A Brief History
On October 9, 2006, the “Hermit Kingdom” of North Korea conducted its first test of a nuclear bomb, an event that has led to this rogue nation that is run by a blatantly deranged dictator to develop an arsenal of nuclear weapons. The finger pointing among American politicians and American political parties over exactly who “allowed” North Korea to gain nuclear weapon status has been going on ever since and continues today.
When World War II ended there was a land grab going on around the world, with some former colonies demanding independence, others being granted independence without having to fight, and a power vacuum left by German and Japanese forces that left occupied territory to go home. Japan had occupied Korea and controlled Korea since 1905 (as a protectorate), officially annexing the country in 1910, and when World War II ended it appeared Koreans would finally have their own country after decades of foreign (Chinese, Russian, Japanese) overlords. Unfortunately, Korea got caught between the struggle of communist countries (led by the Soviet Union and then assisted by China after the communist take over of China in 1949). Koreans had fought the Japanese both as communists fighting alongside communist Chinese and as Nationalists fighting with the Nationalist Chinese. When the USSR entered the war against Japan in August of 1945, the Soviets quickly occupied the northern portion of Korea and set up a communist government. The United States occupied the southern half of Korea (the 38th line of Latitude being the border) and set up a democratic government.
As a Cold War developed between the Soviets and their communist client states and the Western Allies led by the US, the North Koreans under dictator Kim Il-sung saw an opportunity and seized the chance to invade and conquer South Korea in 1950. Through desperate American and United Nations intervention, South Korea was preserved and by 1953 a stalemate had manifested itself quite close to the 38th Parallel border. An armistice ended active fighting in 1953, but no peace treaty was ever signed, and the 2 Korean states are still officially at war.
The Kim family has jealously kept power in North Korea, with Kim Il-sung’s son, Kim Jong-il taking over in 1994 upon his father’s death and in turn Kim Jong-un (son of Kim Il-sung) inherited the reins of power in North Korea in 2011 upon his father’s death. These 3 consecutive dictators are the only rulers North Korea has had since its establishment, and their power is absolute. Each built a god-like aura around themselves, with idiotic claims about themselves (such as not having to go to the bathroom, inventing the hamburger, driving at the age of 3, and golfing for the first time and scoring an unbelievable 34 on an 18 hole par 72 course!). Meanwhile, the hapless people of North Korea are cut off from the rest of the world, with only a few select individuals having internet access and travel to foreign countries tightly controlled. The dictators have been known to execute dissenters, most notably Kim Jong-un feeding a recalcitrant uncle to guard dogs and forcing other officials to watch the gruesome deed. Kim Jong-un is also reported to have had his half-brother assassinated in Malaysia in 2017.
North Korea has maintained a large military with the highest technology the country could afford, despite such expenditure causing poor living conditions and hunger among its people. Satellite photographs at night show most of the world lit by electric lights, while the Northern half of the Korean peninsula is dark, a striking visual clue as to the priorities of the rogue nation. While the United States, the Soviet Union, and China all intervened during the Korean War, the possibility of the US using nuclear weapons was largely averted by the fact that the Soviets had developed nuclear weapons of their own in 1949, and later the Chinese also joined the nuclear “club” in 1964. The development of nuclear weapons by China and the USSR along with the nuclear armed Americans with permanent troop deployment to South Korea left North Korea surrounded by nuclear armed militaries, while the dictator Kim family longingly lusted after gaining nuclear weapon capability. Obviously, the United States and other countries did not want North Korea to become a nuclear armed state.
Already believed to have considerable stocks of biological and chemical weapons, in 2003 North Korea pulled out of an international agreement to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, a clue if ever there was a clue about their intentions. Note that during this period, Republican George W. Bush was President of the United States, and still was 3 years later when North Korea first conducted a successful nuclear test. Preoccupied with the wars against radical Islamic terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush administration levied sanctions against the rogue regime, limiting shipments of vital oil to North Korea. Undeterred, the North Korean nuclear program continued and in 2005 the government claimed to have nuclear weapons. Oddly enough, the United States is partly to blame for North Korean development of nuclear weapons as the US had supplied a certain amount of nuclear technology to North Korea in the 1960’s under the presumption such technology was to be used for peaceful generation of electricity. Likewise, the Soviets also provided nuclear technology, ostensibly for creating nuclear reactors for electric production.
Despite various economic sanctions, the North Korean nuclear weapons program continued, despite off and on denials by the North. North Korea engaged in stalling and delaying tactics through the use of insincere “negotiations” to pretend they were interested in trading the elimination of sanctions for cessation of their nuclear weapons program. Russian (the USSR having dissolved in 1991) and Chinese cheating on the internationally approved sanctions made a mockery of the sanctions and allowed North Korea to continue to develop both nuclear warheads and the means (ballistic missiles) of their delivery. No US administration has been able to effectively curtail the North Korean nuclear weapons program, neither Republican nor Democrat. Once the North Korean nuclear capability became a fait accompli in 2006, the opportunity for a pre-emptive strike became problematic as the US and its allies could expect a nuclear response to any attack on North Korea. Additionally, Russia and China are likely to look askance on any military interference in North Korea, a country that borders both of those giant rivals of the US and a country that is seen by Russia and China as being in their own sphere of influence. The South Koreans and Japanese also have limited enthusiasm for American military intervention that may plunge the region into a war that may include nuclear devastation and large amounts of radioactive fallout.
Enter President Donald Trump in 2017, with a highly bellicose rhetoric directed against North Korea and their nuclear weapons. A war of words developed, followed by a thawing of relations and a much publicized meeting between President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Alas, despite glowing reports of having “solved” the North Korean nuclear weapons problem by President Trump, the North Koreans still have their nuclear weapons program intact and appear to have merely played President Trump for more time, delaying any decisive action by the US even longer, all the while further developing their own nuclear capability and making military intervention more and more a costly proposition. As of October 2018, rumors of a possible second summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un have been reported to be planned in the near future.
Question for students (and subscribers): Is President Trump being “played” by Kim Jong-un? Should the US have acted more forcefully during previous administrations? Is a military preemptive strike an appropriate action to take against North Korean nuclear facilities? Should Russia and China be punished for cheating on international sanctions? Should we just let the status quo continue, as any nation has an inherent right to develop whatever weapons it wants? How much of threat do you believe a nuclear armed North Korea is? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Kim, Sung Chull and Michael Cohen. North Korea and Nuclear Weapons: Entering the New Era of Deterrence. Georgetown University Press, 2017.
Sagan, Scott and Kenneth Waltz. The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: An Enduring Debate. W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.
The featured image in this article, a map of the Korean peninsula, is based off of maps from the CIA World Factbook. The estimated location of the test (41.311°N, 129.114°E) is marked in red. Mobius, the copyright holder of this work, released this work into the public domain. This applies worldwide.