Chapter 3: Korea, Locked and Loaded
In Episode 3 of A Red Line in the Sand, a companion podcast to the book of the same title, author David Andelman explores the red lines on the Korean Peninsula.
Korea has been front of mind for American presidents from Truman through Trump. Red lines, from the DMZ to potentially apocalyptic nuclear weapons, crisscross the peninsula and only intensified under the recent Trump presidency.
David Andelman: On December 15, 1950, President Harry Truman addressed the American people from the Oval Office. Every radio and television network carried the address and most Americans huddled around their radios. Everyone knew this would be an important message. President Truman was declaring a national emergency.
I’m David Andelman, author of the new book A Red Line in the Sand. I’m your host as we hopscotch around the world in this 12-part podcast. Together, we’re examining the red line boundaries that have changed history, set political agendas, spilled blood and smoothed paths toward peace.
Today, in episode 3, we’re in Korea, as it develops from a cold war backwater into a global nuclear challenge.
To understand the import of President Truman’s radio address, we have to back up a little bit.
Six months earlier, waves of North Korean troops had poured across the 38th parallel dividing the communist north from the democratic south. They met little resistance from South Korean forces and American allies. With this act, the communists stepped over a critical boundary set by international agreement. This was an even more blatant step than Hitler took in Episode 2 when he tore through Czechoslovakia and Poland. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had severely mistepped when he returned from Munich brandishing a meaningless pact with Hitler. Now, Truman had his own red line and he was not about to make that same mistake.
President Harry Truman: The future of civilization depends on what we do—on what we do now, and in the months ahead. We have the strength and we have the courage to overcome the danger that threatens our country. We must act calmly and wisely and resolutely.
DA: Truman laid out his plan to the American people, clearly and unequivocally:
HT: First, we will continue to uphold, and if necessary to defend with arms, the principles of the United Nations—the principles of freedom and justice. Second, we will continue to work with the other free nations to strengthen our combined defenses. Third, we will build up our own Army, Navy, and Air Force, and make more weapons for ourselves and our allies. Fourth, we will expand our economy and keep it on an even keel.
DA: Truman pledged to triple the size of the military from one million to three and a half million. And he went before the UN.
HT: The invasion of the Republic of Korea was a direct challenge to the principles of the United nations.
DA: I said before that we’d need to back up a bit to understand Truman’s 1950 address and the state of emergency in Korea. In fact, we need to go back to the late Stone Age. There are mythic stories of divisions between north and south Korea dating back to 2300 BCE. By the end of the Iron Age, 12 mini-states had morphed more definitively into two states—North and South. But the boundaries were in constant turmoil.
The road to the most recent red line, a millennium and a half later, is an interesting study in diplomacy. And it has held longer than any similar line in modern history. It was established at the end of World War II, on a battleship in Tokyo Bay. On September 2, 1945, the Japanese empire was surrendering to the Allied nations, ending World War II. Present was General Douglas MacArthur and a host of other Allied senior officers - commanding generals from the Soviet Union, Britain, the Republic of China, and others. Japan had seized a number of nations over the course of the war. The document of surrender divided each of these among the various victorious allies. When it came to Korea, there was a division: South of the 38th parallel would go to the United States…north to the Soviet Union--- the first major red line to emerge following the Second World War.
How the 38th parallel was reached was a series of missteps and misunderstandings—like those plaguing many red lines. Towards the end of World War II, the Soviet Union was an ally of the United States, Britain and France against Germany, Italy and Japan. At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Roosevelt proposed a joint US-Soviet-Chinese trusteeship over the entire Korean peninsula to last 20 to 30 years.
Six months later, Soviet forces were already punching through Manchuria and entering Korea from the north. America feared that the Soviets would wind up with firm control of the entire Korean peninsula - rather than the joint control America wanted.
On the evening of August 10, 1945, a meeting was convened at the White House. At midnight, two young army lieutenant colonels—Dean Rusk and “Tic” Bonesteel were sent into a small room and told to come up with a plan of occupation for the peninsula. They settled on a partition, not unlike the partition of Berlin into allied zones. Korea would be divided north and south. Looking at a National Geographic map, Rusk recalled “we saw the thirty-eighth parallel and decided to recommend that.” Why not? It quite neatly divided the peninsula in half and left the capital of Seoul in the American-controlled south. The Soviets would be allowed to occupy the region to the north.
