North Korea: In 2003, Look Back to 1984

James E. Goodby
James E. Goodby Former Brookings Expert, Annenberg Distinguished Visiting Fellow - Hoover Institution

January 29, 2003

Speaking in Dublin in June 1984, President Ronald Reagan unlocked the door to a major agreement on European security. He offered a deal: If the Soviet Union—the evil empire, in his words—would accept a series of measures to increase transparency in military operations across the European continent, the United States would formally repeat its United Nations Charter pledge not to use force or the threat of force in its relations with Moscow.

Ultimately, that was the deal agreed to by the United States, the Soviet Union and 33 other signatories in a politically although not legally binding agreement: the 1986 Stockholm Document on confidence building and disarmament in Europe.

The parallels to the current situation in Northeast Asia are clear. North Korea, a member of President George W. Bush’s axis of evil, wants some form of understanding that it will not be attacked by the United States. America wants transparency throughout North Korea’s nascent nuclear weapons program and concrete assurances that the program is shut down. Reagan’s proposition is highly relevant. The United States, North Korea and all its neighbors would sign a politically binding agreement not to use force or the threat of force in their mutual relations. The entire Korean Peninsula, in exchange, would be swept clean of nuclear weapons and facilities that could be used to produce nuclear weapons.

There are other parallels between the divided Europe of 1984 and the divided Korea of 2003. The Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, presiding over a failing state, saw that his first priority was to end confrontation with the West in order to concentrate on rebuilding the Soviet economy. Today the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, also presiding over a failing state, probably realizes that he must concentrate on rebuilding a North Korean economy that is damaged almost beyond repair.

The question in Kim’s case is whether he realizes that only an end to the Cold War confrontation still dividing the Korean Peninsula will help him solve his economic problems.

So here the parallels may end. Whereas Gorbachev was ready to end the Cold War, Kim may not be.

The way to test him is to embed the type of deal Reagan offered to Gorbachev in a broader settlement of other political, economic and military issues that have festered for too long in and around the Korean Peninsula.

Fortunately, America and its friends in Northeast Asia all are now speaking of a broad understanding with North Korea. Some elements of it have been mentioned in the public dialogue.

Kim will soon have to make his choice between ending the confrontation or taking his country further down the road to disaster.