The US and North Korea: The Relationship at the 38th Parallel

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The United States and North Korea have had an acrimonious relationship for more than 60 years. America has not only invaded North Korea, but also maintains support for North Korea’s enemies as well as levies punitive sanctions. North Korea conversely has persistently agitated the United States with provocations, both against it and its allies in order to seek an amendment to the sanctions.

With all this in mind then, it is fair to explore how this relationship became so toxic. Certainly war couldn’t be the only factor as the United States now has working relationships with Japan, Germany, and even Vietnam following large-scale wars with each. The answer must lie somewhere else and thus it is important to explore the history of the relationship between the two nations and some of the major flash points.

History of Communist Korea and the Korean War

Although people have been living on the Korean peninsula where North and South Korea sit for thousands of years, North Korea in its current form is relatively new. Near the end of WWII in 1945, Soviet troops kicked out the occupying Japanese forces in the northern parts of Korea. The Americans forced out Japanese forces in the south. It was assumed that at some point the two Koreas would then become one, although exact dates and times were never set. One thing was clear though, the groups deciding the future of Korea did not really include the Koreans themselves, but rather the world’s major powers.

Originally the United States and the Soviet Union discussed creating a trusteeship in which the countries would only govern in Korea until Korea was ready to govern itself; however, when a provisional democratically elected Korean government proved ineffective, the Soviets rejected further efforts, leading the U.S. to appeal to the United Nations. The United Nations decreed there should be one government and the South followed through by electing a pro-democratic government. The Soviets rejected this election.

Instead, one year later, the North Korean Communist Party was created with Soviet-sponsored guidance. One of its leaders became the founder and eventual leader of North Korea two years later in 1948, when Kim Il-Sung declared the nation the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). In response to the communist overtones of the government established in the North, in 1950 South Korea declared its independence, leading to a North Korean invasion and the beginning of the Korean War.

Following the North’s invasion and thanks to the Soviet Union’s boycott of the United Nations, the United States was able to have the actions condemned and create a multinational force to come to the aid of the South. Aid was needed too, as the North Korean advance had almost completely overrun the entire peninsula when the American-led effort began to materialize. Led by George MacArthur, the Americans pushed the North Koreans out of the South entirely.

MacArthur wanted more, and thus aimed to push them all the way back to the Yalu River on the border of China. In response the North Koreans were assisted by Chinese soldiers, who despite taking heavy casualties pushed the American coalition back near the thirty-eighth parallel where the borders had been at the start. What followed was a stalemate that saw more action outside of Korea, where MacArthur was recalled after calling for an escalation to the conflict including the use of nuclear weapons against China. The conflict finally reached a ceasefire in 1953 following the election of President Eisenhower. The map below shows the progression of the war; the red represents North Korean forces, and the green South Korean forces. 

Korean war 1950-1953.gif

Map Courtesy of Roke via Wikimedia

While the conflict technically ended in 1953 with the deaths of more than 50,000 Americans and over a million Koreans and Chinese, it is important to note that the war is not officially over. An armistice was indeed signed, but that only ended the conflict; technically the war is not over until a peace treaty is signed. Also interesting is that South Korea was not a signatory to the armistice. Regardless of the exact terms the war left the Korean peninsula divided into two very different nations. Watch the video below for a good overview of the war.

North Korea and the United States: Post-Korean War

The Immediate Aftermath

Despite its infrastructure being basically destroyed by U.S. bombing, coupled with the fact that it lost nearly 12 percent of its population, the North actually rebounded well following the war. This was due mostly to huge infusions of aid from both China and the Soviet Union. This assistance led to rapid industrialization through the rest of the 1950s and on through the 1960s, with North Korea being the more economically advanced Korea at the close of the decade.

Following this, however, the North Korean economy began to slow down as it started to exhaust its industrial capability and accrued massive debt in search of new technology from the West. While North Korea sputtered, the nation to the south took off. Since 1950, the economy of South Korea has grown by an average of seven percent, with only two years of negative growth during a crisis in the mid-nineties. The last year that North Korea’s GDP equaled that of the South was 1976, according to a study published by the CIA.

Unlike the North, the South’s economic rise was not predicated on heavy industry, but instead on international trade. Utilizing a well-educated workforce and a campaign of state intervention in which money was funneled into particular companies whose families were trusted by the government, known as chaebols, companies from the South such as Samsung were enabled to grow into multinational corporations capable of competing with any western firms. South Korea was also able to adapt in a time of turmoil, namely by overhauling its inept financial system which was exposed following the Asian financial crisis in 1997-1998. Thus by the end of 2013, South Korea’s economy was the world’s fourteenth largest. Watch the video below for a comparison of the two economies.

South Korea has also been enabled by its political transformation. For roughly the first 40 years after independence, the South was ruled by strongmen. These leaders engaged in every measure of violent repression imaginable and in many ways mirrored their counterparts to the north. However, with the democratically elected Roh Tae-Woo in 1987, that began to change. Following him were two more democratically elected presidents who were not linked to the old regime, as Roh was. This marked a major turn toward liberalism for South Korea.  Nonetheless, with the election of Park Geun-Hye, the daughter of one the most notorious South Korean authoritarian leaders, questions still remain.

North Korean leadership has been much more clear cut since the end of the war. Specifically, since the end of the Korean War the North has been ruled solely by the Kim family, who has created a cult of personality in North Korea in which they are portrayed as gods.

