Perspective: Understanding Korea’s History, 1884 to 2017
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
Issue Net Edition | Date : 16 Feb , 2018

North Korea

Between 1953 and 1970, many referred to North Korea being better off than South Korea.  But while massive American capital poured into South Korea, North Korea nationalized and socialized everything, including private organizations and companies and the clothes that people wore; international travel was curtailed and the state took complete control of the media.[9]  In 1961, N Korea signed a friendship treaty with China that committed China to defend it if attacked.  This treaty is still valid today, which complicates a military resolution.  But, in 1993, facing an economic crisis, Russia annulled a 1951 agreement to come to the aid of N Korea, if attacked.

In 1968, a N Korean commando unit of 31 soldiers came close to the palace of the S Korean President, with an aim to assassinate him.  The plot failed, and 28 N Korean soldiers died, as did 34 S Korean security personnel.  In retaliation, the South created the Silmido unit, charged with storming the palace of Kim Il-sung and “slitting his throat.”[10]

Freedom of speech was withdrawn, and everyone was encouraged to tell on everyone else, including children on their parents.  North Korea became heavily dependent on the USSR, and when the Soviet economy declined, so did N Korea’s.  After the USSR became embroiled in the Afghan conflict, North Korea fell off the importance radar.  And, after USSR collapsed in 1991, the North was in dire straits.  Kim Il-sung died in 1994, and his son, Kim Jong-il, took power.  An eccentric leader, Kim Jong-il reportedly led his people from a disaster to a deeper disaster.  He first instituted a “military first” policy that saw the poor deprived of food.  A famine resulted from the mid-1990s to the late 1990s that saw up to one million people die.[11]

In 1998, North Korea launched a surprise rocket that gained the world’s attention because North Korea was never thought to have that capability.[12]  In 1999, the first of three battles over disputed islands to the West of the peninsula erupted with South Korea.[13]  The year 2000 saw the South and North open border liaison offices, but in 2002, President George Bush dubbed North Korea as part of an axis of evil, resulting in N Korea withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003, followed by an announcement in 2005 that it possessed nuclear weapons; and in 2006, N Korea detonated its first nuclear weapon on its own soil.[14],[15].  This test was obviously followed by other tests in years to come.  The nuclear threats and confrontation simply escalated after that, more so after Kim Jong-Il was succeeded by his son Kim Jong-Un in 2011.  In 2004, the UN gathered evidence that N Korea had supplied Uranium to Libya in 2001[16].  The war of threats continued to escalate after N Korea unilaterally scrapped the armistice agreement in 2013, resulting in the USA to announce an increase in missile defense in Korea.  Of course, this only incensed the North Koreans, who announced a state of war within 15 days of the US announcement.

Skirmishes, short battles, spying episodes, and strings of defection from both sides continued from the 1950s through to the present times.  While S Korea’s history has much about industrial development, N Korea’s is one of famine, espionage, nuclear posturing, UN resolutions and economic sanctions against N Korea, and class divisions between loyalists, semi-loyalists, and distant-loyalists.  N Korea’s history is centered around war posturing, public oppression, and creating a worship cult around the Great Leader/Dear Leader.

In 2010, N Korea sank a S Korean warship, escalating tensions once again[17].  However, N Korea continued its relentless military missile trials with failures and successes, trying out bigger and farther-reaching missiles each time, and producing more productive nuclear bombs, including miniaturized versions and hydrogen bombs.[18]

Yongbyon and the Six-Party Talks

Among the greatest games N Korea (hereinafter “NK”) played revolved around he Yongbyon nuclear plant, constructed with Soviet help.  The US wished for NK to stop refining uranium and so wanted Yongbyon shut down.In exchange for shutting Yongbyon, N Korea demanded energy and other assistance from the five countries engaged in the six-party talks.  The five countries yielded to pressure, and the USA, primarily, followed by South Korea, poured aid into NK.  In 2008, NK destroyed a cooling tower at Yongbyon and was rewarded by the US by being lifted from the US list of terror-sponsoring states.

As far as the world thought, NK had joined the comity of nations, but in 2010, NK revealed it was once again processing fuel at Yongbyon.  By 2014, NK had expanded its Yongbyon facility, which was put back into operation in 2015, followed obviously by new sanctions by the US.By 2016, NK was producing plutonium fuel.  The high-stakes drama continues to date, but no one now expects NK to stop producing plutonium fuel.

