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North Korea Showdown

May 19, 2017 • Volume 27, Issue 19
Can a military confrontation be averted?
By David Hosansky

Background

Early Era

Although North Korea and South Korea emerged as separate nations comparatively recently, the Korean Peninsula has a long history of division and reunification while contending with external threats. From 56 B.C. until 926, the land was divided into three kingdoms, unified under the Silla dynasty and then divided again into three kingdoms.

The peninsula was reunified under the Koryo dynasty, established by a general named Wang Kon, and was first named “Korea.” The Koryo royal rulers, who reigned from the 10th to 14th centuries, introduced a civil service, codified a legal system and allowed Buddhism to spread through the peninsula. After the Mongols invaded in 1231, the Koryo family eventually was replaced by the Choson dynasty, started by Gen. Yi Song-gye, in 1391.36

The Choson leaders, who would govern Korea as an independent nation for nearly 500 years, depended on China for military protection and borrowed liberally from Chinese society, adopting Confucianism as the official religion. However, after repeated invasions by the Japanese, the Manchu (who ruled China) and others, Korea gradually closed its doors to foreigners in the 18th century, becoming known as the “Hermit Kingdom.” Its isolation ended in the mid-19th century, after European and American traders and missionaries moved into the region.

But Koreans remained highly suspicious of Western motives. When the armed merchant vessel U.S.S. General Sherman sailed up the Taedon River to Pyongyang in 1866 and became stranded on a sandbar, Koreans attacked it and killed the crew.37

Korea remained independent through the late 19th century, but in 1910 Japan annexed the peninsula after victories in both the Sino-Japanese (1894–1895) and Russo-Japanese (1904–1905) wars and claimed Korea as part of its growing empire.

Colonial Period

Under Japan's colonial rule, which lasted until 1945, Korea became more industrialized and began to build a modern infrastructure. But the Japanese repeatedly and savagely crushed resistance. After unsuccessful attempts to overthrow the Japanese, the Western-educated politician, Syngman Rhee, established a provisional Korean government in Shanghai in 1919.

Meanwhile, a communist-led guerrilla movement soldiered on against the Japanese until 1940, when some of its leaders, including Kim Il Sung, fled to the Soviet Union to avoid capture by the Japanese. Kim became a major in the Soviet Army and did not return to Korea until 1945.

During World War II, the United States, Britain and China agreed at a 1943 conference in Cairo that Korea would return to its independent status after the war. But after the war the peninsula became caught up in a struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The Soviets, who occupied northern Korea and adjoining areas of Manchuria in China, viewed the peninsula as an important buffer zone to protect against attacks from the east. The United States, in turn, viewed it as a bulwark against communist expansion. In August 1945, the United States decided unilaterally to divide Korea at the 38th parallel into Soviet and U.S. zones. Within a month, 25,000 American soldiers occupied South Korea while Soviet forces took over the north, accompanied by Kim Il Sung and other Korean communist leaders. Koreans protested both occupying forces as a continuation of colonialism.

Joint American and Soviet discussions over the future of Korea made little progress, and the country was permanently divided in 1948. The Republic of Korea was established in the South, with Rhee elected as the first president. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea was established in the North, headed by resistance fighter Kim, who became premier.

Kim nationalized industry and became very popular, while the new leaders in the South were seen as “puppets” of their occupiers. Kim's brand of communism was not a carbon copy of the Soviet model. Rather, he developed a highly nationalistic ideology known as juche, which stressed self-reliance, independence and resistance to foreign influence.

War and Aftermath

After years of border skirmishes, Kim Il Sung — with support from the Soviet Union and the new communist government of China — invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, quickly taking control of the South except for a small southeastern corner near the port of Pusan. The United States and other allies immediately came to the aid of South Korea.

Before ending in a virtual stalemate, the three-year Korean War produced a massive loss of life: 800,000 Koreans, 115,000 Chinese and 37,000 Americans. An armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, officially splitting the peninsula at the 38th parallel and suspending hostilities, but not technically ending the war.38

An uneasy truce prevailed between the two countries throughout the 1950s and '60s. The North, ruled by the autocratic Kim, again became a closed society. A huge personality cult helped lift the “Dear Leader,” as Kim was called, to almost godlike status among his people. The communist Korean Workers' Party, the leading political entity in the North, ran the centralized government, the military and the economy.