The first American troops arrived in South Korea in September to ensure there was an armed American presence and to hold off communist forces above the agreed-upon line. In the north, the Soviets quickly installed a Provisional People’s Committee under Kim Il-sung. From his first months in office, Kim began to solidify his power. This was completed when the last Soviet troops withdrew from the country in 1948. Eventually Kim flew to Moscow to seek Stalin’s blessing to cross the 38th parallel - a blessing which Stalin granted.
Meanwhile, now-Secretary of State Dean Rusk was quite limp in his determination to defend Korea. Kim Il-sung seemed to have a free hand to wipe out the line and move south. As dawn broke on June 25, 1950, North Korean troops swept across the 38th parallel, and the Korean War was underway. The United Nations jumped in quickly, authorizing force to maintain the agreed upon boundaries.
As Truman promised, and with UN collaboration, this red line would be defended with force of arms, allied forces battling the communists across the length of the peninsula. On September 30, 1950, Chinese premier Chou Enlai warned that China would intervene if American forces crossed that red line into the north. The next day, that’s exactly what happened. UN forces pursued the retreating North Koreans, and American commander Douglas MacArthur demanded the North’s unconditional surrender. In October, a fearful Mao and Chou ordered 300,000 Chinese troops into the war. 12 days later, Stalin ordered the Soviet air force to provide air cover. The war was fully engaged.
A stalemate set in, allowing UN forces to advance slowly to a new line ten miles above the 38th parallel. It was here that armistice talks began. The result was a new boundary between north and south Korea, known as the Military Demarcation Line. Weaving its way more or less along the 38th parallel, it is a demilitarized zone 150 miles long and 2 ½ miles wide. It has been perhaps the single most tested red line in history and perhaps the longest-lasting as well - now more than 65 years old.
Every American president since the armistice has had to deal with this line in his own fashion. More than 200 incursions took place from the end of the Korean War through 2011. Many of these incidents were designed largely to test the resolve of the United States to hold the line. North Korea spent some 30 percent of its total annual budget building its military, putting the nation on a path to poverty in sharp contrast to the prosperity of the South.
A fatal flaw, common to many red lines, is that they often become replacements for careful diplomacy and rules of law. The 38th parallel has been substituting for a negotiated peace treaty whose terms, if not embraced, might at least be understood by both sides. Red lines are not meant to bring an end to hostilities, nor should they be. In most cases they are intended either to prevent or punish a hostile act. In the case of Korea, few efforts were ever made to punish North Korea for repeated violations.
Kim Il-sung bequeathed to his son, Kim Jong-il, a healthy respect for this red line but also a determination to test it at every opportunity. All three Kims have believed that a secure strategic deterrent is the only real guarantee that any line would not be breached.
Still, North Korea was anxious to end its status as a global pariah., they signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and consequently brought into play another red line. This line, barring nuclear weapons by all who agreed, had been established by global consensus and was embraced by the 188 nations that ratified the treaty - including North Korea. But in March 1993, North Korea announced it was withdrawing from the non-proliferation treaty. This raised a global specter of an eventual North Korean developed nuclear weapon, a potentially apocalyptic scenario.
North Korea lacked the ability to deliver any such weapon to a target beyond its own territory. But this was not for lack of trying. Since the early 1980s, North Korea had been producing short-range ballistic missiles based on a Soviet model with a range under 200 miles. Iran had become a major customer. By 1993, the first four of a new generation of missiles, the Rodong, were launched from its test facilities on the east coast of North Korea.
Nuclear weapons were the ultimate red line. And a North Korean official admitted that they did have the ability to build such a weapon. Kim Il-sung had previously denied this. But in 1994, he died and left his son, Kim Jong-il, in charge.
It had been clear for some time that the younger Kim was calling the shots anyway. Kim Jong-il’s decision to withdraw from the non-proliferation treaty was not surprising. There began another sanction-and-retreat dance, of the kind that would mark the next several decades on the Korean Peninsula.
In 1997, the United States had a new negotiator with North Korea. Evans Revere, a career State Department foreign service officer, began a series of quiet trips to Pyongyang where the two countries were deeply into discussions. But it did not take long for these talks to collapse. Back in the U.S., Revere held this job for three more years, talking sporadically with North Korean diplomats based in the UN in New York.
