When I was teaching English in South Korea in 2013, North Korea began threatening South Korea and the United States with a series of increasingly bellicose statements, more extreme than usual even for North Korea. The day after North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, announced that the two Korean countries existed in a “state of war,” I entered my classroom to find the students talking about Bukhan (the South Korean word for North Korea) and Kim Jong-un. “He is a pig,” one girl said. The other children agreed.
U.S. policymakers do not appear to have a more sophisticated understanding of North Korea than a group of eight-to-10-year-old children. Senator John McCain thinks Kim Jong-un is a “crazy fat kid.” Nikki Haley, the UN ambassador, thinks he’s “not rational.” President Trump believes he’s a “bad dude” and “a maniac.”
This cartoonish conception of North Korea pervades both U.S. policy circles and the general public, with the media and Hollywood films such as The Interview bolstering the idea that North Korea is uniquely weird, dangerous, and evil. At first glance, it would seem hard to argue with this narrative: North Korea has a reprehensible human rights record, its leaders have said many seemingly insane things, and its threats against others seem vastly disproportionate to its ability to carry out those threats.
The problem with dismissing North Korea’s rhetoric and actions as merely “crazy” — beyond being overly simplistic — is that it restricts the available policy options to basically two things: “strategic patience” and regime change. The Obama administration focused on the former, meaning a combination of imposing sanctions and ignoring North Korea, in the hopes that it will someday cede itself to Washington’s demands. This policy has failed.
The Trump administration seems focused on some combination of strategic patience, pushing China to “do more” to rein in North Korea, and possibly regime change: numerous administration officials have emphasized that “all options are on the table.” These threats are likely part of a strategy to exert “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang and frighten Kim into abandoning North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
A third option — dialogue and negotiation — is almost completely ignored. However, it is this option that presents the only opportunity for lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula. This may seem impossible to those accustomed to thinking of North Korea as a merely insane, belligerent state, but behind the apparent insanity of North Korea is a context that most outside observers are unable — or unwilling — to understand: North Korea’s security interests are the key to understanding its behavior.
The Origins of the Korean War
If we are to understand North Korea today, we must first understand how North Korea came into existence, as well its experience during the war.
In the United States, the Korean War is sometimes referred to as the “Forgotten War,” taking place between the mass mobilization required for World War II and the Vietnam War, which led to immense internal strife. The term is largely accurate — the Korean War has never figured very much in the American popular imagination. (When was the last time Hollywood made a movie about the Korean War?) Even when the war is remembered, however, it is often under the guise of perpetuating a self-serving mythology for the promotion of American exceptionalism: Namely, that the United States acted selflessly to save a democratic and free South Korea from a despotic and evil North Korea backed by the Soviet Union.
The truth is far messier.
First, the conflict did not suddenly begin on June 25, 1950, when North Korea invaded South Korea, but in 1945 with the surrender of Japan in World War II. After Japan’s surrender, the United States and Soviet Union agreed to jointly manage Korea until it could become independent, with the United States occupying the southern half and the Soviets occupying the northern half.
Japan had ruled Korea since 1910, and most Koreans were eager for independence. In fact, Koreans had already organized their own government, the Korean People’s Republic (KPR), throughout the peninsula with a series of people’s committees under the leadership of the popular independence activist Lyuh Woon-hyung. The new government’s program included:
the confiscation without compensation of lands held by the Japanese and their collaborators, with free redistribution to the peasants; nationalization of major industries; state supervision of small and mid-sized companies; guaranteed basic human rights and freedoms, including those of speech, press, assembly, and faith; universal suffrage to adults over the age of eighteen; and equality for women.
The U.S. Army Military Government in the South, led by Lieutenant General John R. Hodge, was suspicious of the indigenous government, believing it to be communist-inspired. Hodge, who referred to Korea as “an enemy of the United States,” refused to recognize the KPR and disbanded the people’s committees. Instead, Hodge attempted to retain the Japanese in their government positions. When this led to an uproar among Koreans, he instead turned for support to right-leaning Korean factions, whose members had fared relatively well under Japanese occupation. (In the North, the Soviets moved quickly to disband Japanese colonial personnel and were more sympathetic to the local people’s committees.)
