U.S.-North Korea Relations

By Feffer, John | Foreign Policy in Focus, May 14, 1999 | Go to article overview

U.S.-North Korea Relations


Feffer, John, Foreign Policy in Focus


North Korea is the United States' longest-standing adversary. The U.S. helped to divide the Korean peninsula at the end of World War II, then waged war against North Korea in the 1950s. It has maintained economic sanctions against Pyongyang for nearly fifty years. In this post-cold war era, North Korea remains a useful demon. The Pentagon has inflated the North Korean threat in order to rationalize its desire for a missile defense system, to justify a capacity to fight two wars simultaneously, and to explain the need to maintain 37,000 troops in South Korea (and 100,000 troops in Asia overall).

Relations between the two countries worsened in the early 1990s when North Korea expanded its nuclear program and the U.S. considered bombing the suspected weapons development facilities. In 1994, after Jimmy Carter sat down with North Korean leader Kim I1 Sung, the two sides eventually negotiated their way back from the brink of war. The resulting Agreed Framework required that North Korea freeze its nuclear program in exchange for shipments of heavy fuel oil from the U.S. and two light-water nuclear reactors to be built by an international consortium funded largely by Japan and South Korea. As part of this agreement, the U.S. and North Korea pledged to move toward full normalization of relations.

The Agreed Framework averted war but did not create a lasting peace. The U.S. government has continued to criticize North Korean sales of advanced missile technology to countries such as Pakistan and Iran. In August 1998, without notification, North Korea launched a missile/satellite that passed over Japan and demonstrated its possession of three-stage rocket technology. At the same time, U.S. and South Korean intelligence agencies leaked information that an underground facility in North Korea might house a nuclear weapons program. The Clinton administration, reluctant at first to give much credence to the underground nuclear facility, eventually insisted on access to determine if North Korea had departed from the terms of the Agreed Framework (to which it had so far adhered).

North Korea, too, has a list of grievances. It has charged the United States with violating the Agreed Framework by not delivering the heavy fuel oil according to schedule and by not moving forward as planned with the light-water reactors. It has also accused the Clinton administration of backtracking on its promise to normalize relations and thus to lift economic sanctions. Finally, North Korea has criticized the U.S. military buildup in Northeast Asia.

The relationship between the two powers is not entirely antagonistic. In response to the food crisis that intensified in North Korea beginning in 1995, the Clinton administration has provided millions of dollars in humanitarian aid (over $170 million in 1998), principally through the UN. …

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