Daily Editorials for UPSC IAS Exam Preparation

Korean – US relations

Topic relevance

GS1 – History of the world will include events from 18th century such as industrial revolution, world wars, redrawal of national boundaries, colonization, decolonization, political philosophies like communism, capitalism, socialism etc. – their forms and effect on the society.

GS2 -Bilateral, regional and global groupings and agreements involving India and/or affecting India’s interests. 

GS2 – Effect of policies and politics of developed and developing countries on India’s interests, Indian diaspora


  • S. President Donald Trump, while describing North Korea as his biggest challenge, cautioned: “There is a chance that we could end up having a major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely.”
  • Earlier in April, amid reports that North Korea might be planning another nuclear test to coincide with the 105th birth anniversary of long-time leader Kim Il Sung, Mr. Trump had announced that “an armada, very powerful” was headed towards the Korean peninsula
  • In turn, the DPRK threatened a “super mighty pre-emptive strike”. After undertaking a live firing exercise off its east coast, it followed up with another test-firing of a ballistic missile on April 29 which fizzled, causing loss of face.
  • During the campaign, Mr. Trump had said that he would be willing to talk to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, making it clear that Barack Obama’s policy focussing on tighter sanctions was a failure.
  • After assuming office, he adopted a harder line, declaring that he would do “whatever is necessary” to prevent North Korea from developing a nuclear-capable missile that can reach the U.S.
  • The U.S. has not held bilateral talks with North Korea since the Bill Clinton presidency. So clearly, there is no dearth of signalling but the question is, what is the 33-year-old Kim Jong-un expected to make of it?

Historical role of USA in Korean peninsula

  • Even before the second world war ended, Russia and the USA had agreed that after the war Korea would be divided into two zones, Russian and American.
  • In August 1945 Russian troops entered the north. In September, after the Japanese surrender, American troops landed in the south. Korea was divided in two along an imaginary line, the 38th parallel. It was originally intended that the two zones would eventually be united into one. Of course that did not happen.
  • With the onset of the cold war the divide between them hardened. The Russians installed a communist government in the north and in the south a government was elected in 1948. Korea became two countries, one Communist, and one Democratic.
  • The North Korean army invaded the south on 25 June 1950. They quickly drove south and captured Seoul.
  • The UN Security Council invited members to help the south. US troops arrived on 30 June but they were forced to withdraw into the area around Busan. The first British troops arrived in Korea on 14 September to reinforce them. On 15 September other US troops landed at Incheon 150 miles north of Busan. The soldiers in the Busan area broke out and pushed north and linked up with the troops in Incheon on 26 September. On the same day allied troops liberated Seoul.
  • United Nations troops then pushed the communists back over the 38th parallel and by 24 November they controlled about 2/3 of North Korea.
  • However the Chinese then intervened. Strengthened by Chinese 180,000 troops the communists then counter-attacked and drove the allies south. By the end of 1950 the allies were back at the 38th parallel.
  • The communists attacked again on 1 January 1951. The allies counter-attacked on 25 January and on 14 March they again liberated Seoul. Several communist offensives followed but all of them were repulsed.
  • The war ended in a stalemate and on 27 July 1953 a cease-fire was signed. The 38th parallel was once again the border between the two countries.

After the Cold War

  • Regime acceptance and regime survival have been key priorities for Pyongyang since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
  • A positive move in 1992 was the withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula and a suspension of Team Spirit, the joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, leading to the Basic Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation.
  • When joint exercises were resumed in 1993, North Korea announced its decision to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The ensuing crisis led to talks and a year later, an Agreed Framework was concluded under which North Korea suspended its decision to withdraw from the NPT, agreed to freeze its nuclear activities, and in return, the U.S. pledged to build two light water nuclear power reactors. Food aid and humanitarian assistance provided by the Clinton administration from 1995 till 2000 was close to $750 million.
  • The Bush administration declared North Korea part of the ‘axis of evil’ in 2002, cancelled direct talks and annulled the 1994 agreement. North Korea responded by throwing out International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and formally quit the NPT thereby provoking a fresh crisis.
  • China and Russia initiated Six Party Talks in 2004 which led to the 2005 joint statement which expanded the scope to more than the nuclear issue. However, the talks collapsed when the U.S. imposed sanctions a few months later; North Korea responded with its first nuclear test in 2006.
  • Since then, North Korea has made steady progress in its nuclear and missile programmes. An underground nuclear facility has been built at Mt. Musan.
  • Nuclear tests were conducted in 2013 and twice last year, and it is estimated that North Korea has enough fissile material for 10 to 15 nuclear devices. By 2019, North Korea will be able to develop long-range missiles that can reach the U.S. mainland.
  • Given Mr. Trump’s redline, Mr. Jong-un is convinced that nuclear capability is the ultimate security guarantee to protect his regime against U.S. intervention.
  • S. policy has oscillated between sanctions in response to nuclear and missile tests, dilution of sanctions by China, talks about closer defence ties with Japan and South Korea, citing of additional threats by North Korea and more testing, thus repeating the cycle. U.S. expectations that sanctions would lead to regime collapse were misplaced because given China’s stakes, this will not happen

Role of China

  • Recently China has registered a policy shift reflecting unhappiness about Mr. Jong-un’s behaviour, particularly the high-profile executions of those considered to be close to China. The most recent was the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, Mr. Jong-un’s half brother, in February, which prompted China to halting coal briquette imports from North Korea. Air China stopped direct flights to Pyongyang last month but these are now being reinstated. North Korea has accused China of “dancing to the tune of the U.S.”.
  • However, China can neither permit a regime collapse which would create instability nor allow its communist ally to be subsumed into a unified Korea.
  • Trump is trying to persuade China to exert greater leverage by praising its President, Xi Jinping, as “a good man” who is “trying hard”.
  • After the latest missile test, Mr. Trump tweeted, “North Korea disrespected the wishes of China & its highly respected President when it launched, though unsuccessfully, a missile today. Bad!” Mr. Xi is unlikely to be persuaded.
  • At the UN Security Council meeting on April 28, Foreign Minister Wang Yi reaffirmed support for a denuclearised Korean peninsula and previous Security Council resolutions but did not support additional punitive measures. Instead, he again suggested that the U.S. and South Korea could suspend their military exercises.
  • More than North Korean tests, China is worried about the possibility of an unpredictable Trump initiating unilateral action which could create an escalatory spiral.
  • Another concern is the U.S. decision to accelerate deployment of the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) system in South Korea though it is hopeful that a moderate President gets elected in the May 9 election in South Korea and reverses the THAAD decision.

Way forward

  • Xi’s objective is to persuade Mr. Trump that neither more sanctions nor military strikes are viable options; the only option is ‘dialogue’.
  • Second, while denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula can be a long-term objective, for the foreseeable future, Mr. Jong-un is not going to give up North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities. At most, he can agree to a freeze on its programmes — no further tests, no exports or transfers and no threats.
  • In return, the U.S. will need to provide assurances relating to regime acceptance and a gradual normalisation of relations. A moderate leader in Seoul will help the process of a sustained dialogue which also needs coordination with Japan.
  • Jong-un’s stakes are existential and, having seen Western interventions in Iraq and Libya and Russian intervention in Ukraine, he is determined to retain his nuclear capabilities till the end of what will be a long and delicate negotiating process, a process which could all too easily be derailed by confusing rhetoric and mixed signalling that has escalated tensions.
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