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Korean War: Legacy Alive and Well in the Current North Korea Crisis

As the U.S. National Security Council just termed recent North Korean nuclear threats “bellicose rhetoric,” analysts have been scrambling to determine just how serious the hermit kingdom is this time around. While recent frenzy is marked by a variety of new and troubling factors, today’s onlookers should not forget the dizzying history of rising and falling tensions that have long marked U.S.-North Korea relations.

North Korean disdain for Washington and Seoul have deep historical roots just as U.S distrust for Pyongyang has been reinforced by years of breached agreements and aggression. However, North Korean resource insecurities and U.S. regional security interests have contributed to remarkable moments of conciliation in the recent past.

Historical grievances

The UN-imposed 38th parallel dividing the Korean peninsula through WWII has ignited years of deep-seated resentment. Intended as a temporary measure, the division was central during ensuing U.S. occupation of South Korea while Soviet forces occupied the North. After Kim Il-sung, a devoted follower of Stalin, formed the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948, the U.S. has continually refused formal diplomatic recognition (a stance which has raised some criticism over the years). Diplomatic tensions were further cemented by U.S. response to North Korean attempts to regain territory in 1950, leading to the Korean War.

British Historian David Keys accounts for ensuing North Korean regime behavior by its disdain for U.S. involvement, and also the “collapse of communism worldwide (including, to an extent, China),” which have left the regime increasingly isolated.

Recurring cycles 

In this historical context, an ongoing cycle of crisis, stalemate, and normalization has shaped decades of U.S.- North Korean relations. 

Aggression in the 1960s, such as the North Korean seizure of the U.S.S. Pueblo and shooting down of a reconnaissance plane, contributed to a period of heated tensions and harsh U.S. sanctions. Such tensions eventually thawed as Pyongyang faced food shortages and eventually acceded in 1985 to the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). By 1998 South Korea announced its own “sunshine policy” as an initiative to improve inter-Korean relations, as a cloud of tensions appeared to be lifting.

This cycle of crisis and agreement swung around again by the turn of the 21st century, as tensions mounted with fears of a nuclear North Korea under Kim Jong-il, marked by President George W. Bush’s famous “Axis of Evil” remark of 2002. North Korea expelled nuclear inspectors and withdrew from the NPT, entering six-party talks with the U.S., China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea as it proclaimed it had successfully produced nuclear weapons by 2005. Again, tensions waned, and Pyongyang ultimately agreed to abandon its nuclear programs for aid and security guarantees in 2005. An accord was set in 2007, and by 2008 President Bush formally removed North Korea from U.S. terror watch list.

Since 2009, a relentless ebb and flow of tensions has ensued, marked by public outcry over the North Korean capture of U.S. journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee and the North’s sinking of South Korean warship Cheonan killing 46 people in 2010. As Kim Jong-un took charge in December of 2011, the young leader has stepped up with remarkable defiance despite mounting sanctions, repeatedly violating ballistic missile test bans, while publicizing his country’s intent to “destroy” the U.S.

Back to the table?

The fact is, just as periods of blustery rhetoric and weapons buildup have been a key trait of North Korean strategy for decades, periods of pull back and incentives for normalization have been consistent elements of North Korea’s story thus far. Although full nuclear capability no doubt changes the game, Pyongyang can’t avoid ongoing resource scarcity (including lingering impact from a massive outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease harming livestock last year, requiring North Korea to reach out to the U.N. for emergency relief, and devastation from recent flooding). Kim Jong-un simply cannot preserve long-term, stable rule if he continues to alienate international sources for emergency relief.

The U.S. is gaining Chinese support for tougher sanctions, support that can strengthen American efforts to push Pyongyang to make a deal. From the U.S. perspective, there is also incentive to strike a deal as fear remains that ongoing conflict with Korea will be costly.

As Glyn Davies pointed out in a March Senate testimony, progress on this “decades-old problem” will “not be achieved easily or quickly.” Much is changing as the nuclear game heightens, but various interests that have undergirded a cyclical history remain the same, and provide hope that incentive remains for tensions to ease. 

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