Evans Revere: The nature and the context of the dialogue that we had with them back in the 90s was completely different from where we are today. Much more freewheeling and open and substantive and unconstrained. The dialogues were very visionary in terms of what we were trying to achieve. Naive us, we thought we actually could actually get them on the nuclearization path as did I. But we learned some important things about that level. And one of the things that we learned, I certainly learned over the years, is that they're not going to give up their nukes.
DA: The North Koreans had established their own red line - that they would not give up their nuclear weapons. This was just as immutable as any barrier established by the United States. Remember, by this point, North Korea had not yet even tested a workable nuclear weapon, nor any sort of missile that might be able to deliver it as far as America.
The United States suggested every possible form of seduction. They offered to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. They even offered to launch North Korean satellites into orbit on American rockets. At the same time, diplomat Evans Revere never held back in defining the red lines from the American side. Decades before Donald Trump began warning of the “fire and fury” that would rain down on North Korea should it threaten the United States, Evans Revere was of a similar mind. He told his interlocutors at one of their New York dinners, face-to-face so that there was no misunderstanding, “you certainly are a target of America’s nuclear arsenal.” The North Korean looked back at him and shrugged.
It was about this time that nuclear diplomacy suddenly became even more potentially lethal. North Korea had begun testing missiles that could travel 600 miles and carry chemical or nuclear warheads. Eventually, they would be able to withstand the heat of re-entry as they fell with precision to their target. In other words, enough range and accuracy to hit Osaka or Hiroshima, perhaps even Tokyo. And in fact, in August 1998, North Korea successfully test-fired a missile on a trajectory toward Japan, shocking Japanese officials. By 1995 North Korea had begun selling its technology to Iran. But the real fear was closer to home—that this could be another real challenge to the world’s newest red line. The initial armistice line at the 38th parallel and the DMZ never envisioned weapons that could pass its boundaries in a matter of seconds.
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In October 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright paid a visit to Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang where she was given a seat of honor at the right hand of the dictator. The two met for six hours and Albright left behind a wish list but with no real pledge Kim would honor it: no testing or deployment of missiles of a range of more than 500 kilometers, halt all missile sales and exports, in return for a billion dollars in aid, even help in building light-water nuclear reactors.
What the North Korean negotiators wanted more than anything was a visit by President Clinton to North Korea, and the ultimate photo op—the two presidents grinning and shaking hands. But Clinton did not want to reward the Kim family with the credibility of dealing as equals. So talks ground to a halt—yet again.
In December 2002, matters suddenly got much worse. North Korea announced it would resume building and operating nuclear facilities. Within weeks, they declared they had created a functioning nuclear weapon, though no test blast had yet been detected. By now, George W. Bush had succeeded Bill Clinton in the White House, and North Korea was demonstrating an iron-clad determination to press ahead and challenge both nuclear and missile red lines. President Bush added North Korea to his Axis of Evil. The North Koreans watched in horror when American forces invaded Afghanistan and took down the potent military force of Saddam Hussein. The events in Afghanistan only cemented the North Korean red line—they would never be deterred from developing nuclear weapons.
Barack Obama was sworn into office in January 2009. Four months later, North Korea detonated its first underground nuclear explosion. The yield was barely a quarter the size of Little Boy that exploded over Hiroshima, but it indicated that they had mastered the concept and much of the engineering needed to produce quite a lethal weapon. This nuclear detonation removed all doubt that the North really had the capacity to design, build, and explode a viable nuclear device.
In February 2011, North Korea responded to joint American and South Korean military exercises with a pledge: they would turn Seoul into “a sea of fire”. This was one of the last major declarations by Kim Jong-il, whose health was deteriorating rapidly. By December he was gone, and his son Kim Jong-un, barely 28 years old, assumed office. Some hoped that the young Kim’s Swiss education and deep love for basketball might encourage him to shed his country’s pariah reputation. Instead, Kim Jong-un chose a different, even more malignant version of his father and grandfather’s path.
Weapons tests continued until it was clear that the North’s nuclear weapons were approaching the strength of the Hiroshima bomb and miniaturized so they could be carried by an intercontinental missile.
For the rest of the Obama years, there was little progress. The red lines established by each side remained largely untouched and unchallenged. The new policy was “strategic patience,” or let sleeping dogs lie, leave red lines alone. UN sanctions remained in place. It was quite clear North Korea would continue its push toward a deliverable nuclear weapon.
On January 6, 2016 at 1:30 am, North Korea announced it had conducted its fourth nuclear test - this time, it claimed, of a hydrogen bomb, with a yield of 25 kilotons and miniaturized for mounting on a missile.