After the Korean War, Moscow and Beijing helped rebuild the war-torn North, and its industrialized economy surged ahead of the South's. Eventually, however, bolstered by the United States and others, the South developed export-oriented industries and became a growing economic power, surpassing the North in the 1970s. Today it has the world's 15th-largest economy and is home to such industrial giants as Samsung and Hyundai.39

By the 1990s, North Korea's sputtering economy and international isolation left it vulnerable to grave crises. Kim Il Sung died of a heart attack in 1994 and was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Il. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the economy went into steep decline because of reduced trade and the loss of subsidized Soviet oil. Economic mismanagement, coupled with widespread floods in 1995 led to a three-year famine that left an estimated 600,000 to 2.5 million dead.40 As the younger Kim consolidated his hold on power, he announced small market-oriented measures, such as bonuses to high-performing workers.

Rising Provocations

Even as the North and South created contrasting economic systems in the years after the Korean War, they built up massive armed forces. The United States established military bases after the armistice was signed and stationed some of its nuclear arsenal in the South. The North responded by focusing increasingly on strengthening its military, while provoking the leaders of South Korea and the United States.

In 1964, Pyongyang took its first steps toward developing nuclear weapons by setting up a nuclear-energy research complex at Yongbyon, where the Soviets had built the North's first nuclear reactor.

In 1968, tensions with the United States flared after the North captured the USS Pueblo, an electronic spy ship that was cruising in international waters off the coast of North Korea gathering intelligence. After 11 months of negotiations, Pyongyang agreed to release the 82 crew members — who had been starved and tortured — in exchange for an admission of guilt and an apology, both of which Washington retracted once the crew were safe. The Pueblo remains a “hostage” in North Korea, and the loss of its sensitive surveillance equipment to a communist country during the Cold War is considered one of the greatest intelligence debacles in U.S. history.41

Despite ongoing tensions, Koreans on both sides of the border hoped for reconciliation. Many families and friends were separated by the DMZ. But border skirmishes and provocations periodically dashed such dreams.

In 1971 negotiations offered hope for reunifying the two nations, and an agreement on ground rules for unification was reached in 1972. But many of the talks were scuttled by provocative actions by the North, such as alleged assassination attempts on South Korean leaders in 1968 and 1974, a bombing that killed 17 South Korean officials in 1983 and the North's continued efforts to develop nuclear weapons.42

Nevertheless, in 2000 both nations signed the North-South Declaration, promising to seek peaceful reunification. Over the following decade, the two countries held a series of talks aimed at normalizing relations. The South pursued a so-called Sunshine Policy, which aimed to project diplomatic “warmth” toward the North. But the countries failed to achieve significant breakthroughs. The North's numerous provocations — including an artillery attack on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong and an apparent torpedo attack on a South Korean warship, both in 2010 — eradicated any chance for reconciliation.

The death of Kim Jong Il in 2011 briefly stirred speculation that the regime might struggle to maintain its hold on power. Kim Jong Un reportedly was his father's favorite, but he was young (about 27 years old, but his exact birth date is unknown). He had been named a four-star general the previous year despite having no military experience and was touted by the state-run media for his alleged high-tech savvy. But outside observers wondered if such a young and inexperienced man would be able to establish his authority, especially in a Confucian society that revered age.

A South Korean journalist said at the time: “The chances of a smooth succession by Kim Jong Un are less than 10 percent” because of his few supporters.43

But the younger Kim was named supreme leader after his father's funeral and assumed his father's posts as leader of the Korean Workers' Party and the highest position in the military.

At the same time, he relentlessly purged potential rivals. After his reform-minded uncle, Jang, was spectacularly executed in 2013, along with his family, a deputy security minister, O Sang-hon, who was accused of conspiring with Jang, reportedly was executed with a flame thrower.44 Kim also continued his father's military policies and continued to push for his grandfather's dream of developing nuclear weapons.

Nuclear Arsenal

North Korea's interest in nuclear weapons can be traced back to the Korean War, when Kim Il Sung discovered that U.S. Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur had asked to use nuclear weapons against the North. Declassified documents show that during the Korean War Kim asked both Russia and China for help in developing a nuclear arsenal.45 But the North's nuclear program made its biggest gains after the government obtained centrifuges and nuclear secrets from Pakistani nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan in the 1990s.46

The North first tested a ballistic missile in 1984, using Soviet Scud missile technology. Although the North joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985, international inspections to determine whether the North was abiding by the treaty did not begin until 1992. In 1994, following nearly 18 months of bilateral negotiations, the United States and North Korea signed the so-called Agreed Framework, in which the North Korea agreed to abide by the NPT and both sides agreed to remove barriers to full economic and diplomatic relations.47

