North Korea Displays Its Big Guns
Recently, the government of North Korea heightened tensions in Asia significantly by expanding its missile production efforts. The Chairman of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, indicated in public the regime headed by Kim Jong Un has actually ramped up testing “about twenty-fold” since the young North Korean leader ascended to power.
North Korea maintains one of the largest military forces in the world in per capita terms. On Tuesday, April 25th, the North Korean military conducted artillery drills using tanks and submarines near the coastal town of Wonsan. Participants used live fire to create a loud, bellicose display in celebration of the 85th anniversary of the founding of the North Korean Army. Some analysts viewed the event as a not-so-subtle reminder of North Korea’s capacity to harm neighboring South Korea using conventional artillery firepower.
Saber Rattling, Or Maybe Not?
What does the North Korean arms buildup bode for the United States and its close Asian allies, South Korea and Japan? How will the escalation in tensions impact neighboring China, the most populous nation in the world and a long-time North Korean friend and trading partner?
In order to understand the current international crisis, it may prove helpful to explore the long history of geopolitical tensions between North Korea and the United States since the Korean War. While that bloody conflict seemingly came to an end decades ago in the view of many Americans, considerable evidence suggests the Armistice signed in 1953 represented only a ceasefire from the standpoint of the Pyongyang regime.
The Aftermath of War
Japan annexed the Korean Peninsula in 1910 and governed it for several decades before the Allies ousted Japan from control in 1945 at the close of the Second World War. At that time, forces from the USSR controlled the northern part of the peninsula and forces from the USA occupied the southern half. The 38th Parallel formed a division between the two occupying armies.
Three years later, in 1948, the North formed the Communist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea with the support of the Soviet Union. That year, South Koreans established an elected Republic of Korea, a government backed by the United States. North Korean troops invaded across the 38th Parallel in 1950 in a bid to unify and consolidate the two Koreas under a single Communist regime. The invasion precipitated the Korean War.
War And Armistice
On June 27, 1950, the United Nations Security Council approved a resolution proposed by the Truman Administration approving armed intervention in the Korean Peninsula on behalf of South Korean forces. The vote occurred in the absence of the Soviet Union’s delegate to the Security Council. The United States and several other non-Communist nations eventually committed ground troops to the conflict in support of South Korea.
Forces from the USA actually crossed the 38th Parallel on October 7th. Communist China, not a member of the UN at that time, committed hundreds of thousands of troops in support of North Korea. In 1951, when General Douglas MacArthur, the commander of U.S. forces in the war, challenged the policies of the Truman Administration in public by suggesting the U.S. should bomb Communist China and launch an invasion of the Chinese mainland, President Truman dismissed him. (The United Nations between October 24, 1945, and October 25, 1971, officially recognized the government of Taiwan as the Chinese government).
The Korean War raged between 1950 and 1953, resulting in millions of civilian casualties and deaths. Soviet leader Josef Stalin died in March 1953. Later that year, North Korea, South Korea, and the United States signed a ceasefire agreement on July 27, 1953. It brought a cessation of hostilities and established a heavily armed border zone called “the demilitarized zone” or “DMZ” between North and South Korea along the 38th parallel. Significantly, the North Korean government did not abandon its claim to rightfully represent the entire Korean Peninsula.
North Korea’s Leaders Since 1948
Since the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948, the members of a single family have ruled over North Korea, passing power from father to son.
Kim Il Sung (1912-1994)
Born shortly after the Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula in a village near Pyongyang, Kim Il Sung spent at least part of his childhood as a refugee from the Japanese residing in Manchuria. He became a Marxist as a teenager. He engaged in subversive activities against the Japanese during his youth.
Kim Il Sung joined the Communist Party of China in 1931 at the age of 19. He subsequently led guerrilla activities against the Japanese in Manchuria before escaping to the USSR in 1940. The Soviets indoctrinated him at a camp for Korean fighters and he served in the Soviet Red Army until 1945.
Kim Il Sung participated in the Soviet occupation of the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. On September 19, 1945, he landed in Wonsan, ending a 26-year period of exile. The Soviets selected him to serve as Chairman of the Korean Communist Party. He held several prominent government positions in the North Korean regime between 1948 and his death from a heart attack in 1994. Today, a cult of personality still surrounds his role as the “Great Leader” of North Korea.
