Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea

Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea

Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea

Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea


In June 1994 the United States went to the brink of war with North Korea. Few Americans know the full details behind this story. In this lively and authoritative book Leon Sigal offers an inside look at how the Korean nuclear crisis originated, escalated, and was ultimately defused. Drawing upon in-depth interviews with policymakers from the countries involved, he discloses the details of the buildup to confrontation, American refusal to engage in diplomatic give-and-take, the Carter mission, and the deal of October 1994.


I first became interested in Korea when I joined the Editorial Board of the New York Times in June 1989. It was obvious that the end of the Cold War would greatly affect that divided land. I also knew from my experience in the United States government that the combustible combination of forward deployed forces on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone and our nuclear presence on the peninsula posed especially grave risks. One was that North Korea and South Korea would seek nuclear arms of their own. Another was that any crisis could get out of hand.

With that knowledge, and little else in mind, I wrote an editorial that appeared on June 25, 1990, urging the United States to “help the Koreas in from the cold” by coaxing them into military disengagement and diplomatic reengagement. “North Korea may accept international nuclear safeguards and is proposing new arms cuts,” the editorial read. “These steps could ease the military confrontation on the peninsula and allow the U.S. to reduce its force of 45,000 troops in the South. And there would be no reason to keep U.S. nuclear weapons there.” In a December 13, 1990, editorial I went further, urging diplomatic and economic ties with the North. My original draft recommended unilateral withdrawal of U.S. nuclear arms from the peninsula, but it was cut in last-minute editing.

I returned to the theme on February 4, 1991. “Washington could meet Pyongyang's concerns,” I wrote, “by beginning to withdraw its nuclear weapons. It could also reduce the scale and frequency of military exercises in the area.” Editorial page editor Jack Rosenthal let me have my say, as he would until he left the Editorial Board to run the magazine at the end of 1993.

After the December editorial, South Koreans, officials and former officials, began calling with invitations to lunch. A few Korea experts got in touch. The Asia Society invited me to a luncheon speech by Assistant Secretary of State Richard Solomon at the Waldorf Astoria. There I met Tony Namkung and we arranged to talk further. The South Korean ambassador to Washington invited me to lunch that April and a month later I met Ho Jong, a North Korean ambassador at the United Nations. I was soon in regular contact with American, South Korean, and North Korean officials, as well as a dozen experts on proliferation, in and out of government, and anyone knowledgeable about North Korea I could find, American, Japanese, and South Korean.

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