North Korea announced the successful testing of a hydrogen bomb earlier this week, ringing in the New Year with an ominous blast. The conciliatory New Year’s Address delivered by North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, which included no references to the nation’s nuclear ambitions, was greeted in South Korea with hope for better relations in 2016, but such optimism was quickly dashed by detection of seismic activity in North Korea near previous nuclear test sites, followed by official announcement in North Korean state-run media that the “successful” testing of the hydrogen bomb guarantees its sovereignty to defend against American threats. As analysts begin to question the validity of North Korean claims due to the size of the detonation, much of the world may be tempted to either dismiss North Korean brinkmanship as just another example of its saber-rattling and return to the status quo ante, or worse, escalate tensions by imposing another round of sanctions that have yet to prove any efficacy as attested to by the present situation.
To our detriment, history is often overlooked as indicated by the epitaph attached to the Korean War (1950-1953), known euphemistically in the United States as the Forgotten War. Yet history is not a thing of the past, but an ongoing reality, lived by every woman, man, and child especially in North Korea, and the timing of the latest announcement is telling.
Precisely 63 years ago, on January 7, 1953, President Harry S. Truman announced that the United States had developed a hydrogen bomb. Its first successful testing took place just a couple of months earlier on November 1, 1952, making it the world’s first detonation of the thermonuclear weapon. The United States thereby became the first to possess the H-Bomb, escalating the global nuclear arms race with a new weapon that was 1,000 times more destructive than previous atomic devices. All this happened during the Korean War, when General Douglas MacArthur, Commander-in-Chief of the American forces and the United Nations Command, openly advocated the use of nuclear weapons in Korea.
With a far superior air power, unmatched by the minimal air support provided by the Soviet Union, the American air force leveled much of North Korean territory. Journalists covering the war at the time noted that North Korea was pulverized to the point that it was like walking on the moon. Entire schools, factories, hospitals, and homes, in addition to military bunkers, were built underground to survive the bombing campaign during the 3-year war, and some estimate that as much as 10% of the North Korean civilian population was killed during the war. While the armistice that finally halted the fighting called for a peace agreement within 90 days of the cease-fire and specifically banned the introduction of new weaponry into Korea, no peace settlement was ever reached and it was the United States that introduced tactical nuclear weapons into its missile bases in South Korea in 1958, not to be pulled out until 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union. Throughout that time, North Korea had consistently called for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula to no avail.
Ironically, it was with the end of the Cold War in the rest of the world that the Cold War intensified in Korea. In the absence of a Soviet nuclear umbrella, North Korea began its own nuclear program in earnest, which led to the first nuclear crisis in 1993. But with crisis also came opportunity. The 1994 Agreed Framework halted North Korea’s nuclear program in exchange for aid and lifting of sanctions toward full diplomatic relations, and it seemed the 21st century was poised for a new era of peace in Korea.
The year 2000 saw the first summit by the leaders of the two Koreas since the division of the peninsula in 1945, followed by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s visit to Pyongyang, the highest American official to ever visit North Korea. She spoke of a possible visit by President Bill Clinton, which would have been the first step toward normalized relations. Instead, George W. Bush included North Korea in the “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union speech, scrapping the Agreed Framework that had halted North Korea’s nuclear program. Unsurprisingly, North Korea promptly resumed its nuclear program resulting in its first nuclear test in 2006 with little progress in resolving the problem since.
While the start of 2016 may seem bleak for making headway, history should inform decisions today to open up new possibilities. It is only by acknowledging the impact of the Korean War and the Cold War on the present conundrum – and taking concrete steps to overcome historical barriers against the full normalization of relations – that a deal can be reached for North Korea to give up its nuclear program in exchange for a lasting peace settlement in Korea.