Missile Launch Is a Shot Over U.S Bow

Bruce Cumings teaches at the University of Chicago and is the author, most recently, of "Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History."

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea will celebrate a half-century of statehood next week, and this week it launched a Taipodong 1 missile over central Japan, thus announcing its capability for medium-range attacks of up to 2,000 miles.

Most likely the two events are connected, but then how would Americans know that, since Washington has never recognized North Korea's existence, and many pundits have been declaring the imminent collapse of this "rogue regime" since the fall of the Berlin Wall? But this nonstate has a way of bringing itself abruptly to the world's attention.

When Kim Il Sung first came to effective power in early 1946, the U.S. occupation then running the South refused to deal with him. When North Korea was founded two years later, Washington denied it recognition, called it a Soviet puppet and slapped an economic embargo on it. Yet a close reading of the 1948 constitution shows that it was also an anti-Japanese state, founded by revolutionary nationalists who fought Japanese imperialism in the 1930s; they were so naive as to have invited Gen. Douglas MacArthur to attend their founding ceremony (he declined).

By 1950, we were at war with North Korea, or what President Truman called a "police action," to round up international criminals. We have never found a way to end it. Instead, we nearly stumbled into another one four years ago.

The policy of nonrecognition and embargo has done little to help peace and stability. What does the North want from us? What it has wanted since 1948: recognition and normal relations.

North Korea has been in a life-and-death crisis through much of the 1990s, beginning with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the demise of the Soviet Union, which along with China had been its major security guarantor; a three-year nuclear crisis with the U.S., culminating in a near-war in June 1994; the death the next month of Kim Il Sung, the founder and only president of the country; two years of devastating floods in '95 and '96 and a drought last summer, signifying to any Korean peasant the classic calamities associated with dynastic decline; and many years of immobility at the top, as hard-liners and reformers have wrestled to get the attention of the heir-apparent son, Kim Jong Il.

At the 50th anniversary next week, Kim will finally be named president. In spite of many predictions, the regime has not collapsed. For months, North Korea has complained about American failures to live up to the 1994 framework agreement that froze the North's nuclear program. Washington is badly behind in shipping heating oil (called for in the agreement) to the energy-starved North. We still have no diplomatic relations with North Korea, though the 1994 agreement called for upgrading relations.

Most important, the U.S. still maintains a firm economic embargo against this country, as it has since its beginning. U.S. inertia has persisted in spite of far-reaching changes in the South's policy toward the North in the past nine months, as part of President Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy." Kim has gotten little support from Clinton for this softening of relations.

Pyongyang's news agency for the first time openly declared recently that the development and sales of missiles would continue, if that were the only way it could garner hard currency foreign exchange, a clear signal to Washington. The North has sought better relations with the U.S. since 1992, and even some leaders of the military have told Americans privately that they do not oppose a continuation of the U.S. troop presence in the South, because of fears of a Japanese or Chinese substitution should the troops leave.

After much cajoling, the North agreed last year to four-power talks to finally bring a formal end to the Korean War. It has opened a special export zone, and many joint ventures are under way with South Korean and foreign businesses. Above all, it mothballed its billion-dollar investments in graphite nuclear reactors.

In typical fashion, North Korea has mixed these positive steps with belligerent rhetoric, threats to restart its nuclear program and missile sales abroad (although on a much smaller scale, perhaps $300 million in 1990-95, compared with $2.5 billion in the 1980s, according to sources in Seoul). As long as the American embargo persists, elder hard-liners in the North have an impregnable argument to use against younger people--many of them close to Kim Jong Il--who support a modest program of reform and opening. With Kim Jong Il now firmly in the saddle, it is possible that some unity will issue forth at the top.

Washington clearly has the means to influence Pyongyang's choices for the better, if it has the will. Had the missile test not come on the same day that Wall Street and Russia experienced meltdowns, it would have been the occasion for much alarmist breast-beating inside the Beltway and on the talk shows. Surely this proves that the North is still hellbent to develop nuclear weapons, and thus the ultimate folly of the Clinton administration's hard-won 1994 agreement, not to mention the famine relief that Washington has provided to Pyongyang.

The reality is both different and more mundane. The missile exercise flexed muscles on the eve of Kim Jong Il's accession to head of state, just as it advertised wares for sale; it also said once again, "we exist." Successfully firing a two-stage rocket implies that the North may not be far from developing the capability for first-generation intercontinental ballistic missiles. But there is no evidence that the North can manufacture nuclear warheads for such missiles, the use of which would be suicidal. So, is it OK for the U.S. to send cruise missiles into Afghanistan and Sudan but wrong for Pyongyang to test a missile?

Sending the missile on an arc over Japan was provocative, but the North really fired the Taipodong 1 across our bow. The choice for Washington is whether it wants to spend a relatively small amount to build relations with Pyongyang and effectively buy out its missile program, or let threatening regimes in the Middle East buy them instead, and whether finally to recognize a regime that does not seem to be going away soon and lift the embargo, or to continue a 50-year policy that has not achieved its goals.

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