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The dynamics that shaped the history of the Korean Peninsula largely affected the dynamics that dominate the current relationship between the Washington and Pyongyang.

The invasion of Korea by the Soviet Union and United States in the aftermath of the Second World War, and the Korean War that followed, left the Korean peninsula torn apart by death and division. The struggle for the advancement of imperialistic goals by the Soviet Union, which conquered from the North, and the United States, which conquered from the South, caused the death of 3 to 4 million Koreans. Those who survived were separated into two societies – the Republic of Korea (ROK) and North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Ten million families were divided by the 1953 Armistice that confirmed the division of the Korean Peninsula alongside the 38th Parallel that was de facto established in 1945, and their members ended up north or south simply by chance. The imperialistic ambition on the Korean Peninsula by the U.S. and Soviet Union prevented the two Koreas from reaching a Peace Agreement, and set them, still, formally at war. Moreover, the support each side of Korea received from the Soviet Union and the U.S. to recover from the war left entrenched Koreans into different socio-economic conditions, leaving their history marked by inequality.

In addition to the failure to achieve unification, the impact of the Korean War on U.S. foreign policy still reflects on current geopolitical events by strongly sustaining a pervasive militarization of the region, where the United States became an intrusive presence by holding ambitions toward Indochina, Vietnam and Europe on the basis that these areas were the cradle of communism. This situation ultimately set the terrain for the rise of the global Cold War and the race in nuclear armament that accompanied it. In fact, when President Harry S. Truman was in power, the number of nuclear weapons rose to three hundred in 1950, bringing with them a revolution in strategic thinking alongside the possibility that they could be used on Korean soil.

In response, North Korea started cultivating its vision at around this time. In the 1950s, the country started to think of nuclear weapons as a way to implement its sogun, namely the “military first” policy through which the country elevated the Korean People’s Army to a guiding principle for its economic and political system. In 1962 North Korea asked the Soviet Union, and later China, for help in developing nuclear weapons but its request was rejected. However, the Soviets agreed to assist North Korea to develop a peaceful nuclear energy program, and in 1963 a research reactor – the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Centre, 100 km north of Pyongyang – was built. Due to isolationism, although despite it, only in the 1980s was North Korea able to operate its nuclear facilities for uranium fabrication and conversion, and to conduct high-explosive detonation tests. Pyongynag signed the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985, and concluded its first comprehensive safeguard agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its NPT Safeguards Agreement in 1977 and 1992, respectively, but never allowed inspections, causing the international community to fear for North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

The pressure imposed upon Pyongyang, in particular by the U.S., was often perceived by North Korea as a declaration of war and an unjust interference, in particular due to the presence of permanent American troops in South Korea. This situation almost set the two Koreas at war with each other in 1994, and brought with it the possibility that the military power that characterised the Cold War could reignite once again. Atomic power included, considering that U.S. atomic bombs are allegedly present in South Korea. Since the 1990s, the policy developed by the United States toward North Korea has been predominantly imposed through harsh sanctions or with threat of military force.

The United States, and the dictatorial character of the North Korean regime, has isolated the DPRK, reinforcing its own nuclear ambitions based on a sense of threat and inferiority. By appointing a review team whose mandate was to establish a solid policy toward the DPRK, President Bill Clinton approved a policy of “preventive defense” toward North Korea, which establishes, on one side, that threats must be kept from emerging through relying on nuclear deterrence, and, on the other, that “[t]he President should explore with the majority and minority leaders of both houses of Congress ways for the Hill, on a bipartisan basis, to consult on this and future Administrations’ policy toward the DPRK. Just as no policy toward the DPRK can succeed unless it is a combined strategy of the United States and its allies, the policy review team believes no strategy can be sustained over time without the input and support of Congress,”[1] thus ensuring the legacy of this policy. This approach would morph into a policy of “strategic patience” during the Obama presidency, which didn’t reduce reliance on the threat of the use of military force and imposition of sanctions toward North Korea. Thus, amounting to very little gains, but at least, formally and publicly, calling for the necessity of more dialogue.

In addition to a strong reliance on deterrence, President George W. Bush’s inclusion of North Korea in his “axis of evil” justified the maintenance of sanctions on North Korea. This reinforced, in return, Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, which was able to achieve, on October 9, 2006, its fist underground nuclear test conducted with an explosion yield of one to two kilotons. On May 25, 2009, North Korea tested a second nuclear device carrying a yield of two to eight kilotons; on February 12, 2013, a third nuclear test with an estimated yield of six to nine kilotons; a fourth nuclear test occurred on January 6, 2016[2] and a fifth one that occurred on September 9, 2016. These last two tests had an estimated yield of 10 kilotons and 15 to 25 kilotons, respectively.

With the advent of President Donald J. Trump in 2017, the anti-North Korea rhetoric and provocations between the two countries escalated. After his election, Kim Jong-un announced his intention to test launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), prompting Trump to respond that there was no chance that could happen and to initiate a policy of maximum pressure and sanctions on the northern side of the Korean Peninsula following most of his predecessors’ footsteps. The openly violent rhetoric between the two countries was accompanied by apparently serious considerations of military confrontation, which, fortunately, never became a reality. North Korea conducted what appeared to be its first thermonuclear test on September 3, 2017, and a test of the Hwasong-15 ICBM on November 28, 2017. The last one seemed to be capable of reaching the continental United States inducing Trump to retaliate with high-profile shows of military force on or near the Korean Peninsula. Paradoxically, in spite of the aggressive call and response between the U.S. and North Korea, both countries remained open to negotiations while creating, at the same time, enormous instability, both in the region and within the international community as a whole.

By the end of 2017, it was estimated that North Korea possessed enough fissile material for up to sixty nuclear weapons. Kim Jong-un indicated a plan to shift from testing and development to the mass production of nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles. Amid these dangerous developments, however, Kim Jong-un searched for a new type of international engagement and nuclear diplomacy with both South Korea and the United States. Since then, he met three times with the leader of South Korea and with President Trump, as well. As I am writing, major news outlets are reporting on the possibility that another meeting between Washington and Pyongyang might happen soon.

Despite these positive advancements, no concrete plan toward denuclearization has been established, yet, especially considering that the main point that seems to be non-negotiable to the U.S is the condition placed on North Korea to proceed with complete, verifiable, irreversible disarmament of its nuclear weapons program for the advancement of the negotiations. This despite the fact that the U.S. seems not willing to remove its own troops from South Korea. Moreover, amongst South Koreans, there are calls for the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, which would only exacerbate the already tense relationship between North Korea and South Korea; North Korea and the U.S; and the U.S., China and Russia, leaving no space to solve this crisis other than through the silencing of old imperialistic ambitions and the total abolition of nuclear weapons.


[1] Office of the North Korea Policy Coordinator, “Review of United States Policy Toward North Korea: Findings and Recommendations,” United States Department of State, October 1999. (Accessed on September 12, 2019

[2] Gale, Alastair and Carol E. Lee, “U.S. Agreed to North Korea Peace Talks Before Latest Nuclear Test,” Wall Street Journal, February 21, 2016 (Accessed on September 12, 2019; Megan Cassella and Doina Chiacu, “U.S. Rejected North Korea Peace Talks Offer Before Last Nuclear Test: State Department,” Reuters, February 21, 2016, (Accessed on September 12, 2019.