Honoring the Man Who Prevented the Second Korean War

Former president Kim Young-sam was laid to rest in Seoul. Kim long battled against military rule. In 1992 he was elected president.

His reputation suffered when the Republic of Korea was engulfed by the Asian economic crisis. But Kim may have prevented the Second Korean War.

Early during Kim’s tenure the first nuclear crisis exploded. The so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea had embarked on a nuclear program, centered at Yongbyon.

President Bill Clinton, Secretary of Defense William Perry, and Assistant Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, the current Pentagon chief, decided to strike. War was a truly mad idea.

Carter and Perry later explained that they had “readied plans for striking at North Korea’s nuclear facilities and for mobilizing hundreds of thousands of American troops for the war that probably would have followed.” Nevertheless, they expected to limit deaths to “thousands of U.S. troops and tens of thousands of South Korean troops” due to the allies’ overwhelming military superiority.

However, the two underplayed likely civilian casualties. With mass artillery dug in along the Demilitarized Zone, abundant Scud missiles available for attack, and mass armor poised only a few miles north of Seoul, the casualties and destruction could be enormous. Nuclear radiation also would threaten.

Perhaps most extraordinary, the Clinton administration planned for war without involving Seoul. When informed, Kim argued with Clinton, causing the latter to relent, but only temporarily. Former President Jimmy Carter then visited the North, transmitting Kim Il-sung’s offer to negotiate.

Ashton Carter continued to propose war against the DPRK. In 2002 Carter and Perry coauthored an article for the Washington Post: “Today, just as in 1994, a conventional war would be incredibly dangerous, but not as dangerous as allowing North Korea to proceed with this new [uranium] program,” they wrote. Thus, “North Korea now needs to proceed with the understanding that the United States would not tolerate a North Korean program to build nuclear weapons.”

In 2006 the two were at it again. This time they were worried about the North’s planned missile test. They wrote: “the United States should immediately make clear its intention to strike and destroy the North Korean Taepodong missile before it can be launched.” If the DPRK retaliated, no worries: the U.S. could bolster its forces.

Obviously, it is undesirable for Pyongyang to possess nuclear weapons or missiles. However, while the North’s Kim dynasty gives no evidence of being suicidal. Preserving the peace should be the number one objective on the peninsula given the costs of a Korean War rerun.

Which Kim well understood.

One problem with well-reasoned military proposals counting on the North’s rational restraint is that Pyongyang would be extremely foolish to rely on any assurances. After all, the U.S. has routinely imposed regime change.

Those who know best doubt Pyongyang’s forbearance. A North Korean defector said the military was determined to take the initiative in any war. Gen. Gary Luck, former U.S. commander in Korea, opined: “If we pull an Osirak, they will be coming south.”

The second problem is that the DPRK may well choose a limited military option commensurate with the U.S. attack. An hour long bombardment of Seoul, for instance, accompanied by the demand to expel U.S. forces. What then? It isn’t clear whether the South Korean public would be angrier with North Korea or the U.S.

U.S. war proposals are especially foolish since North Korean threats against the South as well as Japan are not threats against America. Indeed, Washington is of interest to the DPRK mostly because the former has unnecessarily intruded in a struggle between the two Koreas. Given the South’s extraordinary advantages—40 times the GDP, twice the population—there’s no reason for Washington to stay, let alone plot new wars.

As I wrote in Forbes: “Kim was political hero, but his most important legacy probably was preserving peace. Thousands, at least, and perhaps many more South Koreans and Americans have him to thank for their lives. Kim Young-sam, rest in peace.”