The United States and North Korea: A Brief History of Patience

The announced summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un surprised and shocked the world. The meeting between these two leaders will be historic as these two states have had almost no direct diplomatic contact since the end of the Korean War in 1953. As the meeting approaches, everyone is wondering what to expect. An inspection of the historical record of the U.S.-North Korea relationship can help shed some light on what could happen in the upcoming talks. Realistically, the dynamic between North Korea and the United States can be summed up in a quote from the Nixon administration: “the more serious the U.S. action, the greater is the risk of North Korean counteraction and escalation.” Patience is essential.

Image courtesy of Gilad Rom/Flickr, © 2012

Three Incidents

Since a 1953 armistice, Cold War dynamics have mostly dominated the relations between the United States and North Korea, with the latter firmly in the Soviet Union’s camp. The question of Korean unification, the same question that started the Korean War, was and still remains unanswered, though both North and South Korea claim reunification as an ultimate objective. To this end, the DMZ separating the two states has been a constant point of contention, with border skirmishes flaring up over the past decades. The United States was actively involved in three major incidents in this regard.

The first was the seizure of the USS Pueblo on January 23, 1968. The Pueblo was conducting surveillance exercises in international waters off the North Korean coast when it was seized by North Korean vessels. Its 83 crewmembers were imprisoned for nearly a year and were subsequently subjected to torture and forced to appear in propaganda videos. The surviving 82 crewmembers were released on December 23, 1968, through negotiations between North Korea and the Johnson Administration. The second incident occurred the following year, on April 15, 1969, when North Korean fighter jets shot down a U.S. surveillance aircraft, killing all 31 crewmembers. Despite calls for retaliation from Congress, President Nixon exercised restraint. He did not retaliate, but continued surveillance flights with military escort to show resolve. The final incident occurred in 1976 when North Korean soldiers fired on and killed two American officers who were trimming a tree in the DMZ. Kim Il-Sung apologized for the incident, and the tree was removed from the DMZ accompanied by a show of American and South Korean military force.

All three of these incidents illustrate the danger of escalation encapsulated in the 1969 National quote: “the more serious the U.S. action, the greater is the risk of North Korean counteraction and escalation.” Escalation invites war between North and South Korea. At the time of the first two incidents, the United States could not afford to fight in both Vietnam and Korea. Additionally, any actions taken against North Korea would risk angering the Soviet Union and China, potentially sparking a larger conflict.

The Nuclear Element

North Korea joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985, officially as a non-nuclear state. After the end of the Cold War in 1993, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was refused access by North Korea to two waste storage sites, and North Korea threatened to withdraw from the NPT when the IAEA protested. Negotiations between the United States and North Korea resulted in the Agreed Framework. The agreement stipulated that in exchange for giving up its clandestine nuclear weapons program, North Korea would receive two light water reactors, the normalization of relations between the United States and North Korea, and a formal reassurance from the United States that it will not use nuclear weapons against North Korea.

Upon entering office, George W. Bush’s administration began a review of the Agreed Framework and the U.S. policy stance towards North Korea, famously including the state as a member of the so-called “axis of evil.” The IAEA could not verify if North Korea was completely abiding by its end of the framework and in October 2002 North Korea withdrew. Just a few months later, North Korea formally withdrew from the NPT. A next level of escalation took place on October 9, 2006 when North Korea tested its first nuclear device. Subsequent efforts to deescalate the situation through the Six-Party Talks collapsed. North Korea continued to pursue nuclear weapons and now Kim Jong-un’s North Korea has the basics of a nuclear deterrent.

What to Expect

During the Cold War, North Korea was able to brazenly assail the United States on multiple occasions without substantial retaliation because the United States was wary of a full escalation. Kim Jong-un’s nuclear weapons are the epitomical result of this policy stance in that North Korea can threaten to launch a nuclear attack against Seoul or Tokyo if the United States tries to harm North Korea in any way. Going into these new talks, the United States should expect North Korea to try to keep its nuclear arsenal through any means necessary, as these weapons are viewed as the ultimate guarantor of the regime’s survival. It is entirely possible that the price of denuclearization will be too great for the United States and its allies, at which point the United States must remember that patience is the best option. The mantra from 1969, “the more serious the U.S. action, the greater is the risk of North Korean counteraction and escalation,” still holds true today.


John Ashley

John Ashley was the 2017 YPFP Nuclear Security Fellow; he holds a Master of International Policy degree from the University of Georgia, where his studies concentrated in CBRN nonproliferation, export controls, and international security. John also holds a B.A. in History from the University of Georgia, and wrote his thesis on the Great War in Africa. His career goal is to work on the committee staff for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
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