROK President Kim Young Sam had announced a new initiative aimed to facilitate opportunities pursued by South Korean businessmen in North Korea. While North Korea's reaction was negative, as expected, overall the rhetoric out of Pyongyang had moderated somewhat in the wake of the Framework Agreement. This led some in the embassy, "applying the high art of nuance analysis," to "believe the DPRK may be trying to set the scene for dialogue with the South by shifting away from insisting on Kim's overthrow to merely insisting that he apologize for his transgressions." Meanwhile, U.S. experts were heading to North Korea for talks on the storage of North Korea's spent nuclear fuel canisters, while plans were being made for trilateral consultations with Seoul and Tokyo on establishing the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO). Finally, a North Korean delegation would be visiting Washington in December for discussions preliminary to establishing liaison offices.
Document 9: Cable, Secretary of State for Operations Center, Subject: unc-kpa general officer-level meeting, 21 dec 94 - follow-up, ca. December 21, 1994 (Confidential)
A military incident threatened to upset the progress made in U.S.-DPRK relations when a U.S. helicopter flying near the DMZ crossed into DPRK territory on December 17 and was shot down, resulting in the death of one of the pilots and imprisonment of the other. The remains of the dead pilot were released on December 21, but it required protracted negotiations, involving Representative Bill Richardson (D-N.M.), before the other pilot was returned on December 30. This cable, while redacted, provides a fascinating look at the military talks on December 21 in Panmunjom, especially the manner in which the DPRK military representatives presented their position. At one point they asserted that U.S. military authorities were trying to undermine the progress made as a result of the Framework Agreement. The document also clearly shows the frustrations this engendered in the American officers.
Document 10: Facsimile Message, U.S Spent Fuel Team to Cherie Fitzgerald, Department of Energy re arrival of U.S. Spent Fuel team at Nyongbyon nuclear site, September 5, 1995 (Unclassified)
This message, reporting on the arrival of the U.S. expert team sent to North Korea to oversee the storage and removal of spent nuclear fuel from the nuclear facility in Nyongbon, is one of many in the DNSA set that provide a "boots on the ground" perspective on the challenges facing the U.S. team. While diplomats continued to work on matters of high policy, the U.S. delegates faced more mundane obstacles that included nature, in the form of bad weather, North Korean holidays, and dealing with Chinese visa fees.
Document 11: State Department Memorandum, "U.S. Policy Toward North Korea: Next Steps," ca. January 1996 (Secret)
Though severely redacted, this memorandum illustrates the wide range of issues on which the U.S. was engaged with North Korea one year after reaching the Framework Agreement. As the opening sums up the situation, implementation of the Agreed Framework was well under way with marked momentum, despite some serious remaining issues such as financing the provision of Heavy Fuel Oil to the DPRK. As the U.S. continued to focus on implementing the Agreed Framework, the larger goal was to build on this foundation to "address a wider range of issues with North Korea, including food aid, sanctions removal, a stable system for supplying Heavy Fuel Oil, missile talks, return of POW-MIA remains, opening of Liaison Offices, and creation of North-South dialogue." In pursuing this array of goals, the U.S. faced the challenge of engaging with a North Korea that "internally is in parlous condition, beset by an economy that continues to nose down, by the spectre of increasing mal-nutrition, and by the uncertainties of an incomplete leadership transition." Still, all in all, this document outlines an ambitious agenda, when compared to the state of affairs when the Clinton administration took office in 1993.
Document 12: Memorandum, Thomas Grim to Cherie Fitzgerald (DOE), Subject: DPRK Rack Modification Request (with attached transcript of conversation), February 8, 1996 (Unclassified)
This document provides another detailed account of the obstacles posed by talks with North Korea, in this case regarding changes a North Korean engineer working with the U.S. spent fuel team wants to make in the spent fuel canister and rack system designed by the American contractor NAC International. The cover memorandum cautions that the discussion "was not as confrontational as it may seem," given that the two individuals involved had discussed many difficult subjects before this one. Still, the U.S. feels that the changes requested could undermine safeguards, require major work and restarting the design and review stage of the project already completed. The exchange ends with the U.S. team member admonishing the North Koreans they are trying to change agreements their own superiors have agreed to, which leads the North Koreans to call for an end to the discussion.
Document 13: "An Informal Guide to Working and Living at Nyongbyon, DPRK," originally compiled by C. Kenneth Quinnones, U.S.Spent Fuel Team, September 1996 edition (Unclassified)
This guide, prepared by C. Kenneth Quinones, one of the original leaders of the U.S. spent fuel team in North Korea, provides another good picture of the practical hurdles facing the U.S. team in carrying out their mission. The basic goal of the guide was to "minimize potential misunderstandings between members of the Korean staff at the Nyongbyon nuclear facility and members of the U.S. Spent Fuel Team," in large part by pulling together numerous informal agreements between the two sides that arose out of the work. Covering practically every aspect of traveling, living and working in North Korea (at one point the guide says, in a bit of understatement, that "One does not simply drop into the DPRK"), the guide includes numerous tips on inter-personal relations and how to approach negotiations and meetings with North Koreans. While not a policy document, the authors see a clear policy relevance: "It is important to keep in mind that our continued professionalism in adapting to the varied living and working conditions in the DPRK will have a positive effect on the successful implementation of the other components of the overall DPRK-U.S. agreement. In a land where one's 'sincerity' and 'attitude' often count for more than western-style logic, we in Nyongbyon are all, in a very real sense, active 'ambassadors' for the U.S."
