In U.S. International Relations, there are no two countries more difficult to grasp than North Korea and Iran. While the nations are both vastly different and are led by different regimes, they share a similar characteristics as the two most antagonistic states in the world. While other nations have their problems, failed states in Syria and Libya, ongoing conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan, human rights abuses in China and so much more, each country has a stronger semblance of cooperation and mutual respect for one another on the world stage. North Korea and Iran on the other hand, seek disruption. This piece focuses on North Korea’s actions.
North Korea and its neighboring rival South Korea were formed after World War II as the result of a treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union dividing territory conquered by the Japanese. As with much else in the Cold War, the U.S. introduced capitalism to the South, while the Soviets introduced Communism to the North. Eventually, this led to a desire for Korean reunification from the North. With the backing of the Soviet and now Communist Chinese, North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, starting the Korean War. The war would only come to a long term ceasefire when U.S. troops pushed the invasion back into North Korea, and Chinese forces entered North Korea to stop the U.S. advance.
In the years following the war, China and the Soviet Union would continue to exert pressure on North Korea until a failed attempt to oust leader Kim ll-Sung in 1956. Under Kim and an iron fist, North Korea became a fully independent nation, albeit one isolated from the world. “The Hermit Kingdom” as it would now become, would carve its own path of poverty, fear, government control and pure allegiance to the Kim Dynasty for decades to come.
As South Korea grew closer to the world, notably Japan and the United States, North Korea grew further apart, only keeping close ties with the Soviet Union and China, fellow Communist nations. Tensions remained high between the Koreas, with a demilitarized border known as the 38th Parallel separated the nations, with sporadic skirmishes over the years.
From 1948 on, North Korea would only have three “Supreme Leaders”, all of the Kim Dynasty, Kim ll-Sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un. While North Korea’s actions and isoaltionist tendencies concerned the world, nothing would stoke tensions more than North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, which have been in fierce development since the 1950’s with the help of the Soviet Union.
In 1991, President George H.W. Bush announced that the U.S. would remove all nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula, leading to the 1992 South-North Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. North Korea also began working with the International Atomic Energy Agency, a watchdog under the United Nations to monitor nuclear activity across the world. However, it wasn’t long before inspectors found discrepancies in the North’s initial reports, and demanded access to other sites in the North believed to be producing nuclear material.
While the United States continued to pursue negotiations with the North under President Bill Clinton, the CIA estimated in January of 1994 that North Korea may have produced a nuclear weapon, only further increasing tensions on the peninsula. Later that year, Kim ll Sung dies in office, and is replaced by his son, Kim Jong Il.
While negotiations would continue with the North, the United States learned that the nation was also developing missile technology with the help of Iran and Pakistan, and was ramping up its rhetoric and threats towards the U.S., Japan and South Korea. This pushed the U.S. to pursue more sanctions against the North. The North Koreans would use sanctions in future demands, arguing sanctions should be lifted, trade reopened, and the nation compensated for its losses.
In 1998, North Korea launched a rocket over Japan, and claimed they had sent a satellite into orbit. This launch stunned the international community and the US, and showed just how grave the Korean threat was.
These kinds of actions would continue for the next twenty years. Every few years the international community would believe they are close to a deal with the North Koreans, but the nations military leadership then ramps up its rhetoric, or even conducts further missile tests. Under Presidents Bush and Obama the cycle continued, while North Korea continued to develop its missile and nuclear technologies and capabilities, and has come dangerously close to war with the South with such incidents as the sinking of the South Korean Warship Cheonan in 2010.
In 2011, Kim Jong-il died of a heart attack, and his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, became the leader of the nuclear nation.
Since President Donald Trump took office in 2017, there has been a unique change in rhetoric between the two nations. In 2017, it appeared we were again close to war, with Trump threatening to bomb the North, and the North threatening missile tests dangerously close to Guam. This also led to a number of other nations across the world adding sanctions to the Korean regime.
However, in 2018 and 2019, tensions eased, with President Trump even traveling to Asia, and eventually even the Korean Peninsula, to meet with Kim Jong-un face to face. At the end of June of 2019, President Trump made history by becoming the first U.S. President to step foot into North Korean soil when he crossed over the 38th Parallel to meet Kim.
Some of the peace talks have also involved South Korea, and have discussed the potential of reunification of the peninsula. However, the two Koreas are drastically different today, with anyone in North Korea who is not in the military living in extreme poverty, and many living in work camps. Allegiance to the state and the Kims is enforced through brutality. Throughout North Korea, it is not abnormal for children to turn their own parents in for not being “loyal” to the Supreme Leader.
Meanwhile, talks appear to have stalled heading into 2020, with Kim Jong-un promising a “surprise” to come soon. Many experts believe this to be yet another missile test.
If this pattern continues with North Korea, can we expect any results any time soon? What is the next step if the North tests another long range missile? Is reunification even possible given the nature of Korean society today? We analyze this more in the second part of our coverage on North Korea.
For more analysis on the Korean issue, check out my latest book “America 2020: The Grand American Political Landscape” on Amazon today!