Washington tightens its grip on Korea


By Eva Cheng
In February, the US abandoned a 1992 plan to reduce its troops in east Asia, affirming it will maintain 100,000 military personnel in the region for the next 10 years. Of these, 37,000 will be based in South Korea, up from a 1992 projection of 15,000. The 50th anniversary of the end of World War II is also the 50th anniversary of US domination of South Korea. After three years of military occupation, it backed the brutal dictatorship set up by Syngman Rhee in 1948. South Korea has since been under a stream of military regimes which the US has supported without exception.
The final decision to massacre pro-democracy students in Kwangju in 1980, for example, rested with the US which has held direct command over the South Korean army since 1950, even down to training matters. Peacetime operational control of it was transferred to the South Korean government last December, but wartime control remains firmly in US hands.
South Korea remains a police state despite installation of its first "civilian" government in 1993, and the US continues to station massive numbers of troops there. The South Koreans pay US$300 million a year to support them.
The division of Korea was cemented by the 1950-53 Korean War during which well over 3 million Koreans are estimated to have lost their lives to US bombing, in which agents like napalm were widely used to kill indiscriminately — with the stated aim of bombing Korea "back to the Stone Age".
The US, which had dropped atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, repeatedly threatened to use them again during the Korean War. Non-assembled atomic bombs were shipped to Korea in December 1950 as a stand-by while North Korea was attacked repeatedly by dummy nuclear runs.
The US chief commander at the time, Douglas MacArthur, asked for no less than 34 atomic bombs to be used in Korea. "I would have dropped between 30 and 50 atomic bombs ... strung across the neck of Manchuria", MacArthur was quoted as saying in an interview published posthumously. His plan was to spread from the Sea of Japan to the Yellow Sea "a belt of radioactive cobalt" to seal off North Korea from its Chinese and Soviet allies.

The US has stationed nuclear weapons in South Korea since then and fully incorporated the possibility of nuclear war in its annual two-month joint rehearsals with South Korea. Up to 200,000 troops have been mobilised for any one exercise, making these among the biggest military manoeuvres in the world. The South Korean army has been placed at the US's service, including in the Vietnam War in the '60s and the Gulf War in 1991.
It was against this background that North Korea started to develop its nuclear capability. It first imported nuclear technology from the Soviet Union in 1956, for "peaceful use", and introduced the first test reactor in 1965, also from the Soviet Union. It is known to have begun constructing graphite-moderated reactors in the '80s and put into operation a 5 MW reactor in February 1987 using domestically extracted natural uranium.
The US has stationed massive troop numbers in South Korea ever since the Korean War and continued to treat North Korea with wartime hostility. This pressure has forced North Korea to increase military spending despite great difficulties. In the five years to 1994, for example, defence accounted for up to a quarter of North Korea's gross national product while the economy shrank between 3.7% and 7.8% a year.
But in absolute terms, the North Korean military budget amounts to only about US$5 billion, half of South Korea's and a fraction of the US's US$277 billion in 1993. Even "non-military" Japan spent US$39.71 billion on defence in '93.
North Korea joined the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty in 1985, but did not immediately sign the safeguard accord which would have given the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) the power to inspect its nuclear facilities.
US sanctions against North Korea were relaxed in October 1988, paving the way for the first "unofficial" US contact with North Korea since 1953 in Beijing. North Korea was urged there to sign the safeguard accord but said it would only do so if the US pulled out nuclear weapons from South Korea, a proposal which the US has rejected.
North Korea announced in November 1990 that it would sign the accord if the US promised it would not attack North Korea with nuclear weapons. That assurance never arrived, but the US claimed 10 months later it had already pulled out all nuclear weapons from South Korea. However, that alone does not reduce the nuclear threat against North Korea. The US continues to run a chain of bases in the rest of Asia, armed with nuclear weapons.
North Korea signed the safeguard accord in January 92, followed shortly by IAEA inspection of its nuclear facilities. The discovery of inconsistent plutonium isotope ratios was held as evidence that plutonium had been reprocessed, presumably to make weapons. The IAEA also said it had uncovered two undeclared nuclear facilities; North Korea insisted these were non-nuclear military installations and, therefore, not subject to inspection.
The US's immediate resumption of joint military exercises with South Korea in March 1993, which had been suspended in late '92 to facilitate nuclear talks with North Korea, sent military tension sky high. North Korea said it would withdraw from the NPT in the same month.
A breakthrough seemed to have been achieved when the US agreed in July '93 to help North Korea to replace graphite-moderated reactors with reactors moderated by light water.
North Korea resumed talks with the IAEA on possible inspections in January 1994. But on March 19 a working meeting between North and South Korea in the truce village of Panmunjom broke down.
Within weeks, an 800-man US missile battalion arrived in South Korea, armed with Patriot missiles. On May 24, North Korea declared its decision to withdraw from the Military Armistice Commission in Panmunjom, through which the rival parties have had regular contact since the Korean War. The UN decided on May 31 to impose economic sanctions on North Korea, and the latter denounced such sanctions as an act of war.
However, an agreement was eventually reached on October 21 for the US to supply North Korea with two light-water reactors with total capacity of 2000 MW by 2003 and 500,000 tons of heavy oil a year until the new reactors are in operation. North Korea, in return, is to freeze construction of its graphite-moderated reactors of 50 MW and 200 MW, suspend refuelling and reprocessing activities and fully implement a safeguard accord with IAEA.
The US has managed to get South Korea and Japan to foot the US$4 billion bill for the reactors. South Korea will pay three quarters and Japan the remainder. South Korea insisted the reactors be South Korean made, which North Korea strongly resisted. A long stalemate was followed by a North Korean threat on February 15 to abandon the ongoing discussion and the US backing off from its 1992 troop reduction plan in Asia.