Updated: June 11, 2018 12:44:28 pm
American president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are in Singapore to hold a historic meeting over Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal. The meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, is historic because it’s the first time that a sitting US president would be holding talks with a North Korean leader. The North Korean state media has stated the possibility that the meeting might well establish a ‘new relationship’ between the two countries that have been at loggerheads with each other for more than a century.
The conflict between the US and North Korea has been raging at least since the Korean War in 1950 which ended in the division of the Korean peninsula under the respective influence of the US and the former Soviet Union and the consolidation of the Cold War between the two superpowers.
Over the past several decades, and despite the fact that it lost its chief benefactor after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, North Korea has remained unabashed in its display of nuclear strength against the US. A nuclear test carried out few months back, however, was deemed to be a major technological milestone because even the US admitted that North Korea now has the capacity to hit it. US president Donald Trump reacted strongly, threatening to impose sanctions on all those who trade with North Korea as well as shut off all shipments of oil.
China and Russia, both of whom have criticised North Korea’s latest test, had nevertheless cautioned that sanctioning the country will only bring greater hardship to the people, not necessarily change the behaviour of its dictatorship.
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In order, therefore, to better understand the crisis in which America-North Korea relations are at this point in time, we need to reflect upon their long history of fear, placation, and provocation that have over the decades exacerbated their mutual hostility and prevented a solution to this intractable crisis.
From Cold War politics to the Korean war
The brutal Japanese occupation of Korea lasted 35 years and ended with the defeat of Japan in the Second World War in 1945. Korea welcomed the victors of the Great War, the US and the former Soviet Union, but these two would soon turn out to be the new occupying forces. By 1950, as the two former superpowers consolidated themselves, Korea was divided between them in a war that began in 1950 and ended three years later. The North would henceforth fall under Soviet influence, while South Korea became a Treaty ally of the US
It is true that the desire for reunification among the Koreans is as old as the division mandated by their respective leaderships. But North Korean leader Kim il-Sung decided he would force the issue when on a rainy Sunday morning on June 25, 1950, his air force ended up bombarding the region of Ongjin which for long had been the settling ground for border skirmishes between North and South Korea. North Korean soldiers relentlessly pushed southwards, their intention being to bring all of Korea under a Communist government. Chinese forces, newly united under Mao-Tse Tung in Beijing, poured in to support their Communist brothers.
Within days, hundreds and thousands of US soldiers were swarming all over Korean territory that would soon call itself South Korea. When the war finally ended in 1953, the country had been divided along the 38th Parallel, a division that continues to remain in stone even today. As many as 3 million Koreans, 54,000 American soldiers and 900,000 Chinese had been killed in the three-year-long war.
From post-Korean war to post-Soviet Union
“The armistice that ended the fighting in Korea in July 1953 was not a peace treaty, and the two countries remain to this day in a state of war with one another,” writes historian and professor of Korean studies in Columbia University, Charles K Armstrong in his work, ‘US-North Korea relations.’ The Korean war of 1950 ushered America and North Korea into a bitter struggle from which it has still not emerged.
The hostility between the two countries, however, reached a whole new level with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. As the new Russia launched its own economic reforms, the country was plunged into total economic disarray. There was no way Moscow could continue to help its former ally. A major food shortage followed in North Korea as well as a famine that would last the better part of a decade, killing another 3 million people.
North Korea knew it had no option but to open up and engage with the rest of the world. Under the “new thinking” policy, it offered a brave new hand of friendship to the US. But the US turned down the overture. North Korean leaders say that’s when they were forced to embark upon their nuclear weapons programme that would reiterate Pyongyang’s “military first politics” approach.
“These moves can be interpreted as a reaction to changed external circumstances, above all to a US administration perceived as more dangerously hostile to North Korea’s existence as well as a defense of the military’s domestic needs,” writes Armstrong.
From Bill Clinton to Barack Obama
The hostility between the two would soon reach boiling point. In the early 1990s, US intelligence intercepted a cache of spent plutonium being extracted from the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon near Pyongyang. The CIA’s conclusion was that North Korea’s nuclear programme was going very well. US President Bill Clinton threatened sanctions as well as a airstrike that promised to take out the nuclear centrifuges. This was followed by the UN threatening sanctions as well. Pyongyang was seen to be going back on its promise of not going nuclear to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) .