Assasinations and Attacks

While North Korea may have given up hopes for military conquest, at least temporarily, following the war it still tried to ensure its agenda by less direct means. This played out primarily though assassination attempts against South Korean political leadership, seen as puppets for a U.S. master. From the late 1960s through the early 1980s several assassination attempts were carried out on the president’s life, and while they all failed, one in 1974 led to the death of the first lady. In 1987 the North stepped up its efforts by bombing a South Korean Airliner, which garnered it a place on the list of the countries that support terrorism as designated by the United States. Since then North Korea has been even more overt, now occasionally actively attacking South Korean military units, and most importantly building and testing nuclear weapons.

The North Goes Nuclear

In 1985 North Korea signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Chief among the treaty’s goals is limiting the number of countries with nuclear weapons. In 1993, North Korea was accused of running a nuclear weapons program. In response, it threatened to leave the NPT and was only pacified in the following year when it was given aid in order to halt its program.

For the next eight years the North promised to halt its program in exchange for nuclear power plants built by the United States to provide electricity, as well as the loosening of sanctions and more aid. In 2002 it was revealed that North Korea had continued with its nuclear weapons program and by 2003 had withdrawn from the NPT. The next few years featured six-party talks in which North Korea tested increasingly long-range missiles and made threats in exchange for aid and other concessions. In 2007, North Korea finally confirmed its first test of a nuclear weapon. Since the test in 2007, North Korea has allegedly tested nuclear weapons twice more, while also continuing to make threats with the goal of attaining incentives such as aid and the easing of sanctions.

Much of this see-sawing has to do with North Korean leadership. Since the inception of the nation more than 60 years ago, North Korea has been ruled solely by one family, the Kims. Currently Kim Jung-Un is Supreme Leader following in the footsteps of his father, Kim Jung Il, and his grandfather, Kim Il-Sung. If there is any question about the power wielded by these men one only has to travel the streets of Pyongyang where portraits of them are everywhere and people flock daily to their birth places as a sign of deference to their greatness.

Potential Future Outcomes

While the world hopes for a breakthrough, the reality of any such event happening soon seems bleak. This begins and ends with the Kim dynasty; as long as this family is in charge there is unlikely to be any sudden liberalization. Each ruling Kim is perceived as the father of his people and also god, so it seems unlikely the people of North Korea would suddenly rise up and overthrow the government. The only group that could potentially topple Kim is his inner circle; as long as they are comfortable and worried for their own safety, which is likely following the execution of Kim’s own uncle last year, a coup seems unlikely. In addition, no matter how bad famine gets it is unlikely to have any impact on the great leader’s status.

U.S. vs. North Korea?

Like Iraq and Iran, North Korea was labeled by President Bush in 2003 as part of the axis of evil. Unlike Iraq, however, North Korea has a powerful ally in China, which has already shown a willingness to come to its aid, making North Korea an unlikely target of American invasion. China does not want to see North Korea fall because it creates a buffer between it and U.S.-backed South Korea, and also because the potential wave of refugees who would flood into China following the fall of North Korea could be very destabilizing.

North Korea has a big army and its people are indoctrinated into a cult that worships the Kim family, not conditions conducive for being greeted as liberators. The country also has nuclear weapons in some form. While its ability to hit the U.S. mainland remains in doubt, that would be a big risk for any American president to take without major provocation. The video below offers the potential outcome of North Korean-U.S. conflict.


As 2015 dawns, the demilitarized zone (DMZ), which divides the two Koreas and countless families, is still the most heavily armed border in the world. At any one time North Korea, the world’s fifth largest army by total numbers, has 75 percent of its 1.1 million member force stationed there. Across the line is an American contingent numbering as many as 37,000 men supported by the majority of the South’s 650,000 strong group. At any provocation these two sides could engage and the tenuous armistice signed more than 60 years ago could vanish.

All hope is not lost, however. As the Kaesong Industrial Complex–a complex in which South Korean companies are allowed to manufacture goods in the North–shows, there is still opportunity for change. For true change to occur in this relationship, North Korea would have to alter just about its entire society, which is unlikely. Additionally though, the United States must also change its attitude to the upper half of the hermit kingdom. As the Sony Hack, which quite possibly may not have been carried out by North Korean hackers but was attributed to them immediately, showed, the bad blood built up between these two nations has made it hard for any real dialogue to occur.

This is a real problem too, as dialogue is necessary to settle grievances. An example of the value of simply speaking to each other is recent attempts at normalcy between the United States and Cuba, which also seemed unfathomable before they began. While that situation was very different and required assistance from the Pope, change has to start somewhere.



World Bank: GDP Rankings


BBC: North Korea Profile

United States History: The Korean War

National Campaign to End the Korean War: Korean Peace Treaty Campaign

Country Studies: The Post-War Economy

New Jersey Government: Fact Sheet: the Korean War

Foreign Affairs: Six Markets to Watch South Korea

Guardian: Timeline

CNN: North Korea Nuclear Timeline Fast Facts

CNN: Witness

Daily News: Kim Jung Un

Economist: George Bush and axis of evil

Quora: Why Hasn’t the US tried to take down North Korea

CNN: North and South

Guardian: FBI Doubts

Michael Sliwinski
Michael Sliwinski (@MoneyMike4289) is a 2011 graduate of Ohio University in Athens with a Bachelor’s in History, as well as a 2014 graduate of the University of Georgia with a Master’s in International Policy. In his free time he enjoys writing, reading, and outdoor activites, particularly basketball. Contact Michael at



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