Is lasting peace possible on the Korean Peninsula? The answer to that question may depend on whether Donald Trump follows the well-worn path of his predecessors.
If the president’s latest stunt — temporarily calling off talks with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) over an insult Kim Jong Un slung at Vice-President Mike Pence — is any indication of what could happen moving forward, Trump could easily sabotage future talks with Pyongyang.
While it may seem merely a characteristically clumsy move by Trump, there is more to this story. The president is not breaking new ground in Korea and instead is following a one-sided strategy employed by the U.S. since the Cold War, albeit in a less graceful manner typical of Trump’s approach to “negotiations.”
Yet the president’s strategy of threats, hypocrisy, economic warfare and military posturing is fully consistent with the history of U.S.-North Korean relations. While media narrative most often lays blame solely at the feet of North Korea and its irrational leaders, as U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley referred to them; what role has the U.S played over the last 65 years of U.S.-North Korea relations?
U.S. aggression against North Korea began the day U.S. troops first set foot on the Korean Peninsula, and it has yet to wane.
The hot and Cold War
The Korean War, known aptly as The Forgotten War, remains one of the most brutal the U.S. has fought. Not only did Washington drop more bombs in Korea than in the Pacific Theater during World War II (635,000 tons compared to 503,000 tons) — and more napalm than during the Vietnam War (32,557 tons) — but it also wiped out up to 20 percent of the total population and leveled almost every building in the DPRK, leading the government to advise its citizens to dig into the earth for shelter.
On the rare occasion the issue surfaces in the U.S., it is often met with half-hearted attempts to vindicate Washington, played off with proclamations that the deadly bombing campaign was a necessity and typical of the horrors that accompany every war. Yet this explanation is woefully inadequate, as it leaves out the fact that the scorched-earth policies were intentional. This was admitted by senior officials at the time, including then-State Department employee and future Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who said the order of the day was to bomb “everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another.” The famed General Douglas MacArthur even proposed using nuclear weapons on Korea to create a “dead-zone” between the peninsula and China.
This policy of all-out aggression was applied in both the North and in the U.S.-allied South, where U.S. bombers received orders from the Rusk-designed military dictatorship to strike groups of “eight or more” North Korean refugees seeking shelter in South Korea.
U.S. domination of the peninsula continued after the armistice agreement in July of 1953 and U.S. posturing on the peninsula continued throughout the Cold War. In the South, America’s domination during the Cold War was manifest in various U.S.-backed right-wing puppet governments, who participated in joint U.S. military drills meant to intimidate Pyongyang. South Korean governments also allowed Washington to nuclearize the peninsula from 1958 until 1991. The U.S. further aided the South in building a military that today spends $40 billion a year, compared to North Korea’s budget of between $6-10 billion (ranking them 46th globally).
Washington also continuously violated the North Korean airspace and territorial waters, often in violation of international law — resulting in several high-profile incidents throughout the Cold War, including the capture of the Pueblo, a U.S. spy ship that was captured in North Korea’s territorial waters on a mission to locate the country’s military facilities.
The Pueblo –– and the 80 sailors and intelligence personnel on board — was captured in January 1968 and almost sparked a war between North Korea and the U.S., at the time under the leadership of President Lyndon Johnson. Threats of war came primarily from the U.S., which moved several aircraft carriers and other ships into waters off of North Korea. Washington finally ended the standoff with an apology for violating North Korea’s territorial integrity and the Pueblo’s crew members were returned. (the ship was kept and now functions as a museum in Pyongyang).
The capture of the Pueblo failed to serve as a deterrent to the U.S., as a series of botched U.S. spy operations throughout the Cold War would follow. In fact, the next major incident took place only a few months after the Pueblo’s crew was returned. In April of 1969, an EC-121 spy plane was shot down, killing 31 Americans, in an incident dubbed the “flying pueblo.”
