News that North Korea had secretly resumed its nuclear weapons program hit the front pages in the United States less than four years ago and has remained in the headlines since its highly-publicized tests in the past months.  Since that time, the small, secretive country has remained a top story with its claims of weapons tests, expulsion of United Nations inspectors and withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. While relations between the United States and North Korea have been deteriorating since President George W. Bush labeled the country part of an “axis of evil” in 2002, the path that has lead to the current situation is actually more than seventy years long and much more complicated.

At the end of World War II, North Korea was divided into two geographic regions. The Soviet Union was given control of the area north of the 38th parallel and the United States the southern region. Although this division was intended to be temporary, the two controlling nations had difficulty creating a single plan to develop a unified, independent Korea. Adding to this difficulty was the fact that the majority of Koreans objected to the presence of foreign rule, having just been freed from Japanese imperial rule and remembering the results of past intervention in the Far East by the United States. After more than two years of struggle to develop a joint government, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. each went about developing separate plans for the areas under their control. Under Soviet influence, a communist state began to emerge in the north. The U.S. worked in the south to develop a moderate interim Legislative Assembly and interim Government, both of which proved ineffective. After much criticism from right-wing Korean leaders and the assassination of several prominent politicians, the U.S. turned to the United Nations General Assembly for guidance in 1947.

The United Nations formed the Temporary Commission on Korea and authorized it to conduct a national election to develop a centralized, unified government. While this was supported by the United States and most people in South Korea, the U.S.S.R. and the leaders in the north rejected the plan and refused to allow the Commission to enter North Korea. The Commission was soon forced to adopt an alternative plan which called for elections only in areas where it was possible—namely in South Korea. On August 15, 1948 the U.S.-occupied south officially became the Republic of Korea, with Dr. Syngman Rhee elected as President. In August of that same year, the communists then established the 527-member Supreme People’s Assembly of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Kim Il Sung, a young commander of the Korean Communist guerillas and captain in the Soviet Red Army, became the new country’s Prime Minister. As was always the case with any change in leadership in the country, the introduction of this new leader caused a number of problems, both internally and internationally.

U.S. forces withdrew from South Korea in June of 1949. Unfortunately, the young country’s forces were not as strong as those of North Korea, having been built up with help from the Soviets. In June of 1950, 60,000 troops from the North, supported by Soviet tanks, crossed the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea. Four days after the initial invasion, the North Koreans captured Seoul, the South Korean capital. Although this was not an incredibly bloody conflict, particularly in terms of others that had raged in the region, it did set the tone for how the rest of the world would view North Korea. With their Communist backing and willingness to comply with Soviet demands, they were already being seen as an aggressive and potentially dangerous force.

According to Kathryn Weathersby, the United States and its allies believed that the attack had been ordered by Joseph Stalin (1993, p. 432) although archival material presented in “Uncertain Partners: Stalin, Mao, and the Korean War” (1995), suggests that the invasion was directed not by the Soviet dictator but by Kim himself, the mere suggestion of Soviet involvement was enough to prompt the deployment of troops from 16 U.N. member states to help repel the invasion (Goncharov, Lewis & Litai, 1994). Under U.S. command, the U.N. troops forced the invaders back and advanced into North Korea. In October, after the allied forces captured Pyongyang, the People’s Republic of China sent troops to support North Korea. The Chinese forced the evacuation of U.N. and South Korean troops from the North. The Chinese troops attempted to cross into the South, but were driven back by the U.N. troops in April of 1951. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, by the time a truce agreement was reached in 1953, nearly a million South Koreans has been killed or injured and more than 54,000 American servicemen and women had given their lives (Garamone, 2006, ¶ 6).

