The crisis on the Korean Peninsula is really two crises: the ongoing conflict between North and South Korea and the high-profile nuclear standoff, principally involving North Korea and the United States.
The conflict between North and South Korea dates back to the end of World War II, after Japan surrendered to the allies.
At that time, the Korean Peninsula—then a single country, Korea—had been occupied by Japanese troops for 40 years. After the Japanese surrender in 1945, Japanese troops were forced to withdraw from the peninsula.
U.S. and Soviet troops monitored the withdrawal. However, the United States and the Soviet Union—allies during the war—failed to agree on how Korea should be governed. As a result, the Soviets remained in the north and the Americans in the south.
Elections were held in the south in 1948. The north rejected the winner, Harvard-educated Syngman Rhee (left), and installed their own leader, the popular communist guerrilla leader, Kim Il Sung (right). South Korea and North Korea then declared themselves independent states.
With the Soviets’ blessing, North Korean troops invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, attempting to reunite the peninsula by force. The UN Security Council called for countries to come to South Korea’s defense.
U.S. troops led the fight against the North Koreans, who had been armed by the Soviets and were now aided by a million Chinese soldiers.
After three years of bloody and destructive fighting, the war ended without reunification and with the boundary between North and South Korea more or less unmoved.
South Korea refused to sign the armistice agreement, which meant that the war did not technically end. A 2.5-mile wide strip of land running along the international border, the so-called demilitarized zone (DMZ), was all that separated hundreds of thousands of North Korean and South Korean soldiers.
After the fighting, North and South Korea went the way of their patrons, with North Korea turning quickly into a Stalinist communist state and South Korea eventually emerging as a U.S.-style market-based democracy.
A decline in Soviet investment in North Korea during the 1960s worsened poverty among the North Korean people. So did the decision by by Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s “Great Leader,” to divert massive funds to building up the country’s military arsenal.
Kim Il Sung wanted more than the latest conventional weapons and triedto persuade the Soviet Union to share its nuclear secrets. The Soviet government refused and, under Mikhail Gorbachev, actually convinced North Korea to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1985.
But North Korea did not live up to its treaty obligations. In 1994, U.S. satellite photos revealed that North Korea had started a nuclear weapons program.
A showdown involving North Korea and the world community, notably the United States, was averted only when former U.S. president Jimmy Carter struck a deal with Kim Il Sung.
Shortly after Carter’s trip, Kim Il Sung died, leaving his son, Kim Jung Il, in charge. To the surprise of most observers, Kim Jung Il continued negotiations and, in October 1994, signed the Agreed Framework with President Clinton’s negotiating team.
The Agreed Framework called on North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program in exchange for oil shipments and the construction of two light-water nuclear energy plants.
Four years later, relations on the Korean Peninsula improved dramatically with the announcement of the Sunshine Policy, an attempt to win over the North by giving aid rather than making threats. The policy’s biggest payoff came on June 13, 2000, with a summit meeting between Kim Jung Il and South Korean president Kim Dae Jung.
Later that year, a U.S. team led by Secretary of State Madeline Albright renewed efforts to reach a deal that would see the irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. When President Clinton ended his second term in January 2001, the basics of a comprehensive agreement had been hammered out.
The incoming Bush team, pointing to a history of non-compliance by North Korea, suspended all talks and pulled the deal off the table.
U.S. attitudes toward North Korea hardened even more after 9/11 as officials worried that North Korea could share nuclear weapons or technology with terrorists. In his 2002 State of the Union Speech, President Bush said that North Korea was part of an “axis of evil.”
The “axis of evil” label appeared to intensify the North Koreans’ determination to get a nuclear weapon, while creating an anti-U.S. backlash among South Koreans still committed to the Sunshine Policy.
U.S. satellite photos showing evidence of new nuclear activity in North Korea prompted the United States to end oil shipments. By January 2003, the Agreed Framework was dead, and North Korea had withdrawn from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
In the summer of 2003, North Korea was persuaded to enter disarmament negotiations with the United States, South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia. The results have proved a mixed bag.
A low point came on February 10, 2005, when North Korea released a statement suspending its participation in the talks and admitting it had manufactured nuclear weapons.
Probably the highest point came on September 19, 2005, when the six nations struck a deal that theoretically meant the end of North Korea’s nuclear program.
But, the very next day, North Korean officials distanced themselves from the agreement. A few weeks later, U.S. officials who felt that the deal rewarded bad behavior sought to require greater concessions from North Korea.
Then, on October 9, 2006, North Korea effectively killed the agreement by testing a nuclear weapon.
Whether negotiators can get back on track remains to be seen. Meanwhile, North and South Korea remain technically at war.