How the US Bullies North Korea, 1945-Present

Photo by John Pavelka | CC BY 2.0

For more than seven decades, US policymakers and military strategists have bullied, intimidated and ultimately tried to isolate the self-professed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (a.k.a., North Korea). It is particularly instructive to examine official Congressional, CIA and Pentagon sources relating to North Korea’s motivations. These often paint a much more honest picture of events than mainstream media.

The official sources, conspicuously absent from mainstream US and European media, strongly and consistently suggest that threats and aggression on the part of Western countries, in this case the USA, are met with threats and aggression by weaker states; in this case, North Korea. From this we learn that if we want peace or at least de-escalation, it pays to pursue diplomacy and to stick to international agreements. We also learn that US elites are committed to global military domination at any cost, not to peace.


The current period of US-North Korea relations began at the close of World War II. Korea had already faced external threats, having been under brutal Japanese occupation, beginning 1910. A recent US Defense Department report, says: “[NK’s] threat perceptions are shaped by a legacy of guerrilla warfare dating back to its anti–colonial struggle against the Japanese, political and economic isolation, experience during wartime, and a political culture that is defined by an unending existential struggle with outside forces.” If the assessment is correct, we learn that aggression leads to escalation.

Before the end of the Second World War, the US had plotted to take over Japan’s regional empire. The Cairo Conference 1943 said of Korea: “in due course, Korea shall become free and independent”, which means a satellite of the US, as indeed history shows; at least with regards to the South (or Republic of Korea). By the end of the war, the US had developed unprecedented, destructive technology, the atomic bomb, which was demonstrated twice; once in Hiroshima and again in Nagasaki, to show the world that the US was the new imperial power. Around 70% of Japan was destroyed, much of it from carpet bombing, even before the atomic bombs were dropped.

With Japan defeated, Stalin, arguably in accordance with the Cairo treaty, invaded Japanese Manchuria, which included parts of what is now North Korea, and sided with the anti-Japanese guerrilla, Kim Il-sung. Supposedly in an effort to stop Soviet advances, the US imposed an arbitrary demarcation line, which is why there are two separate countries, North Korea and South Korea today.

Soviet archives reviewed by US scholars at the Woodrow Wilson Center suggest that “from February 1945 to April 1950 Stalin did not aim to gain control over the entire peninsula.” Stalin, according to the records, assumed that the US would seek control over Japan’s territories. A declassified CIA assessment of troop movements in the North in January 1950, says that the North Korean movements were “probably a defensive measure to offset the growing strength of the offensively minded South Korean Army (sic).”

This is in accord with the Defense Department report quoted earlier, which says that North Korea’s threat assessments are shaped by its sense of external vulnerability. It also adds weight to the idea that if you threaten people, they tend to respond.

In response to the North’s invasion of the South, the US-dominated United Nations Security Council adopted resolutions 84 and 85, which appear to have authorized the use of force under a United Nations Command. The UN Command was almost entirely made up of US forces, who unleashed what they describe as “burn[ing] down every town in North Korea … Over a period of three years or so, we killed off … twenty percent of the population of Korea as direct casualties of war, or from starvation and exposure,” to quote General Curtis LeMay.     Dean Rusk, who served in Truman’s State Department, said: “We were bombing with conventional weapons,” meaning non-nuclear, “everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another.”

This destroyed about 90% of the country, proportionally even more than the US had destroyed in Japan, including with the use of two atomic bombs. There were calls from some quarters to use nuclear weapons against Korea. Sir Peter Roberts, a Tory politician from Sheffield, UK, told Parliament in 1950: “if the North Korean Government refuse to consider [a peace] resolution will the Prime Minister [Clement Attlee] advise his representative in the United Nations to ask for the use of the atomic bomb … upon the capital of North Korea?”, drawing gasps from fellow MPs.


In 1956, the US, in violation of the Armistice Agreement, considered the possibility of positioning nuclear weapons in the South. North Korea responded by building huge, subterranean bunkers to survive the possibility of annihilation from the US. It also sought nuclear materials from the Soviets. This began, unofficially, Phase 1 of US-South Korea military build-ups in the region, which North Korea perceived as a threat.

The first exercises took place between 1955 and 1957 (Autumn Season and Spring Shower). Others included Counterblow and Strong Shield. They incorporated counterinsurgency operations, due to the fact that North Korea had some ideological support in the South, among the population, not the government, and North Korea conducted frequent infiltration operations into the South.

Why did significant numbers of South Koreans support the North? According to the CIA, the North was developing socioeconomically in ways unseen in the South under a US-backed dictatorship. To quote a report from 1967: “excellent progress towards … rapid industrialization and the achievement of a high degree of self-sufficiency …  aroused admiration among some South Koreans.”

And so began Phase 2: North Korea reacted to US-South Korean developments by engaging in  provocations against the South. Kim Il-sung decided to relocate the armed forces closer to South Korea, to the Demilitarized Zone. The US-South Korea exercises, now called Focus Lens (or Focus Retina) began in 1968 and included long-range US flights designed to demonstrate rapid US force deployment.