According to the Korean People’s Army (KPA, North Korea’s military), the plane had often violated North Korean airspace — although, at the time, the Nixon administration claimed the plane was hit over international waters on a “legal reconnaissance mission.” This would later prove to be untrue but that didn’t stop then-President Nixon from threatening war again and mobilizing a large contingent of bombers and troops to the Korean Peninsula. The standoff ended with Nixon drawing down just like Johnson had done before him, and ultimately ordering much of the U.S.’ military personnel to leave the peninsula.
The spate of dangerous escalations continued under nearly every U.S. President during the Cold War. President Ford continued the pattern with the Panmunjom incident when UN troops — possibly under orders from President Ford himself — cut down a tree in the Demilitarized Zone (the armistice line from the end of the Korean War, administered by Pyongyang and Seoul) between the two Koreas without first consulting North Korea. This led to clashes at the border between UN troops and the North Korean military personnel and likely played a role in a United Nations decision later that year to end its command of forces still stationed in South Korea.
Then, in 1981, when North Korea launched a missile within 100 meters of an SR-71 Blackbird U.S. spy plane, then-President Ronald Reagan responded with an increase in scale of the Team Spirit U.S.-South Korean military exercises, transforming South Korea into what the North refers to as a “semi-war state,” a designation Pyongyang maintains to this day.
27 years of deception: Korean peace after the Cold War
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, North Korea suddenly found itself in a new geopolitical environment. Realizing that times had changed and that the world now had a “sole superpower,” North Korea’s leaders decided the time was right to start discussing peace and self-determination and sought in earnest to initiate dialogue with the United States.
Efforts began when North Korea signed onto the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985 — this despite the fact that the country had never made a public proclamation that it was seeking nuclear weapons. Then, in 1991, while the embers of the Soviet Union were still warm, the U.S. began what would become a long-standing policy of aggression towards North Korea over a nuclear program that, at the time, likely did not exist.
Regardless, North Korea sought to allay U.S. concerns, and in 1992 signed an additional agreement known as the South-North Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The agreement was signed without direct U.S. involvement, as Washington continued to refuse to negotiate directly with Pyongyang, and not only committed both North and South Korea to keep the peninsula nuclear weapons-free, but also opened the door for International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to tour facilities in the North and South to assure compliance. Despite the assurances, in March of 1992, the U.S. slapped North Korea with sanctions to punish the country for a nuclear weapons program Washington wasn’t even sure it had — and all this before North Korea even had a chance to ratify or enact its agreement with the IAEA.
Even after being hit with sanctions, North Korea decided to ratify the agreement with the IAEA and began the process of declaring any nuclear material in its possession. This amounted to a insignificant 90 grams of extremely low-grade plutonium salvaged from 89 reprocessed fuel rods, falling far short of the 14 pounds that would be necessary to construct a simple implosion weapon according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. This declared nuclear material was continuously monitored by the IAEA until early 1993, during which time the U.S. continued to place new sanctions on North Korea.
In early 1993, tension on the Korean Peninsula began to build anew after the IAEA accused North Korea of possessing undeclared nuclear material storage facilities and declared Pyongyang in violation of the arms treaties, although this claim was never proven or disproven completely and never led to any other actions than more calls for inspections. North Korea denied the existence of the sites, leading to yet another standoff centered around the U.S.-led Team Spirit military drills, which led then-leader Kim Jong Il to place his entire population on full alert for a conflict, and ultimately to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. U.S. and North Korean leaders barely averted another war on the Korean Peninsula when they met for talks in New York in which North Korea suspended its decision to leave the NPT in exchange for U.S. security guarantees following IAEA inspections.
North Korea continued to agree to a seemingly endless list of demands from Washington after rejoining the NPT, including replacing its graphite nuclear reactors with light-water reactors (LWRs), which are proliferation-resistant. Yet none of this was enough to stem the tide of U.S. accusations over North Korea’s nuclear proliferation. In 1993, the CIA accused Pyongyang of having enough plutonium for one or two bombs — this while the North was signing agreements allowing for new IAEA inspections.