By 1948, despite the fact that Korea was one country and the division between north and south was meant to be temporary, two states were founded: the right-wing anti-communist Syngman Rhee was appointed president of South Korea, and Kim Il-sung became supreme leader of North Korea.
Due to the discrepancy between what the Korean people wanted and what the U.S. military and Rhee’s government were trying to impose in the South, conflict erupted in the form of strikes, demonstrations, rebellions, and massacres. By the time the war formally began, in June 1950, 100,000 Koreans were already dead. The worst massacre occurred on Jeju Island, where South Korean military and police forces burned hundreds of villages and raped and slaughtered tens of thousands of civilians to pacify the population.
North and South Korean forces engaged in a series of skirmishes along the border several times, until June 25, 1950, when Kim Il-sung, noting the strife occurring in the South and believing he could reunify the whole country under his leadership, launched a full-scale invasion of South Korea. The Truman administration had not initially considered Korea strategically important, but after the “fall of China” to the communists, U.S. officials wanted to maintain a buffer zone for Japan, considered the chief counterweight to Soviet and communist influence in the region. So the Truman administration decided to intervene in what would have otherwise been a small-scale civil war and instead turned it into a total war.
The Barbarity of the Korean War
The Korean War was a catastrophe for the Korean people, with atrocities committed on all sides, including by South Korea and the United States. After the North’s invasion, Syngman Rhee ordered all suspected “communists” and leftists to be executed. More than 100,000 civilians were arrested, killed, and left in mass graves.
Many of these massacres were carried out with Washington turning a blind eye, and sometimes with explicit permission, as declassified documents prove. For example, one document shows an American commander told his South Korean counterpart that it “would be permitted” to machine-gun 3,500 political prisoners to death.
Other documents show it was U.S. policy to kill Korean refugees, out of suspicion that North Korean soldiers were hiding among them. “If refugees do appear from north of U.S. lines they will receive warning shots, and if they then persist in advancing they will be shot,” as John J. Muccio, the ambassador to South Korea, wrote at the time. “Civilians moving around in combat zone[s] will be considered as unfriendly and shot,” another document shows.
The worst destruction of the war, however, came from the air. The United States dropped more bombs and napalm tonnage during the Korean War than it had during the entire Pacific campaign of World War II. General Douglas MacArthur ordered every “installation, factory, city, and village” in the North to be destroyed, and his successor, General Matthew Ridgway, ordered the Air Force to bomb Pyongyang “with the goal of burning the city to the ground.” Less than a year into the conflict, Air Force chief of staff Hoyt Vandenberg “indicated that we have reached the point where there are not enough targets left in North Korea to keep the air force busy,” as State Department documents show.
Despite this, the Air Force would continue bombing the North for another two years, destroying everything it could find, including irrigation dams on the Yalu River. Their destruction caused thousands of acres of farmland to be flooded, almost precipitating a mass famine (which was only prevented by aid from the Soviet Union and China after the war).
To escape the bombing, much of the population moved underground and only came out at night to farm, reducing agricultural output to “bare subsistence at best,” according to historian Charles K. Armstrong. Entire factories, schools, hospitals, and government offices were moved underground as well.
By the war’s end, “the North had been devastated by three years of bombing attacks that hardly left a modern building standing,” according to historian Bruce Cumings. The human cost was immense, as Armstrong points out:
The US Air Force estimated that North Korea’s destruction was proportionately greater than that of Japan in the Second World War, where the US had turned 64 major cities to rubble and used the atomic bomb to destroy two others. American planes dropped 635,000 tons of bombs on Korea — that is, essentially on North Korea — including 32,557 tons of napalm, compared to 503,000 tons of bombs dropped in the entire Pacific theatre of World War II. The number of Korean dead, injured or missing by war’s end approached three million, ten percent of the overall population. The majority of those killed were in the North, which had half of the population of the South; although the DPRK [North Korea] does not have official figures, possibly twelve to fifteen percent of the population was killed in the war, a figure close to or surpassing the proportion of Soviet citizens killed in World War II.
