The United States and North Korea have been locked in a battle of wills for 10 months, with Washington insisting that Pyongyang abandon its nuclear aspirations and North Korean officials saying that they need nuclear weapons to deter a U.S. attack. The White House is trying to defuse the crisis with diplomacy; military action has been mentioned only as a last resort.
Park, however, predicts that the standoff will inevitably lead to a second Korean War and that North Korea's army will collapse within three days of a U.S. attack.
Experts said that Park and his organization, the National Salvation Front for Democratic Reunification of Korea, bring a wealth of experience and a unique-albeit controversial-point of view to the debate on U.S. policy toward North Korea.
"People from our government have gotten information from them that has been credible; the Japanese government sees them as credible," said Al Santoli, the senior vice president at the American Foreign Policy Council. Santoli said that the National Salvation Front consists mainly of elderly men, who are too old to aspire to be "president of North Korea. It's more like they are there out of a sense of commitment."
Although he may not aspire to rule North Korea, Park did tout himself and his group as a valuable resource should the United States choose to "liberate" Pyongyang. He said his group maintains extensive, clandestine ties to military and government officials in North Korea and could help direct elections and economic recovery. "We certainly believe that we can play a key role in assisting the reconstruction of North Korea," Park said.
In Washington, he met with military and congressional officials, spoke to a gathering at the American Foreign Policy Council, and gave interviews to support what has become his life's mission: the overthrow of the Kim dynasty in North Korea.
Park tightened his jowls, closed his eyes, and chopped the air for emphasis while discussing Kim and his late father, former North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung. Born in South Korea, Park fled to the North after the 1953 armistice ended the Korean War. Because of his standing as a Communist activist in the South, he was given a senior position in the government. According to Park, Kim the elder purged South Korean-born officials from the government in 1956, ousted him from a senior position at the propaganda ministry, threw him in jail, and executed many of his friends and colleagues.
After he was released in a 1959 amnesty, Park was stuck between worlds, according to Hideaki Kase, a Japanese expert on North Korea who translated during the Washington trip. In his youth, Park had been the leader of the socialist South Korean Worker's Party, and after the war he had been convicted in absentia, Kase said.
Fearful of a long prison term in the South, but unwilling to stay in his adopted North Korea, Park fled for Tokyo with the "sole plan of toppling that [North Korean] Communist government," he said.
"When I was a young man I became a member of the Communist Party believing that communism brings about a utopia," Park said. "But if you experience communism, and live in a communist society, then the disillusionment is so powerful that you loathe that barbaric system."
In recent months, U.S. policy makers have discussed the possibility of economic sanctions or naval blockades to weaken the North Korean leadership, but Park emotionally stuck to his regime-change mantra and refused to allow the possibility that these measures would have any success.
"In order to secure international cooperation, the U.S. has to first follow the path of peaceful negotiations and attempt to put a squeeze on the North Korean economy, but this will not bring about a regime change. I'm all for delivering surgical strikes-so-called surgical strikes," Park said, referring to the concept of focused attacks to destroy weapons stockpiles or leadership compounds.
"The pillar of the North Korean regime is the 1.2-million-strong Korean People's Army," Park said, and Kim will not be ousted "unless you dismantle the army."
Touting the benefits of an international coalition in both war and peace, Park said that Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul must present a unified front in the crisis. The United States, however, has yet to present a unified front even in Washington.
President Bush has said he is seeking a peaceful solution, but he has pointedly refused to rule out military action. "We continue to pursue a peaceful, diplomatic solution, [but] as the president and other officials have said, the military option of course remains on the table," a State Department official said.
White House officials have steadfastly insisted that they will come to the negotiating table only with their Northeast Asian allies, while Pyongyang insists on direct talks. Two separate initiatives in Congress, however, are attempting to break the impasse.