This was the state of play when the Obama administration ended. In his meeting with his successor in the Oval Office, two days after the election, Obama warned Donald Trump that North Korea would be his #1 national security threat going forward.
What Kim had and Trump lacked was a broader reflection across three generations of just how a red line should function. Each Kim understood the value of red lines but especially the need to test them with each successive American president. North Korea wanted to see how tenaciously each president would hold to the lines, how likely they might be to modify them or even whether new ones might be established. At the same time, each Kim developed his own, distinct style of confrontation or accommodation.
In this respect, Donald Trump has differed wildly from any of his predecessors. The new toxic rhetoric, and particularly the new sanctions, only contributed to the hair-trigger tension along the line between north and south. North Korea called all of Trump's sanctions a “declaration of war."
By the time Trump arrived in office, North Korea already claimed to be in possession of a survivable, second-strike nuclear capability. There began a succession of challenges testing how close to the line each nation was prepared to come.
Even before he was sworn in as president, Trump began what would eventually escalate into a tweetstorm, defining his ribbon of red lines on the Korean peninsula. Trump proclaimed, “North Korea has just stated it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!” Except perhaps in intensity and unpredictability, Trump's opening moves were not unlike the “maximum pressure” concept of the later Obama years.
President Donald Trump: We are sending an armada, very powerful. We have submarines, very powerful. And we have the best military people on earth. And I will say this. He is doing the wrong thing.
DA: It is quite likely that Trump did not understand Kim's thinking on such matters—risking a cornered and frightened leader striking first. Vice President Mike Pence visited the DMZ and, looking into North Korea, warned that Trump’s resolve was strong. The New York Times headline read “Pence talks tough, but U.S. stops short of drawing a red line.”
Not exactly. In fact, Pence’s statements and Trump’s actions drew an untenable line that both sides would be forced to deal with going forward.
It seemed at that moment to be a rather insane race to see how close and how quickly each could approach the new line drawn around their lethal arsenals. And while the line remained all but unchanged, the rhetoric was now dramatically ratcheting up the danger.
The Kims saw a nuclear deterrent as the only sure-fire guarantee. By July 2017, North Korea had successfully launched its first true ICBM with a range as far as Chicago. That sent the Trump administration racing to the U.N. Security Council to plead for tighter sanctions. A month later, Trump let loose, defining his most toxic red line yet.
DT: North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. He has been very threatening, beyond a normal statement. And as I said, they will be met with fire, fury, and frankly, power, the likes of which this world has never seen before. Thank you.
DA: A week later, Kim appeared to walk back from the precipice when, in a visit to the missile arsenal, he pointed out that it was he alone who could give the ‘go’ signal. And he had no intention of doing that just yet. Still, Kim had no real incentive to pause in his quest for a reliable intercontinental weapon and a warhead on top. Another missile launch was followed by its most powerful underground nuclear test yet—15 times the size of the Hiroshima bomb. Trump called Kim “Little Rocket Man.” Kim branded Trump a “dotard.”
Meanwhile, a new government had arrived in South Korea whose president, Moon Jae-un, set a new top priority. He wanted to finally erase the 38th parallel and eventually the nuclear red lines too. The 2018 Winter Olympics in Seoul provided a perfect opportunity. President Moon invited the North to forget the 38th parallel and send their athletes. Kim Jong-Un agreed, even sending his sister to make nice. This new hopeful atmosphere on the Korean peninsula complicated the Trump administration’s hostile policies and rhetoric.
South Korea sent a top-level delegation to Pyongyang. Kim Jong-Un even agreed to install a direct hotline right into Moon's presidential residence, crossing the red line.
Then the big surprise. Moon's South Korean envoys left Pyongyang and flew directly to Washington. They carried a pledge from Kim Jong-Un to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. Trump agreed on the spot to meet Kim. The South Korean envoy immediately went to the press at the White House to convey Kim's enthusiasm.
Chung Eui-yong: He expressed his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible. President Trump appreciated the briefing and said he would meet Kim Jong-un by May to achieve permanent denuclearization.
DA: Each got out of this summit exactly what he wanted. Trump got the photo-op he hoped might lead him to a Nobel Peace Prize. Kim too got a photo-op, which went a long way toward affirming an equal playing field between himself, the dictator of a small, impoverished nation, and the leader of the world’s most affluent, militarized power.
