United States v. North Korea: Why are we at this point?

by Allison Hargus, Creator/Writer

September 22, 2017


We have all seen the headlines:

“Trump and Kim Call Each Other Mad”

“Kim Gives Final Warning on North Korean Trade”

“Trump Calls Kim ‘Rocketman'”

The pumped up rhetoric surfaced in April and continues to escalate until…. what? Where could this possibly be going? Nuclear War?!

While I would love to pat you all on the back with a comforting word, it’s clear that simply can’t assuage all of the fears bouncing back and forth between news sources. But maybe we can break down what’s going on so you can feel a little bit more informed about what is really going on. Because this isn’t the first time these threats swirled around our heads. And it definitely isn’t the first time the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRNK) and the United States (US) were involved in conflict.

Let’s start on Level 1: Why does North Korea hate the United States?

The reasons for the tension between the two countries started during the Korean War (1950-1953). Here is the background for the conflict in warp speed: The country was divided on the 38th parallel between the South for the United States and the North for

Kim Family Tree
Kim Family Tree: Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea ruled by three generations since 1948. See more about the rulers on Time Magazine’s bio of the family.

the USSR in 1948. Kim Il-sung’s (Kim Jong Un’s grandfather) North Korean army, backed by the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea in 1950; war broke out. As far as US officials were concerned, it was a war against the forces of international communism itself. Then US President, Harry Truman, led a UN backed coalition to support South Korea in the war against the North. So let’s look at the two sides:


North Korea                South Korea

     Russia                        United States

        China                         United Nations

This was beginning to look like World War III to many people.


After back-and-forth fighting on the border, numerous casualties and fruitless efforts- the US began to look for terms for an armistice to avoid the impending World War between the US, Russia and China. After 5 million lives were lost with very little accomplished, the war came to an end in 1953.

“The number of Korean dead, injured or missing by war’s end approached three million, ten percent of the overall population,” historian Charles K. Armstrong wrote in an essay for the Asia-Pacific Journal.

“The majority of those killed were in the North, which had half of the population of the South; although the DPRK does not have official figures, possibly twelve to fifteen percent of the population was killed in the war, a figure close to or surpassing the proportion of Soviet citizens killed in World War II.” 

An armistice was negotiated in 1953 but the war never ended for the leadership of the DPRNK. The North Korean regime has since used the legacy of war to keep the nation in a constant state of fear. All three generations of the Kim leaders used propaganda as a powerful tool to sway the views of their citizens.

This year, Pyongyang (capital of DPRNK) commemorated the outbreak of the Korean War by celebrating “the day of struggle against US imperialism”.

Okay now it gets a bit more complicated. I know this may be overwhelming, so take a minute to breathe. Look through these pictures of sweet baby animals to untangle your brain:

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Feel better now? Good. Now focus on this next part.

Level 2: Why does North Korea want nuclear weapons and why can’t they have them?

It would take hours to go into the ACTUAL reason as to why North Korea wants nuclear weapons, but experts believe it boils down to this: the DPRNK wants them for their national identity. Historically, the Northern country was split in half (from South Korea) and under the powerful influence of the then Soviet Union. It seems as if it is a power move to establish themselves as a sovereign nation.

Moving on to Part Two of the question: Why can’t they have them?

Following the creation of Nuclear Weapons in World War II, the world was in awe of the power and destruction of a single weapon. As the United States entered into the Cold War, so began the Nuclear Arms Race. At the peak of this race, the world contained over 40,000 nuclear weapons. In turn, this created the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction. This Cold War “military strategy” can be broken down like this:

USSR: I have nuclear weapons pointed at you. 

US: Well, we have just as many pointed at you.

USSR: If you attack, we attack. 

US: Ditto, pals. 

Oversimplified, but it gets the point across. So, during the Cold War everybody was living in fear of impending nuclear doom. There were regular nuclear detonation drills because at any given moment, one mistake could lead to nuclear war.

