Background to the Crisis in North Korea


1950-53: Korean war. After a North Korean blitzkrieg, U.S. forces (with a U.N. mandate) push North Korean forces to the Yalu river. China sends 200,000 troops to push U.S.-led forces back. Eventually the two sides end up in a stalemate, an armistice is signed between the DPRK and the PRC on the one hand, and the U.N. commander on the other. No permanent peace treaty is ever signed.

1958: President Eisenhower introduces nuclear-tipped tactical missiles in violation of the 1953 armistice which banned introducing qualitatively new weapons systems. North Korea re-tools its economy (which outgrew the South’s in up until the 1960s) with military production and mobilization as top priorities. Later, arms become the DPRK’s most profitable export.

1960s: American F-4 fighter planes stationed on South Korean runways are armed only with nuclear bombs. The DPRK’s economic growth begins to slow, a trend that mirrors the USSR’s continual decline in growth from the 1960s onward.

Despite receiving economic aid from the USSR and the PRC, North Korea tries to build a completely independent economy to insulate the country from outside pressure, even from allies. Kim Il-Sung, North Korea’s Stalin (or Mao), pushes to develop the country’s agriculture despite the region’s mountainous terrain. He also hopes to avoid reliance on imported oil by developing coal mining, hydropower, and domestically mined uranium to fuel nuclear plants. This leads to a heavy reliance on electricity, which continues to this day. The goal of agricultural self-sufficiency requires the investment of electricity-intensive manufacture of nitrogen fertilizer.


Aid from the USSR begins to dry up as their economy begins to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, contradictions that become more severe as the result of trying to compete with a sharp increase in American military spending which begins under Carter and escalates under Reagan.

The USSR’s economic troubles lead to their failure to deliver Light-Water Nuclear Reactors (LWR), which costs $1 billion and is technically and financially out of reach for the DPRK on its own. The North builds its own 5-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon which uses a cheap “gas-graphite” technique that produces plutonium as a byproduct, which can then be purified to produce nuclear bomb material.

1985: The Reagan administration urges the USSR to give the North LWR to so it can meet its energy needs without becomnig a nuclear-armed state. In exchange for Russian LWRs, the DPRK signs the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which has a provision stating that more advanced countries will help NPT countries meet their energy needs.

1991: Kim Il-Sung backs the failed hard-liners' coup in Moscow Boris Yeltsin pays him back with interest, cutting off all aid, credit, and the North’s only source of fertilizer inputs which they depend on for agricultural self-sufficiency.


1992: The PRC recognizes South Korea. North Korea breaks off relations, and China cuts off economic aid, demanding that the North pay for its imports in cash at world market prices. With no outside help, the DPRK begins to make overtures to S. Korea, Japan, and even the U.S. George Bush Sr. pulls all land-based nuclear weapons out of S. Korea in 1991, he cancels the annual U.S.-S. Korean military exercises scheduled for early 1993, signaling a thaw in post-Cold War relations.

1993: Clinton takes office, declares that the military exercises Bush Sr. cancelled will go ahead after all. The Pentagon announces in Feb. that some nuclear weapons aimed at the now-defunct USSR will be retargeted at North Korea. Hans Blix of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) steps up inspections of North Korean facilities, pioneering the use of CIA data, and U.S. spy satellites and military labs. In the middle of the S. Korea-U.S. war games, North Korea announces it will withdraw from NPT.

The Clinton administration pushes the U.N. Security Council for sanctions, and the Pentagon to draws up plans to send 50,000 troops, 400 combat jets, 50 ships, and additional battalions of Apaches, Bradley tanks, multiple-launch rocket launchers with the aim of a “limited” attack on the Yongbyon reactor. An advance team of 250 troops is sent to set up an advance HQ to manage the massive influx of firepower. Clinton also sets up a diplomatic back-channel in a last-ditch effort to end the crisis peacefully, sending Jimmy Carter to the DPRK to negotiate.

1994: Carter goes way beyond his mandate and announces he has brokered a deal on CNN, informing Clinton only half an hour beforehand of the terms of the agreement. The deal is called the “Agreed Framework,” which includes the following provisions: the DPRK renews its NPT membership, locks up fuel rods, allows IAEA inspectors to check facilities; in exchange, the U.S., S. Korea, and Japan are to provide two LWRs to meet the North’s energy needs, and in the meantime send large amounts of oil and pledge not to invade the country; with the arrival of the first reactor, the DPRK would allow more intrusive IAEA inspections, and with the second, the DPRK would ship its fuel rods out of the country, giving up its ability to make nuclear weapons. Other less-known provisions include: moving towards full normalization of political and economic relations, lowering trade barriers and opening diplomatic missions in eachothers’ countries. The first LWR is supposed to be activated in 2003.


(Gradually tensions ease between the DPRK and the U.S., although not without spats and minor interruptions.)

1995: a series of floods, droughts, and other natural disasters hit the North for a number of years. 10 percent of the country’s 22 million people starve to death.

1996: the DPRK begins selling missile technology to Pakistan in exchange for centrifuges which can be used for nuclear weapons. Weapons export is the regime’s most lucrative export and the regime is facing an unprecedented economic catastrophe.

1998: S. Korean President Kim Dae-Jung announces a “sunshine policy,” opening up the distant possibility of re-unification which is supported by overwhelming majorities on both sides of the Korean peninsula.

The DPRK test launches a missile over Japan, and Japan responds by refusing to fund the LWR project, signaling the beginning of the end of the Agreed Framework. The U.S. offers to lift sanctions on the DPRK if it stops testing missiles; the DPRK replies that lifting sanctions is implied in the Agreed Framework.

1999: the DPRK and U.S. conduct negotiations on the issue during which the DPRK suspends all missile tests.

2000: North and South Korea sign a declaration of intention to re-unite the country. Families separated by the war will be re-united and small economic projects will be undertaken to begin easing tensions. The U.S. relaxes sanctions allowing a wide range of trade in commercial and consumer goods, investment, and personal financial transactions. The DPRK reciprocates, reaffirms its moratorium on missile tests, and asks the U.S. for $1 billion a year as compensation for the loss of income from their missile exports.

2001: Wendy Sherman, former special adviser to Clinton and the Secretary of State on N. Korea policy, says in a NYT editorial that peace had been “tantalizingly close” at the end of Clinton’s administration. Secretary of State Powell says declares that Bush would pick up where Clinton had left off, but is forced to recant a few days later, saying he had leaned “too forward in my skis.” The Bush administration begins a North Korea policy review, which is completed in 2001.

[ Sources: Bruce Cummings, Parallax Visions: Making Sense of U.S.-East Asia relations, Fred Kaplan, “Rolling Blunder: How the Bush Administration Let North Korea Get Nukes,” Washington Monthly, Arms Control Association Fact Sheet ] 1