Document 14: Cable U.S. Mission Vienna to Secretary of State, Subject: GAO Teleconference with IAEA on DPRK Issues, April 16, 1997 (Confidential)
This document provides further details on concerns that North Korea was not fully abiding by its agreement to allow IAEA inspection of their nuclear facilities under the Framework Agreement. The cable consists of questions posed by the General Accounting Office with IAEA officials (the identity of whom has been deleted) on inspection activities under the agreement in the DPRK. It is clear from the responses made by the IAEA official that "The DPRK has not fully accepted IAEA safeguards." Further problems included North Korea's failure to fully comply with its safeguard agreement with the IAEA and the lack of progress in preserving essential information required to enable the IAEA to verify the validity of North Korea's initial declaration under the safeguards agreement.
Document 15: State Department Memorandum, "Four Party Talks," ca. January 16, 1998 (Secret)
As this document shows, despite the concerns over North Korea's failure to fully comply with its commitments under the Framework Agreement regarding inspection of its nuclear facilities, the Clinton administration continued to pursue talks with Pyongyang on defusing the delicate security situation on the peninsula. This briefing memorandum, apparently prepared for talks with South Korea prior to upcoming Four Party meetings in Beijing and Geneva, discusses U.S. goals for agreeing upon and implementing mutual tension-reducing measures (TRMs) and confidence-building measures (CBMs). Progress on these steps would be paired with a gradual reduction in U.S. sanctions against North Korea.
Document 16: State Department Briefing Paper - "Road Map/Sanctions," ca. March 10, 1998 (Secret)
This briefing paper, likely prepared for either bilateral US-NK talks in Berlin on March 13 and/or Four-Power talks in Berlin on March 16-20, further elaborates the U.S. position on easing sanctions against North Korea in response to continued progress in implementing the Framework Agreement and addressing other security issues. In outlining the steps the U.S is prepared to take, the unstated subtext of the U.S. strategy is that the U.S. clearly views the carrot of reduced sanctions and the positive impact this could have on the North Korean economy, as a key means to securing greater cooperation from Pyongyang.
Document 17: Cable, Seoul 002710 to Secretary of State, Subject: Prospects for Change in North Korea and in Its External Relations: USG/ROKG Officials' Thoughts, May 12, 1998 (Confidential)
This cable reports on a dinner discussion, hosted by the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, between senior State Department and South Korean officials on the possible future political development of North Korea and how this could affect its relations with the outside world. Among the interesting points made was agreement that the late Kim Il Sung had wanted to institute reforms to "save his country," but following his death there was no one in a position to push for the necessary changes, so the "system went on now, locked to the compass course set" while he lived. In general, there was little optimism about significant change in North Korea, especially given the wide range of unknowns regarding the inner political and military dynamics of the secretive regime.
Document 18: "Script of Talking Points for William J. Perry," May 21, 1999 (Secret)
As concerns, including ongoing problems with North Korea's adherence to the Agreed Framework, continued to mount, in October 1998 President Clinton asked former Secretary of Defense William Perry to carry out a fundamental review of U.S. policy toward North Korea. This document provides the detailed talking points for Perry's remarks to North Korean officials, with revisions possibly in his own hand, on May 26 during his visit to the country to exchange views about his policy recommendations. Though the last half of his remarks have been redacted, the document still provides a good summary of U.S. concerns and goals regarding North Korea as it sought to reset relations with the country. As Perry presented the U.S. view, the Framework Agreement helped to avert a crisis and also opened a door into "an era of decisively improved relations between the US and the DPRK," though the two sides had not yet managed to pass through this door. To this end, Perry was recommending a fundamental change in U.S. policy toward North Korea, rooted in U.S. security interests and goals in Asia that had developed since World War II. This policy would seek to engage with North Korea on the basis of reciprocal respect for each nation's security interests, with the goal of reducing threats that might endanger peace and stability on the peninsula and in Asia. This would require agreed changes to a status quo that is unstable, including removing the "clear and present danger" presented by North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
Document 19: State Department Briefing Paper - "Checklist of Key Issues - Your Meeting with North Korean Special Envoy Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok," ca. October 5, 2000 (Secret)
This document is part of the briefing materials prepared for Secretary of State Albright in connection with the visit of North Korean Special Envoy Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok to Washington. This meeting was an important step in improving relations between the U.S. and North Korea that sought to build on the historical summit meeting between South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in June 2000. An equally historic step would occur soon after, when Secretary Albright visited Pyongyang for talks with Kim Jong Il and other North Korean leaders. As the memorandum stresses, the U.S. was seeking to end a half-century of hostility. While President Clinton was personally committed to this goal, the U.S. was also prepared to highlight the fact that continued lack of progress on key issues, specifically North Korea's missile program, would remain an obstacle to normalization of relations between the two countries.
 For Ambassador Gallucci's perspective on this meeting, see his account of the North Korean nuclear crisis, co-authored with Joel S.Wit and Daniel B. Poneman, Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis (Brookings Institution Press, 2004), pp. 298-299.
 For additional documentations on Secretary Albright's visit to Pyongyang, see the Archives online briefing book North Korea and the United States: Declassified Documents from the Bush I and Clinton Administrations, available at https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB164/index.htm
The United States and the Two Koreas, Part II: 1969-2010
Fears, Suspicions and Frustrations Arising from 1990s North Korean Nuclear Crisis Are Spotlighted in New Documents Publication
While Seoul Feared Another War Would Be "100 Times Worse" than the Korean War of the 1950s, Clinton Administration Pursued Hopes for Wider Engagement
Declassified History Offers New Insights into Worst Peninsula Crisis since the Korean War
National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 474
Posted June 5, 2014
Edited by Robert A. Wampler, PhD
For more information contact: