The History of US Relations with North Korea

For the past 50 years the US policy toward North Korea has been proof that most conflicts and wars can be prevented. In light of the last two years under the Bush administration, this history also shows just how inept the Bush White House is when it comes to formulating effective foreign policies that will make the world more safe for all of us.

Although most people don’t realize it, the Korean War never officially ended. It has been a legal ceasefire for the past 50 years. The public has been led to believe, however, that the war was, for all practical purposes, over. The truth is, the fighting has never stopped. Proving this fact and how it illustrates how we can avoid full scale war if we truly desired to do so is difficult because much of the evidence is classified.

For one year, from September of 1989 to September of 1990, I served in a high level intelligence unit in South Korea called CSCT #1, or Combat Support Coordination Team #1. Its mission was to act as a liaison unit between the US 8th Army and the South Korean 1st Army. What I learned while there, from both classified and private sources, helps illustrate why a war with Iraq is clearly not about the threat of Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction.

Before I was sent to my unit I received a classified briefing at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona that was attended by all US Army personnel who had received similar orders. Everyone there was informed of how grave the situation was in South Korea. Riots, tear gas, and low level combat were all possible. We were advised by one speaker to hope and pray that we didn’t receive orders for the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) because, on average, about eight American soldiers were killed there every year by North Korean forces by sniper fire or in small skirmishes.

Eight soldiers a year might sound like a low number. But the important thing to note is that this information, at least to my knowledge, has never been made public before. The majority of soldiers who were killed by North Korean forces were almost assuredly never recognized for their ultimate sacrifice. In other words, there could be approximately 400 families out there, and perhaps more, who were never told that their son or daughter was killed in combat. Most likely, they were told that they were swept away in a flooded river or died by accident when a grenade or some other weapon malfunctioned.

Multiple incidents, some publicly known and others never before revealed, validate the eight soldiers a year estimate.

In 1968, for example, one US sailor from the captured USS Pueblo died (and may have been killed) while in custody of the North Koreans. In 1976 two soldiers were brutally killed with axes when they attempted to remove a tree that was obstructing the vision of UN soldiers on the DMZ. In another incident in 1984, one South Korean and three North Korean soldiers were killed in a gun battle when a Soviet translator attempted to defect by crossing the DMZ into South Korea. All three of these incidents, among numerous others, are widely known, including the axe murders which were captured on film by the US Army.

Far more astonishing are the events about which the public was never told. These incidents are particularly revealing as to how much effort the US has put into avoiding going to full scale war since 1953.

For example, it’s estimated that North Korea has dug approximately 20 tunnels under the DMZ into South Korea. These are invasion routes, two for every North Korean combat infantry division along the border. In the late winter of 1990, the same year that Iraq invaded Kuwait, one of these tunnels was discovered by the US Army. This was the fourth such tunnel that had been found since the beginning of the 1953 ceasefire. The official story offered by the US military at the time was that only a few bomb sniffing dogs were killed by mines.

However, a soldier I knew who served in the unit which went down into the tunnel told me a far different story. According to this man, US and South Korean forces were confronted by an entire North Korean company under the DMZ on the South Korean side. What ensued was a firefight which resulted in the deaths of more than 50 North Koreans as well as a half dozen or so American soldiers. That same year, approximately two months after this skirmish, it was announced that North Korea was finally releasing the remains of several soldiers who had been killed during the Korean War. According to my source, the North Koreans did this in exchange for the bodies of all the men who were killed in the invasion tunnel months earlier.

Another incident was recently revealed to me at an anti-war presentation I was giving where I met a man who served in the US Army in the early 1960s and was stationed in South Korea on the DMZ. According to this man, one of his buddies was killed by sniper fire while he was driving his Jeep. The man’s parents were told that he died when his vehicle overturned on a slippery road. The casket, as is likely common in deaths such as this, was sent home sealed according to my source.

These public and hidden events fit into a long history of hostility between North Korea and the United States. Despite what the White House has stated, under both Republican and Democratic presidents, North Korea has always been militarily a far greater threat than Iraq. They have had more soldiers under arms, have been committed to using those soldiers in combat against South Korean and US soldiers for the past 50 years, and have been controlled by an extreme and brutal isolationist, Stalinist-style Communist regime that is responsible for hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. If we added up the numbers, the North Korean government is responsible for far more deaths than Saddam Hussein.

There has been much controversy about the recent admission by North Korea that they have nuclear weapons. However, in 1989 and 1990 US Army Intelligence believed that they already had developed such weapons. Around mid-1990 I also read an official ranking of military powers across the globe. At that time President Bush Sr. stated that Iraq had the “fourth largest” force in the world. However, classified US Army analysis indicated that Iraq wasn’t even in the top ten in terms of strength – but North Korea was. The Army had concluded even then, when Iraq had a far stronger military than it does now, that North Korea was a more powerful enemy. In other words, North Korea is, and has been for many years, the threat that the US government has been making Iraq out to be. Furthermore, while Saddam Hussein was our ally in the Middle East for many years, North Korea has always been our enemy – an enemy that’s been killing our soldiers and threatening invasion of South Korea for 50 years.

Despite this history of conflict, the US has generally shown a pattern of reserved warnings to North Korea that we will defend South Korea. In other words, we will respond only if they act. This is in stark contrast to President Bush’s recent push to preemptively and unilaterally attack with no provocation, very little if any evidence, and a host of hidden agendas that have nothing to do with regime change, weapons of mass destruction or even the brutality of Saddam Hussein. There is in fact a mountain of evidence which clearly points to the US replacing Saddam with a pro-US dictator who will simply give us access to Iraqi oil.

None of this is to suggest that we should go to war with North Korea. Such an argument would be ludicrous, especially given the brutality of the Korean War in which over four million people, including more than 33,000 American soldiers, were killed in three years. This is a rate far greater than what we saw in Vietnam. No one wants to fight this war all over again, including most likely the vast majority of those with more hawkish views. Diplomacy has been the logical preferred route under all Presidents since Eisenhower.

Until now. The Bush administration, out of sheer belligerence, ineptitude, or some foolish hidden agenda, appears to be taking the approach to North Korea that it has with Iraq. For example, Donald Rumsfeld recently warned that the US could fight two wars simultaneously, one in Korea and another in Iraq, and still win. These remarks not only exacerbated tensions with North Korea, but also angered South Koreans who, according to recent polls, now fear George Bush more than they do a nuke-wielding North Korea.

The Bush administration has made some effort at diplomacy. White House spokesman Sean McCormack recently stated, “We’ve made very clear we want a peaceful resolution to the situation North Korea has created by pursuing a covert nuclear weapons program, and as the president has said before, we have no intention of invading North Korea.” However, as McCormack’s statement shows, the Bush administration’s attempts at diplomacy only go so far. Part of the problem is that they have been refusing to dialogue with North Korea because they seem to think that a conversation is an immediate concession. Such an attitude can only make the situation worse, especially since the common wisdom is that North Korea is aggressively posturing because it so desperately needs outside aid and assistance or, perhaps, truly feels threatened by the new US doctrine of preemptive attack and believes that it must act in self defense. Either way, Bush seems to be only interested in using the stick, not the carrot.

Before George Bush came to office the United States seemed committed to avoiding war with North Korea. We’ve used a long list of tactics, from negotiation to threatening force to exchanging prisoners and/or bodies. But never, not since 1953, an outright war. Why? Why exert all this effort to avoid war with a brutal regime such as North Korea’s? Could it be that it would be senseless to fight a war which would result in hundreds of thousands of casualties if not far worse? Yes, that’s true. But the answer probably lies closer to a resource that we Americans have foolishly staked our future upon – oil. There is none in North Korea.

So why the apparent change in tactics toward North Korea? There seems to be no definite indication as to what the Bush administration’s intentions are. It’s also extremely troubling to note that we are now emphasizing North Korea’s “only recent” violations such as their illegal use of machine guns into the Demilitarized Zone. Is this some attempt to quietly shift American public opinion to view North Korea as a threat without mentioning all the other horrible things that have happened between our two nations? There’s no way to tell at this time.

The public needs to know about the events of the past 50 years because they prove that the Bush administration’s lack of diplomacy and new tactics of aggression simply do not work. The past 50 years also prove that if we committed ourselves to a path of avoiding war, with North Korea, Iraq, or any other nation for that matter, we would most likely succeed. But this will never happen while we continue our addiction to oil, view other nations as our resources to be used and manipulated, or behave as if only our interests matter.

PATRICK CARKIN is currently the Co-Director of NH Peace Action and the owner/administrator of, a web site tool to assist those who challenge US politicians. He can be contacted at: