I originally published this post approximately three years ago. With North Korea in the news again concerning its nuclear ambitions, I think it is important to understand the background.
As soon as President George W. Bush took office in 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell stated that he was going to continue the actions of the Clinton administration. Quickly, Vice President Dick Cheney and other neo-cons in the Bush White House worked to silence Powell and reverse the steps that the Clinton Administration took to freeze nuclear weapons production in North Korea.
I believe the way that the US-North Korea relationship has been played out in the media has been ridiculously superficial. Secondly, the American public has been led to believe that everything started with President Clinton. He is portrayed as a hero or a villain, depending upon your point of view. As usual, I think that the real picture is far more complex.
It appears that North Korea’s nuclear plans date back to the late fifties and early '60s. Being a very small and somewhat paranoid country, North Korea began to send scientists to the Soviet Union right at the end of the Korean War. They did not believe that when push came to shove the Soviet Union would stand up for them. The Cuban Missile Crisis reinforced that belief. The Soviet Union, their ally, backed down when the US show of force and imposed a blockade around Cuba. North Korea thought that Russia would do the same if squeezed by the US. Also, in 1965, the US, Japan and South Korean signed a diplomacy agreement. This served to further isolate the paranoid country. North Korea fired up the first of its two nuclear reactors in 1967.
Presidents Johnson and Nixon paid little attention to the North Koreans as they began to build their nuclear facility. The United States was preoccupied with Vietnam. Through the 1980s, President Reagan did little or nothing as North Korea continued its march towards a nuclear weapon. Reagan did pressure the Soviets to get North Korea to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. To North Korea, this meant nothing.
In 1990, when George H. W. Bush declared that Saddam Hussein was "worse than Hitler," North Korea was slowly but surely working on their bomb. Intelligence throughout the 1980s and early 1990s suggested that Kim Il Sung was getting closer to acquiring a nuclear weapon. By the way, by all accounts, Kim Il Sung had killed more people in his gulags than Saddam Hussein ever did.
Between 199 and 1994, North Korea and the United States were in a battle of wills. North Korea publicly stated that they would pull out of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. By this time, it was estimated that the North Koreans had enough plutonium to make five or six nuclear weapons. There were negotiations, but they fell apart. South Korea started civil defense drills. The Pentagon began to reinforce the troop strength in South Korea. Jimmy Carter went to North Korea and over a period of several months negotiated the Agreed Framework (here's the document). This put a lid on the crisis.
It appears to me that North Korea is a country that has nothing. It has no significant natural resources. There's very little that the United States, China or Russia would need from North Korea. Therefore, in my opinion, North Korea has bargained over last 30-40 years with the only chip in its coffer -- a nuclear weapon. North Korea needs food, fuel and money. It is hoping that nuclear weapons could get them all three. More on North Korea tomorrow and how Bush, Cheney and the gang didn't understand North Korea at all.
(A lot of the information in this post can be found in David Sanger's book, The Inheritance.)