Background on the North Korean crisis

The important things to remember about North Korea are:

  • North Korea for nearly 70 years has been under a totalitarian government which has indoctrinated its people with absolute loyalty and obedience.
  • Its ruling ideology—called Juche—is based on the principles of national independence, economic self-sufficiency, cultural purity and glorification of leaders.
  • Despite loss of an estimated 20 percent of its population during the Korean Conflict, and starvation in later eras, the leaders have never given in to threats.
  • Based on past actions of the U.S. government toward Iraq, Libya and Iran, North Korean leaders have good reason to think that giving up nuclear weapons would be suicidal.

The Hermit Kingdom

Korea at the dawn of the 20th century had little relation with the outside world, except for Christian missionaries.  Japan made it a protectorate in 1905 and annexed it in 1910.  The Korean language and culture were suppressed, and Korea was exploited for the benefit of the Japanese Empire.

Kim Il-sung

Kim Il-sung was born in 1912 to Presbyterian parents.  His name, which is not his birth name, means “Kim became the sun.”  His birthday is a national holiday called “day of the sun.”

The Kim family fled the repressive Japanese regime and settled in Manchuria in 1920.  Young Kim supposedly founded something called the Down-With-Imperialism Union, dedicated to liberation of Korea from Japanese rule, in 1926, at age 14.

He joined the Chinese Communist Party in the 1930s and led a guerrilla band that fought the Japanese in Manchuria.  Ultimately defeated, he fled into the Soviet Union, where he became an officer of the Red Army.

As World War Two drew to a close, the USSR declared war on Japan, overran Manchuria and occupied Korea north of the 38th parallel, with Kim as head of the North Korean Communist Party.   US forces occupied the southern party

Supposedly this was a temporary measure until Korea was unified, but an independent Republic of Korea was declared in the south in May, 1948, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, with Kim as the head, in August of that year.

In 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea and nearly conquered the whole Korean peninsula before being driven back.  Max Hastings, a British military historian, said there had been considerable pro-Communist sentiment in South Korea, which might have led to a guerrilla movement as in South Vietnam.   But the brutality and mass executions carried on by North Korean troops soon changed their minds.

U.S. intervention turned the tide, and then Chinese intervention created a stalemate.  American air forces bombed North Korea until there were no targets left, and then they bombed the river dams, flooding the country’s sparse farmland.   General Curtis LeMay estimated that 20 percent of the North Korean population were killed.

The two sides agreed to a cease-fire in 1953, in which the division of the country was frozen along existing battle lines.  Part of the armistice agreement was that neither sides would increase the size of its force or introduce new weapons.  That agreement was broken in 1958 when the U.S. brought nuclear weapons into South Korea.

South Korea was an extremely poor country in that era.   When I did my military service in the mid-1950s, it was the least desirable duty station.  Returning GIs said it was a hellhole of poverty and filth.

Somehow the South Koreans managed to created a stable democratic government and a modern, high-technology economy.  They were open to the world, receptive to new ideas and took part in world trade.

North Korea under Kim Il-sung took a different path.   Everything was sacrificed to building up military power.   He made his country into a little junior Soviet Union, based on an ideology of extreme nationalism, militarism and totalitarian control.

In the 1960s, North Korea began raids against South Korea and U.S. forces there.  North Korea dug tunnels under the demilitarized zone and sent agents into South Korea.   There were firefights along the DMZ.

In 1968, North Koreans seized the U.S.S. Pueblo, a Navy ship patrolling the coast, and kept its crew prisoner for more than a year.   In 1976, North Korean troops killed U.S. soldiers with axes, in retaliation for their cutting down a tree in the DMZ said to have been planed by Kim Il-sung.

Kim Jong-il

Kim Jong-il, the son of Kim Il-sung, gradually assumed more power in the 1980s.   He is the one held responsible for a bombing in Rangoon in 1983 that killed 17 South Korean government officials, including four Cabinet members, and the shooting down of a South Korean airliner in 1987, killing 115.

He ordered the kidnapping of his favorite South Korean movie director, and the director’s actress wife, in 1978.  They made seven movies for him before escaping in 1986.

