North Korea – A Question of History



A few months ago, I had an interaction with an American author I have great respect for (I will refrain from naming them) on a post they shared about America’s relationship with North Korea. This was not too long after that glorified ‘peace’ talk between Trump and Kim, and people were justifiably concerned about the lack of any real progress being made. While Trump’s efforts were essentially a publicity stunt, no sitting POTUS had ever held a summit with a North Korean leader before that. The media downplayed the whole occasion on the basis of Trump himself, but even if under his Administration tensions don’t subside (National Security Advisor John Bolton will ensure they do not), shouldn’t peace talks be encouraged? I digress though. My concern with the American’s post wasn’t his view of the summit, but his insistence that the history of the US-North Korean conflict is irrelevant to the current situation, that history was irrelevant. Is this a valid point?

I can understand the reasoning behind that argument. Much has changed since the Korean War (1950-53), and the situation today needs to be handled with precision and care. Looking at the past doesn’t directly solve the issue at hand, so why does it matter what happened almost 70 years ago? For a simple answer, just ask any Palestinian about 1948 and why they have been protesting in the Gaza Strip for over six months now. We cannot alter history, but it does provide something critical to understanding any modern conflict or crisis: context.

Historical Context

The first step is to ask yourself why relations with North Korea and the West are so damaged. One actually doesn’t need to go further than 2017 really, when Trump threatened a country of 25 million people with ‘fire and fury’, and some members of his Administration openly considering a pre-emptive military strike against the nation. One might recall Nazi war criminals were hanged at the Nuremburg Trials for being complicit in wars of aggression. But this violent rhetoric was, as always, in response to North Korea’s own aggression and persisting nuclear programs. So the next question is, why does North Korea harbour such hatred of the US? This is where you need to step back and analyse the history that led to one of the most dangerous nuclear standoffs since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

During World War II, the Korean Peninsula was territory under the rule of Imperialist Japan. After the Japanese surrendered, the US was heavily involved in limiting Japan’s military and building military bases in the country. So Korea was released from Japan’s imperial grasp, and with the newborn UN they were promised international recognition as a sovereign nation. The US, naturally, intervened and inserted their preferred dictator, Syngman Rhee, in the south. In the north, Kim Il-sung had risen to power – through democratic elections or force is unknown, as no details are known, but he certainly did become a dictator quickly either way. The UN’s duty to reach all of Korea to initiate a vote was hindered by the north being blocked off by America and their southern pawn. So elections were held in farcical conditions and within the bounds of half a country, and Syngman Rhee became the first President of Korea, or at least, the South.

For the next two years, tensions between what became the North and South rose at the 38th Parallel, and in 1950 Kim Il-sung claimed to have a motive to initiate an invasion that sparked the Korean War. The South may have been a rival dictatorship, but the North was the first aggressor. With UN backing, the US led the South in their efforts to repel the invaders, and succeeded. If the push had ended at the 38th Parallel, the US could possibly try and justify their involvement on the Peninsula. The retaliatory strike into the North, however, lasted another two years and devastated the North. Napalm and bombs were dropped indiscriminately, to the point they had “flattened” the country, and official military records stated they ran out of targets. More bombs were dropped on North Korea than all of the Pacific region in WWII, including bombings carried out on dams that led to flooding of farmland. The Korean death count reached over 3 million, with anywhere from 12-15% of North Korea’s population being wiped out. When the North, with backing from China’s army, did manage to drive the South’s forces back (with brutal efficiency), the US initiated a scorched earth policy, burning dwellings, foodstuffs, and equipment. This was to prevent the Chinese making use of it, and also left the native civilian population in its path homeless and starved as the invading army retreated.

The war ‘ended’ in 1953 (no official peace treaty has been signed yet), with the 38th Parallel becoming the official border between two separate nations – the South under the rule of a US backed dictator, and the North left to rebuild under Kim Il-sung’s own autocratic government. Dreams of a reunited Korea were shattered in a few traumatic years. Since the war, the South has developed into a functioning democracy that strives, while the North is under a brutal regime. Kim Jong-un, Kim Il-sung’s grandson, rose to power in 2011 and has continued his family’s awful legacy. No one doubts that North Korea is a dangerous threat internationally and to their own population, but with the above context of the Korean War and its aftermath, can you blame the North’s directed hostility towards the US?

I strongly believe that North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs are deterrents to US imperialism. Do these actions escalate tensions? For sure; but also remember that the US has been running war games and drills with the South Korean military on the Peninsula. Last year mock nuke bombing drills took place. If North Korea had mistaken it for a real attack and reacted, we would probably be witnessing World War 3 right now. Of course, there have been numerous occasions where North Korea has promised to suspend its ‘aggressive’ research and development, and a few times committed to those promises. They always fell back on them though, either because they believed they needed to, or because the US never upheld their side of the deal.

Disregarding the Singapore summit, the North Korean government, with Chinese guidance, have offered deals to the US in which they suspend and dismantle their military programs, under the condition that the US ceases all aggressive war drills with the South, and that US military personnel in South Korea be taken back to diffuse tensions. That is a perfectly amiable solution – the North suspends their aggressive (or deterrent, you pick) programs, and the US leaves the Peninsula. The North and South could resume diplomatic relations, and reunification might actually be achievable.

The US didn’t even consider this – both the Obama and Trump Administrations immediately pushed these deals aside.


History cannot be changed, but it is far from irrelevant when discussing the present. The North were the first aggressors in 1950, but US imperialism on the Peninsula and their retaliatory invasion cannot be ignored, as so many in the West blissfully do. This historical amnesia is detrimental to any serious political discourse, and it must be stamped out.

The American author made a comment about how North Korea was a dangerous threat with nukes in the region. My response was that the very same accusation could be made about the US since 1945. They ended our discussion promptly.

Additional Reading

Some great sources to look at about the North Korea-US conflict:

  • Noam Chomsky’s interview with Democracy Now! presenter, Amy Goodman, in 2017 here.
  • Korea: Where the American Century Began, written by Michael Pembroke.

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