For halting its nuclear program the North would receive oil and nuclear reactors to generate electric power. At the time, Western intelligence agencies believed the North had enough plutonium for one or two bombs.48 In 1999, North Korea agreed to suspend missile testing, and the United States eased trade sanctions it had imposed in 1988, for the bombing of a South Korean jetliner in 1987, which killed all 115 passengers.49

In 2002 U.S. negotiators accused the North of running a clandestine uranium-enrichment program. The Bush administration immediately stopped oil shipments to the North and persuaded other nations to follow suit. North Korea responded by expelling international monitors and restarting its nuclear reactor and reprocessing plant.50

In 2003, North Korea withdrew from the NPT, prompting creation of six-party talks — negotiations among the United States, Japan, China, Russia, and North and South Korea that aimed to push the North to eliminate or reduce its nuclear arsenal. In return, the North sought, among other things, a guarantee of its security, the right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, the normalization of diplomatic relations and the lifting of trade sanctions. The United States and Japan wanted verifiable, irreversible disarmament, while China and Russia wanted a more gradual disarmament process, in which the North is rewarded with some form of aid.

Negotiations broke down, however, and in October 2006 North Korea tested its first nuclear device, becoming the world's eighth atomic power and drawing strong international condemnation. Simultaneously, North Korea was building a rocket delivery system. In April 2009, it failed in an attempt to launch the long-range Taepodong-2 rocket, designed to travel more than 3,000 miles.

After a second nuclear test in 2009, the U.N. Security Council unanimously tightened sanctions on North Korea and encouraged member nations to inspect airplanes and vessels suspected of transporting weapons and other military materiel to North Korea. Besides developing nuclear weapons, Pyongyang also was accused of exporting nuclear and ballistic technology to other states, including Syria and Iran.51

Despite the protests and sanctions, North Korea's nuclear weapons program has expanded. In 2012, the Obama administration agreed to provide North Korea with food aid and nutritional supplements for children in return for Pyongyang imposing a moratorium on long-range missile launches and activity at the nation's main nuclear facility. But less than a year later, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test — the first under Kim Jong Un. North Korea's National Defense Commission said the tests and launches will build to an “upcoming all-out action” against the United States, “the sworn enemy of the Korean people.”52

In 2015, North Korea claimed to have a hydrogen bomb and to have successfully miniaturized nuclear warheads to fit on ballistic missiles. Although U.S. officials expressed skepticism about both claims, no one questioned North Korea's growing nuclear capabilities.

Then last Sept. 9, about a month before the U.S. presidential election, North Korea detonated the nuclear warhead estimated to have the explosive power of 10 kilotons or possibly more — its most powerful to date.53

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[36] For background, see Robert Kiener, “North Korean Menace,” CQ Researcher, July 5, 2011, pp. 315–340.

Footnote:
36. For background, see Robert Kiener, “North Korean Menace,” CQ Researcher, July 5, 2011, pp. 315–340.

[37] Kim Young-Sik, “The Early US-Korea Relations,” Association for Asian Research, July 25, 2003, http://tinyurl.com/ms8czat.

Footnote:
37. Kim Young-Sik, “The Early US-Korea Relations,” Association for Asian Research, July 25, 2003, http://tinyurl.com/ms8czat.

[38] Mary H. Cooper, “North Korean Crisis,” CQ Researcher, April 11, 2003, pp. 321–344, http://tinyurl.com/d5wyr7.

[39] See “Republic of Korea,” World Bank, April 14, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/nuj33xk.

Footnote:
39. See “Republic of Korea,” World Bank, April 14, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/nuj33xk.

[40] Stanton and Lee, op. cit.

Footnote:
40. Stanton and Lee, op. cit.

[41] Ray Locker, “Book reveals new details of N. Korea capture of Pueblo,” USA Today, Jan. 1, 2014, http://tinyurl.com/mfw6ln8.

Footnote:
41. Ray Locker, “Book reveals new details of N. Korea capture of Pueblo,” USA Today, Jan. 1, 2014, http://tinyurl.com/mfw6ln8.

[42] William Chapman, “North Korean leader's son blamed for Rangoon bombing,” The Washington Post, Dec. 3, 1983, http://tinyurl.com/lslwjt9.

Footnote:
42. William Chapman, “North Korean leader's son blamed for Rangoon bombing,” The Washington Post, Dec. 3, 1983, http://tinyurl.com/lslwjt9.