Kim Jong Il (1941-2011)
The son of Kim Il Sung and his first wife, Kim Jong Il succeeded to power in 1994. He became the official heir apparent to his father during the early 1980s. He had at least two wives and several mistresses, although most of the details of his family life remain private.
Kim Jong Il’s rule witnessed an increase in the prestige of the North Korean military, plus periods of devastating domestic famine and widespread economic troubles. Numerous human rights abuses occurred during his tenure in office, as documented by Human Rights Watch and others. North Korea maintains Stalin Era-like prison camps. The government punishes several generations when an individual commits a political offense.
Kim Jong Il’s government signed an Agreed Framework with the Clinton Administration in 1994, an agreement intended to result in the peaceful dismantling of this military effort in exchange for assistance in completing two nuclear reactors in order to generate power for civilians. In 2002, the North Korean leader admitted his government had disregarded the agreement and built nuclear weapons anyway. North Korea announced its first successful underground nuclear test in 2006.
Kim Jong Il died suddenly in 2011, apparently from a heart attack. He received some posthumous titles, including a military designation as a “Grand Marshal”.
Kim Jong Un (1984-present)
The youngest known son of Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un, ascended to the leadership of North Korea following his father’s death. Some media accounts suggest he attended a private school in Switzerland under a pseudonym as a child. He later received a degree in Physics in North Korea and formal training as a military officer.
Kim Jong Un reportedly became a strong candidate to succeed his father after his elder half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, fell into disgrace in 2001, when he attempted to enter Japan in disguise using a false passport in order to visit Disneyland. Suspected North Korean agents assassinated Kim Jong Nam earlier this year.
Since taking power, Kim Jong Un has made effective use of the media, making occasional televised appearances. He also initiated badly needed economic reforms in 2013 to encourage business development and agricultural production.
Kim Jong Un has conducted several purges of military leaders and government officials, apparently in order to consolidate power. He has also worked to secure enhanced military weapons capabilities. These efforts include developing the capability to launch missiles from submarines and to fire longer-range missiles. Now 33 years old, he holds the military rank of Marshal, the highest North Korean military post.
Tensions Between The United States And North Korea
International relations between the United States and North Korea have generally remained poor since the cessation of the Korean War. These contacts extend across several decades:
Cold War Era (1953-1989)
During the Korean War, the United States supplied roughly 90% of the troops supporting the South Korean government. The nation suffered 54,246 fatalities and some 7,800 U.S. troops remain missing from that conflict. Since the war has not ever officially ended, the US and South Korea have stationed thousands of troops along the DMZ since the end of the fighting at great financial expense.
On January 23, 1968, North Korea intercepted the U.S.S. Pueblo in international waters and took the crew hostage for 11 months before a negotiated settlement resulted in the release of 82 survivors. In April 1969, North Korea shot down a U.S. Navy plane, killing 31 people.
Post-Cold War Era (1990 to Present)
During a brief period of warmer relations between North Korea and the United States towards the end of Kim Il Sung’s life in 1994, North Korea claimed it located the remains of 208 missing U.S. servicemen. The Clinton Administration made overtures to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear arms program in favor of peaceful nuclear power projects. North Korea breached this agreement and instead developed nuclear weapons.
The UN issued six separate sanctions resolutions involving North Korea since that nation began developing nuclear weapons. The EU, the United States, Japan, and South Korea have all issued separate sanctions, also.
A Challenging Situation
International relations between North Korea and the USA grew very strained recently. However, this situation has occurred in the past.
Yet the proliferation of nuclear weapons lends new complexity and perils to tense relations between the two nations today, however.
The Trump administration has signaled a new doctrine on North Korea, one that has little love for the former administration’s “strategic patience”. With the recent missile defense installation in South Korea and a carrier fleet parked off the Korean peninsula, the United States is showing that it is ready in case North Korea decides to flex is muscles again. China, in an apparent shift in its policy, has taken economic steps against North Korea including slowing gas shipments and turning away coal shipments.
With a major shift in the desire to be patient wth the stubborn poverty-stricken communist state of North Korea, the United States, its allies, and China appear to longer be willing to play Kim Jong Un’s dangerous games.