In the Senate, Arizona Republican Jon Kyl has sponsored a bill to cut the last vestiges of energy aid to North Korea. Even as the crisis festers, Washington and its allies have funded the Korean Energy Development Organization, which is building two nuclear reactors in North Korea to alleviate chronic energy shortages. The North Korean Democracy Act of 2003 would cut funding to KEDO and strictly limit technology exports to North Korea. These moves are long overdue, according to one of the bill's co-sponsors, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
"Over the last eight or nine years the United States and its allies have supplied over a billion dollars in aid," McCain said. Despite the assistance, North Korean civilians still starve to death and the government runs massive prison camps, he said. "We'll certainly cut off one the major props of this ... Orwellian regime."
The senators are trying to destabilize the North Korean leadership-"there are a multitude of actions that can be taken, short of an all-out war," McCain said-but the most prominent peace initiative has come from the House.
Last month, Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., detailed a two-stage, 10-point plan that calls on North Korea to dismantle its nuclear facilities in exchange for a nonaggression treaty with the United States. "I think it's gathering a lot of momentum and steam," Weldon said.
Under the plan, Washington would establish diplomatic relations with Pyongyang and offer a one-year nonaggression treaty. The United States and North Korea's neighbors would provide up to $50 billion in humanitarian and economic assistance, with the bulk of the funding coming from Seoul and Tokyo. In exchange, North Korea would be required to rejoin the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, renounce nuclear weapons, and allow unfettered inspections.
In the second stage, North Korea would dismantle its nuclear facilities within two years, ratify international missile-control regulations, and join the Helsinki Convention on human rights as an observer. The United States would make the nonaggression treaty permanent, and Congress would open lines of communication with North Korea's Supreme People's Assembly.
Weldon said the plan has been well received by North Korea-he visited Pyongyang more than two months ago-and last week he sent a copy to all 535 members of Congress.
The only official reaction from the administration has come from the State Department, where spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States would not pay North Korea to comply with treaty obligations. A State Department official reiterated that position this week. "We are not prepared to offer quid pro quos to North Korea so that it would live up to its previous commitments," the official said Monday.
Weldon reacted strongly to that criticism, calling the State Department reaction a "total misstatement. The bulk of the money is coming from Japan and South Korea." Weldon is a self-described "pro-defense, pro-hawk supporter of President Bush," but the administration has remained mostly silent on the peace initiative, and the strongest support has come from Democrats and U.N. officials.
"Some of the more right-wing bureaucrats in this city just want to let things mull along," Weldon said. "To do nothing is not good for either side."
Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas, was on the congressional trip to Pyongyang, and he defended the plan against State Department criticism. Ortiz called the plan "very solid" and said that he does not see it as a payoff to North Korea. "I see this as avoiding a war," he said earlier this month.
Maurice Strong, the U.N. special envoy to North Korea, called the plan "very promising" and "ambitious but achievable." The plan even received support from former Defense Secretary William Perry, who butted heads with Weldon during the Clinton administration.
North Korea's nuclear development is the "most serious security problem faced by the U.S. today," Perry said. He described the plan as "constructive and creative" and said he "hoped that the administration would act on their proposals."
While some U.S. lawmakers struggle to find a way to the negotiating table, Park's argument for regime change might have its own supporters in Washington. Forcing North Korean regime change is popular with "most of the people I know in conservative Republican circles," said a congressional aide who met with Park last week.
Park visited the United States once before, in 1998, but he said his calls for regime change were not well received. During this visit, however, he said officials "were much more sympathetic; ... there has been a marked change."
McCain said he was holding out hope that diplomacy could succeed, but "every indication is that it is not possible to work with them.... I would make it clear that time is running out."
While Weldon was pushing his peace initiative last week and Park was calling for regime change, North Korea reportedly told U.S. diplomats that it had reprocessed all of its spent nuclear fuel rods, a key step toward building nuclear weapons.
It is unclear whether the North is telling the truth, but the nuclear standoff seems to be slipping closer to war as diplomatic efforts stall. On this point, Weldon and Park completely agree.