[OUTLOOK]A lesson in nuclear diplomacyBringing a quick end to the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld bluntly told the Korean president to scrap his uranium-enrichment program or face shattering consequences for his country.
That happened not between the United States and North Korea, but in a brusque confrontation with South Korea, 27 years ago.
Mr. Rumsfeld, then 43 years old and the defense secretary under President Gerald Ford, told the South’s dictatorial leader, President Park Chung Hee, that the United States would not accept South Korea’s effort, helped by France, to produce material that could be used to build nuclear arms.
The Pentagon chief was essentially trying to head off a nuclear threat that would be aimed provocatively at the communist North. Continue the development of nuclear weapons, Mr. Rumsfeld told Mr. Park, and the United States would consider abandoning its military and economic alliance with the South.
The episode is detailed in a book by Don Oberdorfer, a former Washington Post reporter who relied on declassified U.S. documents and interviews with participants in the standoff, which reached its peak in 1976.
At the time, the South’s leaders feared that the United States, recently defeated in Vietnam, might no longer honor the security agreements that protected the South from the North. To deter aggression from his Stalinist neighbor, Mr. Park launched a nuclear weapons program.
Oberdorfer’s “The Two Koreas,” published in 1997, four years before Mr. Rumsfeld took the defense post again under President George W. Bush, reconstructs the delicate, but forceful strategy that the Nixon and Ford administrations employed to stem proliferation of nuclear arms in Korea.
In 1972, U.S. intelligence services learned that Mr. Park’s government had begun negotiating with France to buy technology for the production of weapons-grade material needed for the construction of nuclear arms. A plan for a facility that could produce at least two bombs a year was completed two years later.
In response, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger sent a secret cable to the U.S. ambassador in Seoul that laid out the seriousness of the situation.
South Korea’s “possession of nuclear weapons would have a major destabilizing effect in an area in which not only Japan but USSR [Soviet Union], PRC [China] and ourselves are directly involved,” Kissinger’s message said. “It could lead to Soviet or Chinese assurances of nuclear weapons support to North Korea.”
U.S. officials then began a campaign to derail the South’s nuclear program. The diplomacy climaxed with Mr. Rumsfeld confronting Mr. Park and demanding that the contract with the French be canceled. Mr. Park submitted.
While U.S. interference in South Korean affairs is a long-running story based on mutual security concerns, many South Koreans today would be happy to see a different relationship with their superpower protector. North Korea’s ambitions to build a nuclear force are as unacceptable to Washington as the efforts President Park made to acquire nuclear arms.
The rub is that the Seoul government’s softer line toward the North ― the offers of economic aid and a political thaw started under President Kim Dae-jung ― has broad domestic support. Even South Korean political hard-liners who have utter contempt for the regime in Pyeongyang see the benefits of peaceful evolution in North-South relations.
That means U.S. belligerence toward the North alienates a sizable portion of South Korea’s population.
In the current nuclear-proliferation crisis, while State Department envoys, along with their counterparts in China, Russia, Japan and South Korea, seek a diplomatic solution, Mr. Rumsfeld is again quietly playing a central role.
Warships and stealth jets were sent to the region in connection with military exercises earlier his year. As North Korea ratcheted up the tension, some of those assets stayed on after they were due to return, and U.S. military planning intensified. While the United States now appears to be softening its diplomatic approach to North Korea, force remains an option. That brings Mr. Rumsfeld back to the nuclear issue in Korea, 27 years later.
* The writer is editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Charles D. Sherman