Pyongyang sought dialogue, which resulted in the Agreed Framework in October 1994. The deal was simple. North Korea would freeze its nuclear weapons programme in return for the US promising to build two light water nuclear reactors on the east coast of North Korea, with a target to complete it by 2003, which would supply nuclear energy to North Korea’s population. Further, it would be the US responsibility to make sure that North Korea was well supplied with fuel, so as to compensate for Pyongyang’s inability to operate the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon.
The 1994 Agreed Framework was the first attempt since the end of the Cold War to resolve tensions between the two countries. However, the Clinton administration began to seriously lag behind in fulfilling its promises. In fact, even a decade later, the light-water reactors were still to be installed. The only area in which progress was made was in the field of humanitarian aid, when Korea was faced with devastating floods in 1995 and 1996.
US attention towards the North Korean problem was further compromised when Clinton lost power and George W. Bush came to power in 2001. The relationship with North Korea would further fall off the backburner as Bush, in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 incidents, focused all his intention on the war against terror in the Afghanistan-Pakistan front.
The Bush administration decided to review its policy towards North Korea. It was particularly unhappy with the Agreed Framework, which it saw as a policy of appeasement. Further, George Bush was particularly vocal about his disregard for the North Korean regime and publicly wished for its downfall. In January 2002, the president named North Korea as a part of the “axis of evil” which included Iran and Iraq. Bush demanded complete nuclear disarmament as well as a reduction on ownership of conventional weapons as well.
Predictably, North Korea reacted sharply, threatening to renew its nuclear programme. But as Bush got increasingly sucked into the Iraq imbroglio, accusing that country of having weapons of mass destruction and invading it in 2003, North Korea fell off the map. With the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan demanding his remaining attention, Bush had absolutely no time to focus on North Korea.
The Bush administration gave way to Barack Obama in 2008, who immediately settled on a policy of ‘strategic patience’ with North Korea. But Obama had inherited several of Bush’s problems around the world, so even when North Korea conducted a nuclear test in 2009, there was little the Obama administration could do in real terms. A new dialogue was begun, but there was little else. Only in 2012, when hunger and malnutrition once again raised its ugly spectre, did North Korean leader Kim Jong Un volunteer to halt his nuclear weapons programme in return for food aid.
But Kim never failed to remind the world that North Korea’s security was paramount. That this meant that the population “would eat grass” but not succumb to international pressure in the curtailment of its nuclear and missile programmes.
In September 2016, North Korea went ahead with yet another nuclear test, evoking much criticism from the Obama administration which warned it of dire consequences. Before Obama left office, he suggested that the UN Security Council impose sanctions by cutting down Pyongyang’s coal exports by 60 per cent.
The Trump regime
Earlier this year, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that under the Trump administration, America would no longer follow Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” and that a new range of economic, security and diplomatic measures would be undertaken against North Korea. However, he did not clarify what this new course of action would be.
Eight months into his term as President, however, Trump has shown little by way of changing the course taken by Obama. While the administration has been clear on the fact that America will no longer be patient with North Korea, there has been no consistent response to what the alternate policy would be. Threats of economic sanctions, military strike and playing the China card to compel North Korea to disarm are strategies that were made use of during the Obama regime as well.
Further, North Korea’s nuclear enterprise a few months back had not only taken the world by surprise but was also deeply worrisome. First, it threatened to unravel the security architecture that was put in place after the end of the Second World War, which mandated that besides the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, the rest of the world would not be permitted to go nuclear.
Second, North Korea’s hydrogen bomb test demonstrated the potential to destabilize the Korean peninsula and threaten regional peace and also challenged the US. Both Japan and South Korea pushed the Trump government to properly sanction the country.
Third, Russian president Vladimir Putin was also concerned by Pyongyang’s test and had been unusually outspoken on the perceived threat to global peace. Putin warned the North Korean leader that the survival of his regime, to a large extent depended on their nuclear development programme.
Fourth, even China, North Korea’s best friend and ally, had said it supported tougher UN measures against Pyongyang, because it did not want its rising power status to be compromised by the actions of a country that is hardly a contributing member of the world community.
As for India, the North Korea issue poses a threat of a different kind because of the possible continuing collaboration between Pyongyang, Beijing and Pakistan. Moreover, having stormed its own way into the world’s nuclear club, Delhi certainly doesn’t want to be other, less responsible nations to barge in as well, lest it remind the world of its own action 19 years ago.
Does this meeting mean that the Trump administration will be able to resolve its longest crisis that has lasted more than 70 years? The recent comments made by both the leaders about the upcoming summit definitely point towards a change in attitude. However, whether it indeed results in an altered relationship, we are yet to tell.
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