November 29, 1999
Volume 52, No. 13
Panel recalls brush with 'second Korean War' in 1994
The U.S. Senate's rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty "is one of the worst mistakes our government has ever made," said former President Jimmy Carter at a panel discussion Nov. 11 on "North Korea and Security on the Korean Peninsula."
The discussion included Emory President Emeritus James Laney, former U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Korea; and Lee Hong-koo, Emory alumnus, ambassador to the United States from the Republic of Korea and former South Korean prime minister.
The three panelists were unanimous in their positive assessment of current U.S. policy toward North Korea and recent proposals by former Secretary of Defense William Perry, in which trade sanctions against North Korea have been lifted in exchange for their agreement to curb ballistic missile and nuclear programs.
"All these are modestly hopeful signs," said Laney. But the panelists warned that future relations with North Korea will involve political risk-taking, hard work and an appreciation for the dangers created by such a battered but unbowed totalitarian regime.
The most riveting moments of the program were Carter's recollections of his June 1994 trip to North Korea, just before the United Nations Security Council was due to vote on sanctions against the country for developing a nuclear weapons program. Carter said he learned the North Koreans "couldn't accept being branded as a criminal" and that it was "outside the realm of possibility that they would accept this peacefully."
When the time for the UN vote grew near, Carter again asked the Clinton administration for permission to go to North Korea (his previous requests had been denied). When permission was slow in coming, Carter wrote a letter saying he was going to North Korea. He said Vice President Al Gore intercepted his letter and told him if he changed the wording to "strongly inclined," Gore would try to get him permission to go.
Permission was eventually granted, and Carter and his wife Rosalynn became the first people to cross the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea since the 1953 armistice. When the Carters arrived in Seoul, along with Marion Creekmore, currently vice provost for international affairs at Emory, they found "a very tender political situation." Carter met in turn with Laney and Lee, both of whom gave sound advice. Carter said South Korean military leaders felt that American and South Korean troops could repel North Korea, but casualties would be great.
After crossing into North Korea, Carter said he found leaders in Pyongyang "defensive but very hospitable." But they also made it plain that "if sanctions were implemented, North Korea would immediately go to war," said Carter. "This was no idle threat."
Unable to sleep that night, Carter called Creekmore at 3 a.m. and asked him to travel to Panmunjom, just across the border in South Korea, to stand by in case Carter needed to get word to Washington that a war was imminent. Creekmore departed for South Korea in the middle of the night on the same day Carter was summoned to meet with North Korean President Kim Il Sung for the first time. Following two days of negotiations, Kim agreed to freeze North Korea's nuclear program, and subsequent talks with the United States led to agreements in October 1994 and June 1995 in which North Korea curtailed its nuclear efforts.
Carter is credited by many as having prevented a second Korean war in 1994, but he warns that the situation is still volatile, given North Korea's military might, the inaccessibility of current President Kim Jong Il and the bleakness of its social, economic and political landscape. Recalling his days as a submarine officer in the U.S. Navy's Pacific fleet following World War II, Carter said, "I still pray for peace on the Korean Peninsula as I began praying 51 years ago."