During the late-1960s and well into the early-1980s, the North launched a series of cross-border raids, including assassination attempts and terrorism, such as hijacking South Korean airlines. Again, we learn that threats and violence are met with more of the same. The CIA report quoted above also explains that North Korea acted when it did in order to deter aggression from the USA: “more than a decade of relative quiet [followed the Korean War, but] the war in Vietnam probably caused North Korea to act when it did … [North Korea] has … been apprehensive that the conflict in Southeast Asia might spread to China and thence ultimately to Korea.”

It is also interesting to note that the CIA acknowledges “relative quiet,” so we might have expected US-South Korea military exercises to decline in scale and frequency, but that didn’t happen. Instead, Phase 3 began.


Former US serviceman and Pentagon analyst, Robert Collins, writes that between 1976 and 1991, there was  “an increase in the size of combined [South Korea]-US exercises.” Operation Focus Lens became an integrated exercise combing the South Korean government. The new exercise Team Spirit was introduced in 1976. By the late ‘80s Team Spirit had grown in force participation, from 100,000 to over 200,000 US-South Korean troops. Collins says: “Because of  its size, Team Spirit became a major concern for the North Koreans.” North Korea speeded up its nuclear programme, with assistance from the Soviet Union. So, again we learn that threats have consequences.

On the positive side, the ‘90s began a new phase of slightly relaxed US-North Korea relations, as US war planners and strategists realized that North Korea could not be stamped on. “Slightly relaxed” because the evidence shows that the US violated every one of its treaty obligations with North Korea.

In 1992, North and South Korea signed the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Initially, North Korea lived up to its side of the agreement, but the George H. W. Bush administration rejected North Korea’s offer to allowed UN inspectors to examine part of its programme. Specialist Leon V. Sigal of Arms Control Today says:

For a country supposedly intent on obtaining nuclear weapons, [North Korea’s] self-restraint seems difficult to explain. One possible explanation is that, starting in 1990 or 1991, North Korea was trying to trade in its weapons program for what it thought it needed more—security, political and economic ties with the United States … [Quoting further:] Washington entered into talks only with extreme reluctance, and even then it was unwilling to specify what it would give North Korea in return for abandoning its nuclear arms program.

Under the US-North Korea Agreed Framework (1994), the US was obliged to replace North Korea’s graphite nuclear reactor with light-water plants. It never did. By 2001, George W. Bush was in power and all talk of negotiations was for whimps. In his state of the union address in January 2002, Bush labelled North Korea part of the “axis of evil,” along with Iran and Iraq. Scholars at the Wood Wilson Center write: “Faced with such a clear and present danger,” i.e., the United States, “Pyongyang did what most countries [sic] under similar circumstances would do,” namely it turned to developing weapons of mass destruction. They go on to say that “ ‘evil’ is something to be destroyed, not something to negotiate with. Indeed, the Bush administration has boxed itself—and North Korea—into a corner.”

Phase 4 begins; the current phase of US-South Korea exercises, only this time with a supposedly nuclear capable North. This continued well into the Obama years, by which time North Korea had developed and tested—or at least claims to have tested—nuclear weapons. By then Kim’s son, Kim Jong-il had long been in power, and through state-media explained that North Korea developed nuclear weapons as a deterrent against potential US aggression.

Remarkably, even the annual US Defense Department threat assessments to Congress agree. The documents also refer to North Korea’s provocative actions and media statements as minor, which contradicts Western media hoopla concerning the latest leader, Kim Jong-un and the portrayal of him as a madman. They go on to talk about North Korea’s deterrent to US aggression.

To quote the Pentagon in 2015: “North Korea uses limited provocations — even  those that are kinetic and lethal in nature, such as military actions and small-scale attacks.” The report also explains why exactly North Korea engages in “limited provocations,” namely “to gain psychological advantage in diplomacy and win limited political and economic concessions.” With regards to its alleged possession of nuclear weapons, the same report says:

“North Korea’s national military strategy … relies heavily on deterrence, strategically through its nuclear weapons program and supporting delivery systems and conventionally by maintaining a large, heavily-armed, forward-deployed military that presents a constant threat to South Korea, especially the greater Seoul metropolitan area.”


As Western media ludicrously claim that the US under Trump is committed to “negotiating” with North Korea, the same media that make a killing analysing Trump’s lies let Secretary of State Rex Tillerson get away (keeping a straight face) with saying that peace talks with North Korea are contingent on North Korea’s initial commitment to “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”; in other words, they are contingent on North Korea’s giving up its sole deterrent. The CNN interviewer never asked what right the US has to demand anything of North Korea, nor did she point out that the US stations weapons, including likely nuclear weapons, in the region. Under Democrats, Republicans or far-right extremists like Trump, the US project for Full Spectrum Dominance continues…

This article is adapted from a talk given to Cambridge Stop the War Coalition in the UK in January 2018.


T. J. Coles is director of the Plymouth Institute for Peace Research and the author of several books, including Voices for Peace (with Noam Chomsky and others) and  Fire and Fury: How the US Isolates North Korea, Encircles China and Risks Nuclear War in Asia (both Clairview Books).