But neither moved the red lines an inch…at the summit or in the months that followed. Trump had sought to entice Kim with visions of a rich and prosperous nation. Kim remained steadfast in his membership of the nuclear club.
Immediately after the summit, Trump began to retrench his red lines. He halted war games with South Korea as “provocative and expensive,” and mused about bringing all American troops home from Korea for the first time since before the Korean War. These were foolhardy ideas that, if pursued, would have utterly destroyed strategic lines sustaining peace on the Korean Peninsula for three generations. And in return, Trump got nothing. North Korea has still not rejoined the non-proliferation treaty and continues assembling warheads, while dispersing the missile systems to deliver them so widely through its hills and valleys that no invader could ever find and destroy all of them.
The fact is that Kim Jong-Un had redrawn the lines entirely to his liking and was in an ideal position to defend them whenever and wherever necessary. Kim was a full-fledged member of the nuclear club with an arsenal of 30 to 60 nuclear weapons with missiles that could deliver them to the United States. No one could take that away from him. Now, all that remained was to get rid of those hateful sanctions and his world would be complete…..his red lines still intact. And he was more than able to play the long game. After all, he was not yet 35 and would likely be president for life.
Donald Trump wound up creating then destroying red lines largely of his own making. This was the case not just in Korea, but around the world, as we will see in future episodes. Certainly some such red lines existed before Trump arrived. But none of his predecessors so persistently created more barriers. Korea will be but one such legacy passed on to Joe Biden.
Finally, there is the ultimate concern of the trip wire. If the goal is to defend one or more red lines, American forces and those of their adversaries must be on very high alert. The battle slogan of American forces in South Korea is “Ready to Fight Tonight.” And that could easily be the slogan for any such line the United States is determined to sustain. Misinterpreting the signs of subtle, even unintended moves in one direction or another can have horrific consequences. In the case of North Korea’s nuclear red lines, that trip wire could be apocalyptic.
Now, for the moment, Korea’s red lines seem to be frozen again in time. The US still believes the North must relinquish its entire nuclear arsenal. The North must make no further effort to test or deploy missiles capable of reaching mainland America or even Japan. And for his part, Kim Jong-Un believes the US must lift sanctions upon demonstrations of Kim’s good faith. But the final red line is immutable. North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons, under any circumstances.
Red lines are not meant to last forever, nor should they be constructed to endure….unchanged or eternal. They must be flexible and able to be adjusted toward or away from the goal lines. So, it is not unreasonable to expect that North Korea will need, for its own feeling of security, to retain some level of nuclear arsenal.
But firm standards must be established. No matter how attractive the offer, North Korea can never sell either a weapon or the knowledge of how to build one to any other nation and especially any terrorist group. Iran and other wannabe nuclear states can easily infer from the Korean precedent that the only real guarantee of their own safety is to dash toward a devastating nuclear capability. This may be the single red line both sides will be forced to deal with.
Another round of tough-guy language and action may still be necessary to get there. As nuclear negotiator Evans Revere told me:
ER: You need to turn the heat up on the regime using sanctions, covert action, military pressure. I'm not arguing for attacks or anything like that. Financial pressure, cutting them out of the international financial system, squeezing their economy to the point where North Korea has to make a decision. A life or death decision.
DA: What might this new red line look like, I asked him? He smiled and shrugged enigmatically. But this much is clear. The United States and its allies still have the means to achieve this final endgame of a nuclear freeze. The strategy is that of maximum pressure.
ER: The problem was we never got anywhere near maximum pressure. And now the pressure is being removed.
DA: Above all, Revere said, America must “make them stare into the abyss of its very survival". At that point, he believes, North Koreans are "rational actors" and will make the right choice. But the door is rapidly closing on the opportunity to do that. North Korea’s nuclear weapons development is approaching a point of no return.
Every morning when Kim Jong-un wakes up, he needs to wonder whether his economy will make it through the end of the day. That is an existential threat to the Kim family’s rule. And that is what maximum pressure should look like.
So far, playing nice doesn’t seem to be working as well now as it has in the past. The best, most sustainable red lines are those where both sides see some success by their being maintained. And in the case of the Koreas, there are other even broader and more dangerous stakes involved. Especially in the waters and lands that surround the Korean Peninsula….We’ll get to that in our next episode.
Thanks for listening. Next week we'll have a look at the South China Sea and the vast web of red lines that may be a flash point between the US and China. Meanwhile, I hope you’ll check out my new book from Pegasus, "A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen."
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