S. Korean presidential contender claims N. Korea wouldn't have nukes if Clinton had bombed Yongbyon

한겨레 입력 2021. 9. 28. 17:56
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During a televised debate for the opposition party's presidential primary, Hong Joon-pyo criticized his opponent for lacking historical knowledge about security on the Korean Peninsula. But was Hong wrong too?
Candidates in the People Power Party presidential primary pose for a photo ahead of a televised debate on Sunday. Hong Joon-pyo stands on the far left, with Yoon Seok-youl on the far right of the lineup. (National Assembly pool photo)

Hong Joon-pyo, lawmaker and a leading presidential candidate for South Korea’s main opposition People Power Party, contended during a debate that, if then South Korean President Kim Young-sam hadn’t stopped the Clinton administration in the US from bombing North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility during the first North Korean nuclear crisis in 1994, North Korea wouldn’t have been able to produce nuclear weapons.

Hong advanced this hypothetical scenario while bashing former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl for his ignorance of national security in the third TV debate in the PPP’s presidential primary on Sunday.

“Kim Young-sam stopped Bill Clinton from bombing the North Korean facility at Yongbyon in 1994. What do you think would have happened if Kim Young-sam hadn’t done that? Would the North have been able to develop nuclear weapons? No, it wouldn’t have. That shows how a president’s spur-of-the-moment decisions can define a nation’s future,” Hong said.

“When the Clinton administration was planning to bomb the Yongbyon nuclear facility, Kim Young-sam did everything in his power to stop it. The alternative he came up with was the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, but that turned out to be a miscalculation. If the Yongbyon nuclear facility had been struck at that time, the North probably couldn’t have developed nuclear weapons,” Hong wrote in a post on Facebook on Monday.

But Hong’s argument is factually imprecise. It’s true that the Clinton administration was preparing to bomb the Yongbyon facility in May 1994, when the first North Korean nuclear crisis was reaching a climax. According to documents released later, the US had planned to destroy the Yongbyon facility with bombs and missiles and, if the North retaliated, to carry out a full-fledged war on the Korean Peninsula.

But it’s unclear whether it was actually Kim Young-sam who prevented the US from bombing North Korea. Kim did claim that he’d prevented war on the Korean Peninsula by strongly objecting to the planned bombing in a phone call with Clinton. Kim and his aides said they hadn’t received any kind of notification from the US about its plans.

Park Kwan-yong, who served as chief of staff at the Blue House, recalled the experience years later in an interview with the press.

“It was truly astounding to learn that the US was planning to carry out a military operation that could escalate into war without providing the slightest explanation or notification to Korea, one of the parties in the conflict. I felt not so much shocked as numb at the thought that our destiny could be determined in such a way,” said Park Kwan-yong, then chief of staff at the Blue House, in an interview with the press in later years.

But that account has been contested by Robert Gallucci and other key officials in the Clinton administration. According to those American officials, Clinton didn’t even have a phone call with Kim at that time.

In an autobiography published in 2004, Clinton observed that, in March 1994, he had been “determined to stop North Korea from developing a nuclear arsenal, even at the risk of war.” But in early May, Clinton wrote, he had “received a sobering estimate of the staggering losses both sides would suffer if war broke out.”

Clinton said the main reason he’d nixed the plan to bomb North Korea in 1994 when it was about to be carried out was because of the immense scale of the damage it could cause.

A report that the US Joint Chiefs of Staff submitted to Clinton predicted that an all-out war on the Korean Peninsula would cause the deaths or injuries of 30,000 American service members, 450,000 South Korean service members, and a million civilians in the greater Seoul area. The report also predicted that the war would cost US$60 billion and inflict US$1 trillion of damage on the South Korean economy.

When Hong argued that the bombing of the Yongbyon nuclear facility would have prevented the North from developing nuclear weapons, he didn’t mention how much damage would have been caused by a full-scale war on the Korean Peninsula.

By Kwon Hyuk-chul, senior staff writer

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