North Korea depended economically and for protection on the Soviet Union, which was cut off when the USSR collapsed.   There were reports of famine and death by starvation.   Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il prioritized the military danger and began a nuclear weapons development program.

In 1994, the year of Kim Il-sung’s death, President Bill Clinton sent Jimmy Carter to negotiate.  They came up with what was called the Agreed Framework, in which North Korea would halt nuclear weapons development while the United States would provide fuel oil and light water reactors to generate electricity.

The agreement wasn’t kept by either side.   Congress after 1996 refused to authorize the promised supplies, and North Korea secretly started a second nuclear weapons program.

President George W. Bush renounced the agreement and demanded North Korea disarm.   North Korea went ahead with its nuclear program and conducted its first underground nuclear test in 2006.   This triggered economic sanctions by the United States, other countries and the United Nations, which continue to this day.

An attempt was made to restart negotiations among North and South Korea, Russia, China, Japan and the USA, but these failed, and North Korea conducted its second bomb test in 2009.

President Barack Obama adopted a policy of what he called “strategic patience”—saying nothing and waiting until economic sanctions made North Korea give in.

Kim Jong-un

Kim Jong-il was succeeded by his younger son, Kim Jong-un, in 2011.   Kim Jong-un ordered the execution of his uncle and the murder of his older brother, who was in exile.  He is blamed for a cyber attack on Sony Pictures for producing a movie depicting his assassination.

He has said he will never disarm until a peace treaty is signed and he receives a guarantee that the United States will not attack his country or attempt to overthrow his government, as was done to Iraq, Libya and Syria after they renounced weapons of mass destruction.

If President Donald Trump renounces the nuclear agreement with Iran, this would be further evidence that the United States cannot be trusted to make and keep agreements.


I see pictures of the overweight Kim Jong-il and I realize that, even if economic sanctions reduce his country to starvation, he and his bodyguards will not starve and will not give in.

I look at what happened to Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi, and Bashir al-Assad, who all tried to keep on the good side of the U.S. government, and I think Kim Jong-un has logical reasons for thinking that giving up nuclear weapons would be suicidal.

Of course it also would be suicidal for North Korea to attack the United States.   That’s why it probably won’t happen.   The only way it could happen would be if Kim Jong-un thought he was going to be attacked anyway, and had nothing to lose.

What makes North Korea a threat is (1) the lack of a peace treaty, (2) the danger that it will attempt to unify the Korean peninsula under its own rule and (3) North Korea’s complete isolation from the rest of the world’s influence.

The Russian and Chinese governments have proposed a “double freeze”: the North Korean government freezes its development of missiles and nuclear bombs, and the U.S. government ceases military exercises in South Korea, which take the form of rehearsal of an attack on North Korea.

A freeze is not disarmament.  I don’t think it is possible to make the North Korean government give up its nuclear weapons except—possibly—as part of a general and verified worldwide disarmament of all nuclear powers.

I think that the more President Trump threatens North Korea, the more fearful its government will become, and the more it will intensify its nuclear weapons program.

I hope it is possible for the North and South Korean governments to pragmatically agree to co-exist, as the governments of West and East Germany once did.

Whether the North Korean regime could afford to give up its external threat is an open question.   For that matter, whether the present American regime can afford to give up its external threat is an open question.

I hope it is possible for North Korea to someday become a normal nation.   I think that can best be achieved by encouraging its leaders to open up, not by driving them further into paranoid isolation.


Nine questions about North Korea you were too embarrassed to ask by Alex Ward for Vox.

What Trump Needs to Know About North Korean History by Sheila Myoshi Jager for Politico magazine.

The Lamps Are Going Out in Asia by Joseph DeThomas for 38 North.

How Trump’s Predecessors Dealt With the North Korean Threat by Russell Goldman for The New York Times.

The U.S. and North Korea on the Brink: a Timeline by Priyanka Boghani for PBS Frontline.

Trump’s War on the North Korean People by Gregory Elich for Counterpunch.

Why Won’t the Democrats Challenge Trump on North Korea? by Peter Beinart for The Atlantic.

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