The war reached a stalemate, and hostilities ceased in July 1953 with the signing of an armistice, though no formal peace treaty has ever been reached. Over the next several decades, the United States backed a series of dictatorships in South Korea until a democracy movement put an end to them in 1987. Meanwhile, North Korea turned itself into a garrison state.
What North Korea Wants
North Korea wants a negotiated settlement with the United States and, ideally, a formal end to the Korean War. What outsiders perceive as insane or weird behavior from North Korea has its roots in the past — namely, its near total destruction during the war. The lesson the country learned was to build as effective a deterrent and defense as possible, which is why North Korea spends 23 percent of its GDP on the military, a greater proportion than any other country in the world.
The United States has more than 23,000 troops stationed in South Korea (and another 39,000 in Japan). Pyongyang perceives their presence as an imperialist plot, and given Washington’s destruction of North Korea in the war, as well as Washington’s history with overthrowing numerous governments and invading and bombing multiple countries, it’s hard to not see where they’re coming from.
North Korea has no allies in the region except China, which is a tenuous relationship at best. It has two much stronger and wealthier neighbors to its south and east (South Korea and Japan), both of which are backed by the full military might of the United States. Pyongyang knows it is isolated and believes its best defense is a nuclear deterrent paired with seemingly insane rhetoric. (The rhetoric also has the benefit of conditioning North Korea’s population into submission by convincing them they are surrounded by external enemies and therefore accepting the harsh totalitarianism of the regime.)
However, we know Kim Jong-un and North Korea’s leadership are not insane. If they were, their government would have collapsed a long time ago or another war would have broken out by now. And since they are not insane, they can be negotiated with, as history shows.
In 1994, the Clinton administration entered into an Agreed Framework with North Korea, whereby Pyongyang would agree to suspend its nuclear weapons program in exchange for fuel oil, the building of two light-water reactors, and the normalization of relations. Although implementation of the agreement was troubled at times due to mutual suspicion and the perception from both sides that the other wasn’t fully living up to its obligations, it mostly held until the Bush administration came into office, when hardliners were determined to scuttle the deal. John Bolton, then the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security (and, later, UN ambassador), used questionable intelligence that North Korea was developing material for nuclear weapons as an excuse to abandon the deal: “This was the hammer I had been looking for to shatter the Agreed Framework,” Bolton later wrote.
The Bush administration’s militaristic policies (George W. Bush labeled North Korea as part of the “axis of evil,” along with Iraq and Iran, and then proceeded to invade Iraq) signaled to Pyongyang that the United States was seeking regime change in North Korea. The deal collapsed, and North Korea’s nuclear program continued apace, culminating in North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006.
South Korea has its own history of successful negotiations with the North, known as the “sunshine policy.” The sunshine policy was implemented during the liberal administrations of Kim Dae-jung (1998–2003) and Roh Moo-hyun (2003–2008) and involved greater economic cooperation with the North, allowing South Korean citizens access to certain parts of the North for tourism purposes, the building of a joint industrial park, and visits between family members who had been separated since the Korean War.
The sunshine policy came to an end when conservative hardliner Lee Myung-bak came into office in 2008, and critics deemed it a failure because the nature of North Korea’s regime had not changed and it did nothing to stop the North’s nuclear program. However, this ignores the reduction in tensions that resulted between the two Korean countries, and its failures have more to do with the fact that the policy was abandoned, as well as the fact that much of Pyongyang’s policy stems from Washington’s behavior — any lasting change on the Korean Peninsula will likely only come about when both Seoul and Washington are pursuing policies of engagement with the North, rather than just one of them. (South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, is again pursuing policies of rapprochement with the North.)
North Korea believes its path to security rests in Washington’s hands. As long as Kim Jong-un and North Korean leadership believe Washington has hostile intentions toward them, they will not end their nuclear program. Instead, they will accelerate it.
The history of negotiations with North Korea prove it is possible to reach a settlement. There’s really no alternative, anyway — there is no evidence that the North Korean regime will collapse on its own, and a military confrontation between the United States and North Korea would be catastrophic. Talks are the only conceivable path forward. The longer the United States ignores this fact, the more advanced North Korea’s nuclear program will become, and the worse every potential future crisis will be.