Unpacking The Long, Contentious Relationship Between The U.S. And North Korea

Jun 11, 2018
Originally published on June 11, 2018 4:07 pm
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On the eve of a historic summit between the United States and North Korea, we're going to try to unpack the long, contentious relationship between these two powers. And the story starts decades ago when the Korean Peninsula was unified but under Japanese occupation.


In World War II, the Allies defeated Japan. The Soviets and the Americans decided to divide up the Korean Peninsula into two countries. And to help us tell the story from there, we're joined by Bruce Cumings, a historian from the University of Chicago. Welcome.

BRUCE CUMINGS: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: We're in 1945. The Soviets and the Americans divide the Korean Peninsula into the communist North and the capitalist South. Why did the Americans draw the border where they did?

CUMINGS: They drew the 38th parallel because it was north of Seoul, and Seoul would be included in the American zone. Korea is completely centralized in one city. You don't think of a second city in Korea, much like France and Paris. They also drew the line to try and stop Soviet troops who had already entered the peninsula from coming any further south.

SHAPIRO: And at that point, how did the North Koreans view the Americans?

CUMINGS: I think all Koreans at the time saw the United States and the Soviet Union as liberators.

SHAPIRO: They viewed them as liberators because they had defeated the Japanese who were occupying Korea.

CUMINGS: That's right. The Japanese had been in occupation for almost 40 years, and all Koreans were just ecstatic that the Japanese were being sent home by both the Americans and the Soviets.

SHAPIRO: Of course those warm feelings didn't last very long. In 1950, the North Koreans pushed past the American-drawn border, and the U.S. responded with military force. It was the early years of the Cold War, and President Harry Truman was determined to contain Soviet influence on the Korean Peninsula.


HARRY TRUMAN: Korea is a small country thousands of miles away, but what is happening there is important to every American.

SHAPIRO: Truman sent American forces by land, sea and air to defend the South Koreans.

CUMINGS: The U.S. carried out a very heavy bombing campaign for three years against the North. By far, the largest number of North Koreans died in that bombing campaign. One city after another was flattened, and a tremendous enmity against the United States developed at that time. And it lasts right down to the present.

SHAPIRO: Did the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 change anything? The Soviets had been major backers of the North Koreans.

CUMINGS: Well, it changed everything, in a sense, because the U.S. - as a matter of high policy - considered North Korea to be basically a puppet or a stooge of the Soviet Union. I think many scholars like myself did not think that North Korea has a high quotient of nationalism and desires for independence, but that was tested when the Soviet Union collapsed. All sorts of people predicted North Korea was the next communist country to collapse. But here we are more than a quarter century later, and they're still standing.

SHAPIRO: How did the dissolution of the Soviet Union affect North Korea's contact with the rest of the world - its economy, its place in the global order?

CUMINGS: Well, the Soviets had been supplying oil at subsidized prices - a lot of other materials. And when the Soviet Union pulled out and then - a year later - China recognized South Korea and opened up a broad relationship with the South, the North's energy regime collapsed. And then that had a cascading effect into industry and agriculture, and they ended up with just a complete disaster. You might even say the economy collapsed in the mid-1990s, and then the famine just made it much worse.

SHAPIRO: North Korea's nuclear weapons development has been the biggest source of tension with the United States. What motivated the North Koreans to go down that path?

CUMINGS: Well, I think, originally, they wanted their nuclear reactor that the Soviets sold them in 1985 for electric generation capacity. North Korea, just like the South, lacks oil and other natural energy resources.

SHAPIRO: So you're talking about energy - not weapons.

CUMINGS: There's no evidence that the North Koreans moved toward a weapon until 1989 when they first took out fuel rods from that reactor four years after it got going. Then the Soviet Union collapsed, and I think North Korea began looking at their plutonium reactor as a bargaining chip with the United States to somehow draw the United States in to help them solve their terrible isolation and vulnerability after the Soviet Union collapsed.

SHAPIRO: So you're saying that North Korea faced a fork in the road after the Soviet Union collapsed where they chose to go down a path of developing weapons to force the U.S. to engage rather than some kind of diplomatic overture that might've been a carrot instead of a stick.

CUMINGS: Yes, I think so. At least back then, I think North Korea was willing to trade its nuclear arsenal and program for aid from the U.S. and better relations with the U.S.

SHAPIRO: Well, that leads to the question, do you think this summit can actually be a productive turning point in the relationship?

CUMINGS: I don't know how to predict the behavior of President Trump because he's so mercurial.

SHAPIRO: I thought you were going to say, I don't know how to predict the behavior of President Kim Jong Un.

CUMINGS: (Laughter) Kim Jong Un will come to the table this evening - our time - fully prepared with all sorts of experts. I do think - particularly, President Trump wants to go down in history as the person who ended the Korean War. And I think a peace agreement to end the war to get rid of the armistice is quite doable. Denuclearization is a much harder problem and will take much longer, but I'm fairly optimistic that things will go well at the summit.

SHAPIRO: That was Bruce Cumings, an expert in Korean history at the University of Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.