The fifteen years following the end of the Korean War were very tense on the Korean peninsula. The armistice agreement that ended the fighting never evolved into a formal peace treaty, resulting in suspicion and attempted coups on both sides of the 38th parallel. The closing of the Korean War did little to end any problems in the region and in fact, since that time there has been only an increase in conflict between the United States and North Korea. For instance, tensions between North Korea and the United States became particularly tense in 1968 after four North Korean patrol boats surrounded the USS Pueblo, off the coast of North Korea. American officials maintained that the spy ship was in international waters at the time it was surrounded, but North Korea insists that the ship was illegally in its territory.  Both sides defended their respective positions vehemently but in the end, the crewmembers of the American ship were held captive for 11 months until a U.S. negotiator reluctantly signed a document confessing to espionage. Despite the signing of the document, the relationship between the two countries was far from resolved and they flared up again between the two countries in 1976, when a convoy of South Korean soldiers accompanied by two U.S. Army officers crossed into the North to prune a tree that had blocked visibility between two U.N. checkpoints. The party was confronted by eight North Korean soldiers and following a brief struggle, the two American soldiers were beaten and axed to death.  This was seen as an act of open hostility and unwarranted aggression by the United States and although North Korea had already been heavily publicly criticized in the West, this event brought a new intensity to the war of words and press. Small incidents such as this had earth-shattering consequences for relations between the two countries and neither was willing to allow any leeway or peaceful resolution, even with the end of the Cold War.

In 1991 the United States and its allies celebrated the end of the Cold War, which had lasted for nearly 50 years. In North Korea, however, the breakup of the Soviet Union was met with a much different reaction.According to Bradley Martin in Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty (2004), the country had grown incredibly dependent on aid from the Soviet Union. “With the collapse of the Soviets as a world superpower,” Martin writes, “the North Korean regime lost not only an important aid source, but also its main trading partner” (p. 621). Although Kim downplayed his country’s economic troubles, a food shortage quickly set in as a result of the end of the Cold War. It was this food crisis that eventually led Kim to seek a new relationship with the world’s remaining superpower, the United States. In many ways, this was considered by the West to be “too little too late” and it was clear that the North Korean leader was merely seeking an end to his problems.  After his invitations to both President Jimmy Carter and evangelist Billy Graham to visit North Korea were declined, Kim sought a different, less peaceful avenue to establish leverage with the U.S.

In 1993, the leader threatened to withdraw from the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which North Korea had ratified in 1985. Convinced that the North Koreans had already produced at least one nuclear weapon, the United States offered the country improved commercial and diplomatic ties in exchange for not withdrawing from the NPT. After more than a year and a half of talks, including a private trip to Pyongyang by former President Carter, the two sides finally came to an Agreed Framework. As part of the agreement, North Korea agreed to not restart its nuclear reactor, ship all spent fuel out of the country, halt the development of two additional reactors, fully disclose past nuclear activities and open all facilities to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. In exchange for these, the United States and its allies promised to supply North Korea with two light-water reactors and other alternative energy resources. The signing of the agreement was delayed due to the sudden death of North Korean leader Kim Il Sung on July 8, 1994.  Replaced by his son, Kim Jong Il, the agreement was signed in October of 1994. Many leaders in the West were tentatively confident that the takeover in power by Kim’s son might change the harsh tone of United States and North Korean relations. This, however, was not the case and in fact, the new leader was even less likely to wish to engage in peaceful negotiations and was more likely to engage in overtly aggressive tactics to deal with the United States and its allies.

After four relatively quiet years, North Korea shocked the world in 1998 by launching a missile over the Sea of Japan. In response, the United States immediately begins a review of its policy toward the country. At this point, it became clear that the same historical way they had been dealing with the country was no longer effective and that it was time to usher in a new way of handling issues with North Korea, especially since it was becoming such a threat to stability in both the region and abroad.  In October 1999, after an eight-month review, former Defense Secretary William Perry delivers his final report, “Review of United States Policy Toward North Korea: Findings and Recommendations.” The report concludes that “the urgent focus of U.S. policy toward the DPRK must be to end its nuclear weapons and long-range missile-related activities” (¶ 5). In other words, the focus shifted and the United States was, for the first time, becoming concerned primarily with North Korea’s status as an international aggressor and nuclear threat.

