The North Korea nuclear threat: how did we get here?

Hostility between the U.S. and North Korea might be on everyone’s minds lately, but the conflict has been simmering since the 1950s.

North and South Korea
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Both North Korea and the U.S. have ratcheted up tensions lately, from North Korea’s launch of ballistic missiles to President Donald Trump stating that North Korea will be “met with fire and fury and…power the likes of which this world has never seen before” if they make any more threats to the United States.

While the stakes have been considerably increased by the nuclear capabilities of both countries, the tensions have been broiling under the surface for decades.

North and South Korea. Credit: Creative Commons

The birth of the two Koreas

Before 1945, there was no North or South Korea. There was only a unified Korean Peninsula. According to historian Karunakar Gupta, the region changed hands multiple times throughout history, at one point a Chinese tributary state and at another a Japanese colony. But near the end of the World War II in 1945, the Soviet Union and the U.S. agreed to divide the peninsula between the two forces.

The dividing line is known as the 38th parallel—so named due to its location around the 38 degree north line of latitude.

The 38th parallel // Creative Commons

“The 38th Parallel makes no political, topographical, geographic, economic, or military sense. It cut right through whole towns, and even, in one case, separated one wing of a factory from another,” says journalist John Gunther in his book The Riddle of MacArthur.

By 1949, both the U.S. and the Soviets pulled out of their respective halves of Korea, leaving behind a government based on their own respective style of government, according to Gupta. In the North, Kim Il-sung, the Juche leader of the Worker’s Party of Korea, led a style of government modeled on the Soviets, while, Syngman Rhee, a capitalist dictator, led South Korea with America’s backing.

“The 38th Parallel makes no political, topographical, geographic, economic, or military sense. It cut right through whole towns, and even, in one case, separated one wing of a factory from another.”

By 1950, however, the Korean War broke out. Partially, fought as a proxy war between the Soviets and the U.S. in their running Cold War. But aggressive posturing by Il-sung’s government in the North and Rhee’s government in the South largely contributed to the war.

Syngman Rhee //Creative Commons

“…Rhee said that he would attack even if ‘it brought general war.’ All of this is yet more proof of Rhee’s provocative behavior, but it is no different from his threats made to march north many times before,” Dr. Bruce Cumings, a professor at University of Chicago, notes in his book The Korean War: A History.

While many Americans do not often think about the Korean War, which historians estimate at least 3 million people died, for North Korea, daily life is structured around the ongoing war.

Kim Il-sung // Creative Commons

North Korea has “structured their huge military and much of the society as a fighting machine determined, someday, to win this war, or at least hold off the South and the Americans,” according to Cumings.

Much of today’s nuclear threat comes from a desire to right what North Korea sees as historical wrongs perpetrated against them. The history of the Korean War mobilizes the North Koreans around its central leader and helps to legitimize the current leadership of the nation.

Nuclear aggression as nuclear deterrence

However, in addition to its ties to history, the current nuclear threat has ties to foreign wars to past U.S. wars.

North Korea saw what happened to other nations that gave up its nuclear weapons: they are invaded by the U.S.

In Libya in December 2003, the country announced that it would surrender biological and chemical weapons and its rudimentary nuclear program.

In 2011, the U.S. and NATO conducted a bombing campaign to assist in overthrowing Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

“If you had nukes, never give them up”

Even Dan Coats, Director of National Intelligence, recognizes this. At the Aspen Security Forum in July of this year, he said that Kim Jong-un “has watched…what has happened around the world relative to nations that possess nuclear capabilities…The lessons that we learned out of Libya giving up its nukes… is, unfortunately: If you had nukes, never give them up. If  you don’t have them, get them.”

North Korean officials have said that they fear military action by the U.S. without nuclear weapons. In 2011, as the U.S. bombing campaign was underway in Libya, the North Korean foreign ministry released a statement saying that disarmament was “an invasion tactic to disarm the country.”

“If you don’t have them, get them.”

U.S. officials have only stoked these fears

The think tank Project for a New American Century stated in a 2000 report that “the United States also must counteract the effects of the proliferation of ballistic missiles…that may soon allow lesser states to deter U.S. military action by threatening U.S. allies and the American homeland itself. Of all the new and current missions for U.S. armed forces, this must have priority.”

North Korea’s nuclear threats are as much a defensive tactic as they are an offensive one. As history shows, North Korea fears American aggression as much as they want to right the perceived wrongs of the Korean War.

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