‘Lessons learned’: Former Alaska Gov. Murkowski recalls trip to North Korea in 1994

Americans are very concerned of a threat of a nuclear strike against the U.S. and other nations by North Korea. It may have been unthinkable, defying logic 20 years ago but decisions made then appear to have come back to haunt us today.


History will note we have seen under the dictatorial family dynasty a commitment to achieve a nuclear weapon development. First under Kim-Il-Sun, then his son Kim-Jong-Il, and now, grandson, Kim-Jong-Un, each having the same objective, with the belief that the North could unify the two Koreas, South and North, under their terms.

In the early winter of 1994, U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, D-Illinois, myself and our spouses were on a fact finding mission to Pyongyang, North Korea. Our objective was to meet with government officials to discuss two controversial measures on the agenda of the Pacific and East Asia Affairs subcommittee on the Foreign Relations Committee, of which we were both members.

The issues in 1994 were twofold. In October of that year, the Clinton Administration indicated it would arrange to supply nuclear reactors to North Korea. In response, the North would freeze its own nuclear program. Even then, there was suspect as to their intent to develop a nuclear weapon (see The New York Times article Dec. 12, 1994: 2 U.S. Senators Pay Visit to North Korea.)

The second issue was for North Korea to obtain a reliable supply of oil to fuel their teetering economy. Up to that point, North Korea had been relying on China for their supply of oil. The problem was that China had cut off their oil supply because of non payment. At the same time, the North had built up a huge military capability, at the expense of a population living near the poverty level. The country had few exports, little foreign exchange and no international credit capability. Clearly, the North was a basket case.

The debate in the U.S. Senate focused on two schools of thought. The first was for the U.S. to provide aid and technology to advance the standard of living of the population, and to provide them with the reactors which could power their economy and lessen their dependence on oil imports. The counter position was a belief by many, that the then leader Kim-Il-Sun, had every intention to develop a nuclear weapon aimed at South Korea, and that the U.S. should decline any assistance because left alone, the fragile structure of the North economy would implode upon itself.

When we returned to Washington, Sen. Simon and I shared our views with the Committee with the suggestion that we reject North Koreas request for aid, our message fell on deaf ears with the Clinton Administration. I continue to believe that the Kim-Jong-Il regime would not have survived without U.S. aid at the time.

I believe much of what we observed on that visit 24 years ago, was based on a few specific examples. When we were met at the airport by government officials, we were escorted into the city where there appeared to be no traffic on the huge boulevards. We were briefed on the fact that the country was in mourning for a full year after the death of Kim-Il-Sun, with everyone wearing black mourning arm bands. Seeing a high rise building, I asked our escort what it was. The response was “our Great Leader is building the world’s largest hotel.”

When I asked when it would be opened, the reply was that it had been delayed because the elevators were not in line with the floors. A visit to the hospital revealed that the lights on each floor only lit when our elevator reached each floor. At the department store, the only thing I could see to buy were brass fishing spoons, yet our escort said that this was a magnificent store of two levels and an escalator were wonderful creations from the Great Leader. A visit on the subway was three levels down and was clearly to be used as an air raid shelter. We were treated to a cultural evening at the very ornate concert hall, where our group were the only guests. The band were dressed in red tuxedos in an Elvis Presley impersonation, with the female singers dressed in what my wife called “50s prom dresses,” and the entire program were dirge-like versions of My Darling Clementine, Old Suzannah and Old Black Joe.

The next day on our way to the DM zone, we drove through several long tunnels which served as air raid shelters. As we neared the Demacation point, our escort stopped the car and removed the license plates. I asked what that was all about and he replied that they did not want the South to know how many cars the Great Leader owned. We were then turned over by the North Koreans to the UN representative at the DM zone and then to the South Korean officials where our visit ended.

Time has passed, and today we are faced with a rogue nation who has threatened the free world with a nuclear holocast too horrible to contemplate. Lessons learned. The leadership in today’s North Korea is desperate. They are unpredictable and dangerous.

• Frank Murkowski was a U.S. Senator from Alaska from 1981 to 2002 and Governor of Alaska from 2002 to 2006. My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire.


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