[43] “Kim Jong-Un's chances of success ‘less than 10 percent,’” Chosunilbo, Oct. 16, 2010, http://tinyurl.com/kwczsc5.

Footnote:
43. “Kim Jong-Un's chances of success ‘less than 10 percent,’” Chosunilbo, Oct. 16, 2010, http://tinyurl.com/kwczsc5.

[44] Terrence McCoy, “North Korean official reportedly executed with a flamethrower,” The Washington Post, April 8, 2014, http://tinyurl.com/n6j5knv.

Footnote:
44. Terrence McCoy, “North Korean official reportedly executed with a flamethrower,” The Washington Post, April 8, 2014, http://tinyurl.com/n6j5knv.

[45] Brian Knowlton and David E. Sanger, “N. Korea's first nuclear test draws condemnation,” The New York Times, Oct. 9, 2006, http://tinyurl.com/lkz2kb3.

Footnote:
45. Brian Knowlton and David E. Sanger, “N. Korea's first nuclear test draws condemnation,” The New York Times, Oct. 9, 2006, http://tinyurl.com/lkz2kb3.

[46] David E. Sanger, “North Koreans unveil new plant for nuclear use,” The New York Times, Nov. 21, 2010, http://tinyurl.com/mbb7rhx.

Footnote:
46. David E. Sanger, “North Koreans unveil new plant for nuclear use,” The New York Times, Nov. 21, 2010, http://tinyurl.com/mbb7rhx.

[47] Kelsey Davenport, “The US-North Korean Agreed Framework at a Glance,” The Arms Control Association, Aug. 17, 2004, http://tinyurl.com/zcqnwo4.

Footnote:
47. Kelsey Davenport, “The US-North Korean Agreed Framework at a Glance,” The Arms Control Association, Aug. 17, 2004, http://tinyurl.com/zcqnwo4.

[48] Mary Beth Nikitin, “North Korea's Nuclear Weapons: Technical Issues,” Congressional Research Service, Jan. 20, 2011, http://tinyurl.com/ke6lfg3.

Footnote:
48. Mary Beth Nikitin, “North Korea's Nuclear Weapons: Technical Issues,” Congressional Research Service, Jan. 20, 2011, http://tinyurl.com/ke6lfg3.

[49] Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, “The North Korean spy who blew up a plane,” BBC News, April 22, 2013, http://tinyurl.com/k4svfbz.

Footnote:
49. Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, “The North Korean spy who blew up a plane,” BBC News, April 22, 2013, http://tinyurl.com/k4svfbz.

[50] Simon Jeffery, “Expelled UN inspectors leave N. Korea,” The Guardian, Dec. 31, 2002, http://tinyurl.com/loc2gmu.

Footnote:
50. Simon Jeffery, “Expelled UN inspectors leave N. Korea,” The Guardian, Dec. 31, 2002, http://tinyurl.com/loc2gmu.

[51] Louis Charbonneau, “North Korea, Iran trade missile technology: U.N.,” Reuters, May 15, 2011, http://tinyurl.com/lhzg887.

Footnote:
51. Louis Charbonneau, “North Korea, Iran trade missile technology: U.N.,” Reuters, May 15, 2011, http://tinyurl.com/lhzg887.

[52] “North Korea nuclear timeline fast facts,” CNN, April 6, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/z75fcsz.

Footnote:
52. “North Korea nuclear timeline fast facts,” CNN, April 6, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/z75fcsz.

[53] Katie Hunt, K. J. Kwon, and Jason Hanna, “North Korea claims successful test of nuclear warhead,” CNN, Sept. 10, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/gpnc89e.

Footnote:
53. Katie Hunt, K. J. Kwon, and Jason Hanna, “North Korea claims successful test of nuclear warhead,” CNN, Sept. 10, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/gpnc89e.



Document APA Citation — See Alternate Citation Style
Hosansky, D. (2017, May 19). North Korea showdown. CQ researcher, 27, 433-456. Retrieved from http://library.cqpress.com/
Document ID: cqresrre2017051903
Document URL: http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre2017051903
ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Korea
May 19, 2017  North Korea Showdown
Jul. 05, 2011  North Korean Menace
Apr. 11, 2003  North Korean Crisis
May 19, 2000  Future of Korea
Aug. 12, 1977  Relations with South Korea
Apr. 24, 1968  Divided Korea
Jan. 27, 1960  Korea: Problem Protectorate
Aug. 24, 1951  Rehabilitation of Korea
Nov. 01, 1945  Freedom for Korea
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War and Conflict
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