The new agreements fell apart later that year as the U.S. continued to pressure other countries to impose more extensive limitations and inspection regimes on North Korea, pushing a frustrated Pyongyang to finally opt out of IAEA inspections (but not the NPT). Predictably, the move sparked renewed threats of war from Washington and a mobilization of U.S. forces in the Pacific by then-President Bill Clinton.
Clinton continued the by then well-entrenched American tradition of trading threats with Pyongyang — bringing tensions to a dangerous high while simultaneously leading an unsuccessful campaign at the UN for new, stricter sanctions, a campaign met by North Korean promises of war if new sanctions were imposed. With the world on edge and only a misstep away from war, former President Jimmy Carter, against the wishes of Clinton, set off to Pyongyang to broker peace.
Carter managed to convince Kim Jong Il to agree to a new freeze of North Korea’s weapons program in exchange for sanctions relief and a promised push toward normalization, temporarily ending the standoff. Despite North Korean compliance, the U.S. never eased the sanctions, leaving the country’s population in dire economic straits. In 1996, amid a deadly famine, the U.S. did send aid to the North, but with that rare exception, the standoff remained.
Tensions soon reached new levels with the election of George W. Bush, who, while drumming up public support for the invasion of Iraq, listed North Korea with Iran as a member of the ‘Axis of Evil’ –– in a speech written by latter-day never-Trump neoconservative, David Frum, now praised in the liberal media — leaving both North Korea and Iran wondering when their number would be called.
North Korean and Iranian leaders understood the message Bush was sending: they were next in line for “regime change,” leaving both countries scrambling to shore up their defense capabilities, and Pyongyang to restart its weapons program.
Tensions continued to escalate between the U.S. and North Korea until 2003 when China convened multi-party talks in an attempt to de-escalate the situation on the peninsula. The talks eventually led to another agreement in 2005, in which North Korea would receive limited sanctions-relief in exchange for verified steps towards disarmament.
Unfortunately, we may never know whether North Korea intended to abide by the terms of the agreement, as the Bush administration, along with Japan, imposed new banking sanctions on North Korea the day after the deal was set to go into effect, accusing Pyongyang of counterfeiting U.S. currency. Not long after, North Korea, clearly frustrated with U.S. efforts to sabotage any attempts at normalization, conducted its first nuclear test.
From a North Korean perspective, the test was a success and prompted the Bush administration to back off the counterfeiting charges and again promise sanctions-relief in exchange for a freeze on Pyongyang’s nuclear program. North Korea agreed; but, yet again, the sanctions-relief never came and instead new criteria were demanded for a deal, including human-rights demands and an end to North Korea’s legal non-nuclear missile program. The demands sunk the peninsula back to a standstill until the next nuclear test in 2009, under President Barack Obama.
Obama approached North Korea with what he called “strategic patience,” a strategy similar to Bill Clinton’s 1990’s Iraq strategy: starve your opponent to the table through sanctions. The Obama administration slapped even more sanctions on North Korea for the 2009 nuclear test. In fact, Obama was so pro-sanctions that he began to punish Pyongyang for completely legal activities, such as two satellite launches in 2012, both perfectly within North Korea’s right to build communication infrastructure. Pyongyang responded with another nuclear test in 2013, following up with an official declaration that it was now a nuclear power.
The U.S. now faced a North Korea unwilling in principle to surrender its nuclear weapons but still willing to talk to Washington at any time — even agreeing to suspend nuclear weapons testing in exchange for a freeze on U.S. joint military drills.
The cycle of threats and escalation has remained the status quo since the end of the Cold War and, although Trump’s threats against North Korea have lacked some of the grace with which his predecessors operated, it is important to realize that, to Pyongyang, chronic unwillingness to negotiate in good faith has been part and parcel of U.S diplomacy. Trump’s sporadic ill will towards North Korea is nothing new, and, if he does manage to derail a historic opportunity for reconciliation, escalation on the peninsula will return to a well-traveled status quo.