Since the reviews focused on viewing North Korea as an even larger threat were instituted, the reaction and decisions made by the small country have increased in intensity. In January 2001 after George W. Bush was inaugurated, new Secretary of State Colin Powell tells reporters that the Bush administration plans to continue the previous administration’s work with North Korea and stresses that there will be a new focus to the diplomatic and political efforts.  In October of 2002, during a visit to Pyongyang by Assistant U.S. Secretary of State James Kelly, the North Korean Deputy Secretary apparently acknowledged that the country had been conducting a covert nuclear-weapons development program (“North Korea admits,2002, ¶ 1). North Korea officials unapologetically stated that the existence of this program nullified the 1994 agreement. Not long after this development, the United States joined six-way talks about the issue with North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.     These talks, which lasted more than a year resulted in an apparent agreement by North Korea to, once again, abandon all nuclear weapons programs. At this point, the United States and allied countries were relatively confident that the North Koreans would honor this agreement but this was to prove a mistake, one for which the United States would not fall victim again. It was clear that the North Koreans were not a trustworthy diplomatic partner.

As with all previous agreements with North Korea, this one too apparently has fallen apart. North Korea’s foreign ministry released a statement on October 3, 2006 announcing the country’s plan to conduct its first nuclear weapon test. The test, which reportedly took place in an underground site on October 8, was quickly condemned. In response, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously on October 14 to impose sanctions on the country. In response to the announcement of sanctions, the North Korean ambassador to the U.N. stated that his country “totally rejected” the resolution, later referring to it as a “declaration of war” (“U.N. Security Council,” 2006, ¶ 8). There is a new urgency to this situation after these recent events and the United States is still at a stalemate as to what to do. On the one hand, many leaders recognize the importance of maintaining diplomacy as the chief way of dealing with North Korea although some are suggesting that more aggressive measures be taken.

The long, complicated road that has lead to this most recent development provides no clear direction for how the United States can best proceed with North Korea. As it stands now, there is still no agreement between members of the United States government nor that of her allies. Most of the West recognizes that there is an urgent need to address this crisis before it gets out of hand but there is not an agreed-upon solution to handling it. On the one hand, the United States and other Western nations know that diplomacy can be powerful but as the historical situation has proved time and again, the North Koreans do not always uphold their end of the political bargain. As a result, it seems feasible to think that more aggressive solutions should be employed since diplomacy has not worked in the past. While the actions of the secretive North Korean regime seem to be erratic and unreasonable, perhaps a closer examination of the entire history of the conflict will help the U.S. and its allies to develop a solution that will stand the test of time.

Other essays and articles in the Main Archives related to this topic include :  A Few Insights on Birth Control and Contraception Use in China    • Condensed History of the Vietnam War : Major Events and Facts  •   Profile of Tokyo with Emphasis on Globalization    •   The Battle of Iwo Jima


Foster-Carter, A. & Nahm, A. History up to the Korean War, Europa World Plus. Retrieved October 29 2006 from

Garamone, J. (2006, October 26) North Korean “Bolt from the Blue” Attack Remains a Concern. American Forces Information Service. Retrieved October 28, 2006, from

Goncharov, Sergei N., Lewis, John W. and Xue Litai. (1994). Uncertain partnersStalin,         Mao, and the Korean War. (pp. 15-126). Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University     Press.

Il Sung, K. “On Socialist Construction and the South Korean Revolution in the   Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” Pyongyang, North Korea. December 1955.

Martin, B. (2004). Under the loving caare of the fatherly leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty. (pp.1-28). New York, NY:Thomas Dunne Books.

North Korea admits covert nuclear weapons program: 1994 Nonproliferation pact        declared void. (2002, October 17). Facts On File World News Digest.     Retrieved October 29, 2006, from Facts On File World News Digest database.

North Korea, in talks with U.S., says it possesses nuclear arms. (2003, May 1). Facts On File World News Digest. Retrieved October 29, 2006, from Facts On File    World News Digest database.

Perry, W. (1999). Review of United States policy toward North Korea: Findings and     recommendations.  Washington, DC: U.S. Department of State.

Weathersby, K. (1992). The Soviet Role in the Early Phase of the Korean War.  Journal of American-East Asian Relations, 2(4), 432.