In essence, the six party talks were an attempt by USA to exhaust alternate dispute resolution strategies.  They knew full well that China and Russia would cooperate but half-heartedly, and perhaps even coax NK in the opposite direction to what the US wanted; They knew that Japan could not offer much, except as a historical link from the past, and possibly some investments, but not really; then they also knew that S Korea would be emotional and insecure in their dealings with N Korea.  Nevertheless, if this attempt had not been made at six-party talks, the world and other negotiators would have wondered that they missed a chance.  But, the entire six-party talk idea of the US was to draw out the N Korean government, bide time thru negotiations, keep the N Koreans engaged, and to offer hope rather than a cold freeze.

Food for Compliance

The Clinton administration announced new food deals in March 1999 for North Korea to total $60 million soon after N Korea allowed US inspectors to visit a suspected nuclear weapons site.  Of course, the N Koreans had removed all incriminating evidence and made a flat fool of the USA.

This food aid by USA was further followed by another in May 1999 with a 400,000 ton food donation, after US inspectors checked and satisfied themselves on nuclear weapons development.[19]

But interestingly, even before the food aid was announced, an independent US reportasserted that North Korea was growing, producing, and distributing narcotics on a massive scale. Up to 6,000 hectares was estimated under poppy cultivation. [20] Despite this expose, the Clinton administration ignored the narcotics matter, and never took it up with N Korea, even though it was conceivable that these narcotics were finding their way into the USA through Pakistan.

The US felt it could somehow find a solution to the problem through negotiations, but was misguided in that approach.  Nevertheless, President Clinton sent Madeleine Albright to North Korea to pave the way for a possible visit by President Clinton.  But, the N Koreans placed multiple demands and the visit could never materialize.[21]

The Present Situation

Through much of the Cold War, the North and the South were somewhat balanced and wary of each other.  After the Soviet Union tested their own atomic bomb in 1949, the Soviets and their allies gained newfound confidence.  Subsequently, the problem of a military victory was made a problem for the South because Seoul – a population center of 15 million people – lay in North Korea’s artillery range, such that the North could literally raze Seoul to the dust.  This threat is not palatable or digestible to South Korea.  It does beg the question why the South did not reposition its capital.  But, such questions are easier asked than actually done, though various ministries of S Korea have been relocated to 120 km south of Seoul.

The present situation is quite intractable, and time will tell.  Only continuous efforts can be made, though secret plans have undoubtedly been made on all sides of the six parties that would address war in Northeast Asia.  A sequel article shall discuss the various options to resolve the present crisis shouldmilitary means become necessary.


[1]    Much as the British feared a Russian invasion of India via Afghanistan after Russia had come deep into Central Asia.

[2] “Liaodong_Peninsula,” Wikipedia,, accessed 4 Sep 2017.

[3]    Theodore Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace prize for this peace effort.

[4]    But, had the Soviet Union, and China after that, been bombed with nuclear bombs, there would have been no cold war, and the history of the world, post WWII, would have been different.  But, it is also then likely that the colonized countries may not have seen freedom as soon as they did.

[5]    “Korean History and Political Geography,” Center for Global Education, Asia Society,, accessed 30 September 2017.

[6]    Ibid.

[7]   South Korea – Timeline,” BBC News,, 23 Jan 2018.

[8]   Ibid.

[9]    “History of North Korea: North Korea 101,” Liberty in North Korea,

[10]  “Timeline: North Korea,”

[11]  N Korea accepted 220,000 as having died, but a US Congressional delegation estimated the number at 2 million.

[12]  But, the world should have known better.  Around 1993, Benazir Bhutto traveled to North Korea to obtain missile technology, which N Korea had received from the Chinese, in exchange for nuclear technology that A Q Khan peddled.

[13] “Timeline: North Korea’s past,” USA Today,

[14]  However, the sixth atomic test by Pakistan in 1998 was apparently a North Korean test, according to reports.  So, N Korea had atomic capability well before its announcement, but bided its time to make that announcement.

[15]  “Timeline”, op.cit.


[17]  Reiss Smith, North Korea history: Timeline from WW2 to Kim Jong-un,, Express, Apr 13, 2017

[18]  “North Korea Nuclear Timeline Fast Facts,” CNN Library,—fast-facts/index.html, Sep 4, 2017.

[19]  Timeline: North Korea, op. cit.

[20]  Ibid.

[21]  Ibid.

1 2
Rate this Article
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr Amarjit Singh

is an independent security analyst.

More by the same author

Post your Comment

2000characters left

One thought on “Perspective: Understanding Korea’s History, 1884 to 2017

  1. Another two generations and Japan will be back in its aggressive posture. It will dump its pacifist constitution. Then the question is – who is their enemy no. 1.

    Is it China or USA. The former is their enemy for generations. The latter is an enemy because they nuked them in WW2.

    It is fast moving in the aggressive direction. Chinese watch out. You are not afraid of US but Japan will scare the hell out of you.

More Comments Loader Loading Comments