The US and North Korea: a brief history

Technology Eye | Dec. 19, 2017

US President Donald Trump has said Washington has "no choice" but to deal with North Korea's arms programme.

There has been growing global unease over the bellicose rhetoric between the US president and North Korea's leader, Kim Jung-Un. In a recent speech unveiling his administration's new national security strategy , Trump said: "America and its allies will take all necessary steps to ... ensure that this regime cannot threaten the world."

To understand the context of these remarks, here's a brief look at the history of the relationship between the two countries.

A brief history

To the generation born since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the talk of proxy wars in the Middle East and heated words over missile launches in North Korea must seem like an alien language.

But to those who lived and grew up during the Cold War era following the Second World War, it is a reminder that the conflicts of around 70 and more years ago have left legacies and enmities that have not yet gone away – and which still pose a real threat to world peace.

To begin to understand this complex relationship, you have to look back to the Korean War of 1950-1953 – a short but bloody conflict in which up to 3 million Koreans died, most of them in the north. About 58,000 US soldiers also lost their lives, as did 1 million Chinese and about 1,000 British troops.

The roots of conflict

Korea was liberated from 35 years of fractious and often harsh Japanese rule when the Second World War ended in 1945. While many Koreans wanted a self-governing state, much of the country’s prosperity had been built on the input of its old imperial rulers and by the time Japanese rule had ended Korea was the second-most industrialized nation in the region, after Japan.

But both the opportunities presented by the country’s industrial strength and its location on the borders of China and Japan – with whom the US wanted to build trade relationships after the war – and Russia’s desire to increase its “sphere of influence” meant that the hopes of a single, self-governed nation were not to be realized.

Late 1940s and early 1950s America, spooked by fears of communism, sought to contain what it saw as the threat of global communism, and this division led to Korea being split into two along the 38th parallel.

Effectively, North Korea became a Soviet-supported communist regime led by Kim Il-sung, grandfather of current ruler Kim Jong-un, while South Korea became a US-backed attempt at democracy under Syngman Rhee.

The road to a Cold War

Tensions were never far from the surface and various factions sought to unify the country. A widely accepted version of the story says that on June 25 1950, armed with Soviet weapons, North Korea crossed the 38th parallel border in an attempt to take over the whole territory.

However, it is probable that the eventual outbreak was the result of a gradual escalation of hostilities by both sides over time.

In 1950, with the Soviets boycotting the UN Security Council over a decision to exclude China from membership, Harry Truman, the US president, was able to secure a resolution to use force against North Korea and the war began.

In many ways this was the official start of the Cold War , in which the US and Russia used others to engage in conflicts because of fears that a direct war between the two sides would escalate to all-out nuclear war.

While both sides had the upper hand in the Korean dispute at various times – and it eventually dragged China in on the North’s side and the British and other UN member states on the South’s – the dispute ended in stalemate in July 1953.


The conflict was bloody, with the US carpet bombing its opponent’s cities and civilians with more than 635,000 tons of explosives, including 32,557 tons of napalm. By comparison, in the Second World War, it had used 503,000 tons in the South Pacific over a much larger area.

As well as setting the template for later Cold War tensions such as the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the Vietnam War of 1965-73, the Korean War left a visible divide between the two halves of Korea in the Demilitarized Zone , a heavily fenced and land-mined 4 kilometre separation strip guarded on both sides.

Following the armistice, the Republic of Korea, known as South Korea, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea, were created. Both were officially admitted into the UN General Assembly in 1991.

But the conflict left feelings of anger and hatred on both sides as many families were forcibly separated , some never to be reunited, while in the North the blanket bombings of the Korean War and the imperialist Japanese rule are still sources of rancour.

As Robert E Kelly, a professor of political science at South Korea’s Pusan National University, told CNN : “The bombing is treated as the American original sin in the (North Korean) propaganda and it certainly was savage.

“It’s become a political tool to justify the permanent emergency state. Japanese colonization is used the same.”

Many North Koreans still view the US bombings as war crimes.

And the tensions remain

While the US, Japan and their allies helped to rebuild South Korea, the North turned to Russia, China and the nations in the Communist sphere of influence, which between them supplied almost 880 million roubles as well as manpower and technological input.

The result, according to historian Charles K Armstrong , was that: “In the late 1950s North Korea’s growth rate of total industrial output (averaging 39% between 1953 and 1960) was probably the highest in the world.”

But tensions, which even today run broadly on the lines established in the Cold War, have always kept the US and North Korea at loggerheads.

For the US, these have mostly been fueled by the North’s nuclear ambitions and its development of missile technology, both of which are alleged to have provided it with exports to states such as Iran and Syria.

Some key events and dates in this US-North Korean relationship have included:

While George W Bush described North Korea as part of an “axis of evil” , his successor, Barack Obama, kept up an attempt at dialogue mixed with sanctions .

Donald Trump, the current US president, has been critical of past efforts to engage with the regime and taken a far less tolerant attitude to both North Korea and its ruler in the mainstream media and on Twitter .

The current crop of missile tests , some of which have flown over Japan, a key US ally and a major global economy, have been seen as a deliberate provocation of the US, as have claims it now has missiles that can hit mainland America.

SOURCE: World Economic Forum

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