Our World in Data illustrates the rise and fall of nuclear arsenals since their creation.

Because the world’s nuclear arsenals were growing explosively (pun alert), something needed to be done.

In 1968, the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) created a road map to contain the ever-growing nuclear dilemma. According to the Department of State:

“The Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons is the cornerstone of the nonproliferation regime. It entered into force in 1970, and 190 states have subscribed. The treaty covers three mutually reinforcing pillars—disarmament, nonproliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy—and is the basis for international cooperation on stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. The basic bargain at the core of the NPT is sound: Countries with nuclear weapons will move towards disarmament; countries without nuclear weapons will not acquire them; and all countries can access peaceful nuclear technology.”

Initially, North Korea agreed to these terms. They signed in 1970, but withdrew from the NPT in 2003.

In 2003, the North Korean government said in a statement carried on KCNA, its official news agency: “We can no longer remain bound to the NPT, allowing the country’s security and the dignity of our nation to be infringed upon.

“Though we pull out of the NPT, we have no intention of producing nuclear weapons and our nuclear activities at this stage will be confined only to peaceful purposes such as the production of electricity,” KCNA said. (collective eye roll 14 years later)

Level 3: China is North Korea’s ally- what are they doing about it?

China has, sadly, been less than direct on this issue. While they condone DIPLOMACY between the US and North Korea and have asked North Korea to cease their tests, many believe their statements are not enough to dissuade North Korea from their continued Nuclear Weapons program.

Read more about China’s most recent statements

Level 4: Are we looking at impending nuclear doom?

Despite my extensive work and study on nuclear nonproliferation, your guess is as good as mine. As an optimist, I would like to point out that we have been in this boat before on a much larger scale during the Cold War. Earlier, we discussed the dangerous rhetoric of MAD and the negative impacts this had on everyday life. But here we are, studying past mistakes.

However, we should not look at the past as an example of: Well, it didn’t happen last time, so I don’t think we should worry. We should learn from our past mistakes and continue to disarm our nuclear arsenals and seek answers through diplomacy.

Level 5: Is there anything I can do?

There is always something to do. This is a very large scale, unpredictable situation. But staying informed about similar situations in history could help make us make more informed decisions.

If you are worried about it, call your representative and encourage them to seek peace through diplomacy. Maybe it’s idealistic, but what will you hurt if you try?

I think the most important thing anybody can do is keep a cool head. We see world leaders throwing insults across oceans and it seems to be getting more precarious. I hear many people saying: Well, we should just bomb North Korea and get it over with; wipe them off the map. This is simply not a solution for MANY reasons. 

  1. Humanitarian- The loss of innocent life is far too great. There are people suffering in North Korea right now that HAVE NO CONTROL over what is happening. The ends do not justify the means. Remember human compassion.
  2. Diplomatic/Allies- Every other country in the world is asking for us to de-escalate the situation. While a potential target would only be North Korea, there are too many countries in or near the Korean Peninsula to even consider an attack. South Korea and Japan would be severely affected by this decision. Even if it was on a smaller scale (doubtful), the radiation from the weapon would be catastrophic. Read more about radiation here.
  3. Environmental- If these reasons were not enough, look at the potential for this to be an environmental disaster. The weapons in the US arsenal today are 3,000 times more powerful than what was used in Hiroshima/Nagasaki. It would have devastating effects in the atmosphere and the ocean- the Korean Peninsula is surrounded by the ocean and South Korea uses hydroelectricity for a large percentage of their energy.


In summary:

Keep a cool head and learn from history.

For more ways to get involved, visit Get Involved here on The Conscious Activist.

Express UK: Why North Korea Hates the US
Time: Kim Family Tree
History: Korean War
BBC: Why does North Korea want Nuclear Weapons?
US Department of State: Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty 
The History Learning Site: The Nuclear Arms Race
Reuters: China Calls for Restraint
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