Adapted from the broadcast audio segment; use the audio player to listen to the story in its entirety.
When it comes to the Korean peninsula, the United States has been there to stay for more than six decades. It’s a relationship that was forged in war more than six decades ago. It began on the eve of World War Two when Korea was ruled by Japan.
To help defeat Japan, the United States asked its wartime ally, the Soviet Union, for help. In 1945, Russian troops toppled Japanese control over Korea.
To prevent Soviet domination of the entire peninsula, the U.S. military moved rapidly to occupy Korea south of the 38th Parallel. Korea was now divided. The Soviet backed North Korean government built up its military strength, but by 1949, the United States was providing only modest assistance to South Korea’s military. Then came war.
In June 1950, North Korea launched a massive Soviet-backed invasion across the 38th Parallel. American troops were rushed to Korea, which was now seen as a crucial test in the emerging global struggle against communism.
The Korean War caused enormous devastation. Fifty-four thousand Americans and a quarter of a million Koreans died.
In July 1953, the war ended with an armistice that kept the country divided. The United States and South Korea signed a defense treaty signaling America’s commitment to the security of the south. But in the 1960s, that commitment would waver in the shadow of America’s Vietnam quagmire.
In 1971, President Nixon announced that the U.S. was withdrawing one-third of its troops from Korea leaving 40,000 there. South Korea’s fear of abandonment increased when new President Jimmy Carter came into office later that decade and shocked Seoul with a new announcement to begin a careful withdrawal of ground troops.
President Carter eventually backed off his plan, but it reinforced old fears in Seoul that America was no longer fully committed to defending South Korea.
In the 1980s, President Reagan addressed the country’s National Assembly and reassured the south that America’s commitment to South Korea remained strong.
When the Cold War ended, many predicted North Korea’s collapse. But the north, more isolated than ever before, somehow survived. Despite the fall of the Soviet Union,
President George H. W. Bush decided that American troops would remain in South Korea to defend it against the north.
In the early 1990s, a satellite photo showed that North Korea was constructing a plant to reprocess plutonium and build nuclear weapons. The Clinton Administration negotiated an agreement that it hoped would freeze the development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
It was the beginning of two decades of crises over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
As nuclear agreements were negotiated, new elections swept to power a generation of South Korean leaders that were critical of America’s involvement on the Korean Peninsula. In 1996, South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung launched a new effort to engage North Korea in a cooperative relationship called the “Sunshine Policy.”
In Washington, both Kim Dae-Jung’s “Sunshine Policy” and the Clinton administration’s nuclear agreement with North Korea faced increasing criticism.
In 2001, the new administration of George W. Bush argued for a tougher policy against North Korea.
The shaky relations between North Korea and the United States deteriorated quickly when Kim Jong-Il’s regime made a startling admission that it had violated the 1994 agreement with the United States and begun a secret nuclear weapons program in the 1990s.
In the face of the crisis, the Bush Administration sought to win the support of North Korea’s concerned neighbors. In 2003, the United States, China, Russia, Japan, and North and South Korea agreed to meet to find a resolution. It was the first of many rounds of what would become known as the ‘Six Party Talks.’
But the dialogue didn’t go well. In 2006, North Korea conducted its first test of a nuclear weapon. The international community reacted with widespread condemnation and sanctions.
A year later, South Korea’s “Sunshine Policy” came to an official end with the election of President Lee Myung-Bak. During his campaign, Lee promised to take a harder line with the North.
Then in 2009, North Korea launched an underground nuclear test, much bigger than the one conducted in 2006.
The provocations continued with the sinking of a South Korean warship in 2010 that killed 46 South Korean sailors. Later that year in a brazen attack, North Korea fired on a South Korean island, killing two soldiers and injuring civilians. Relations between the two Koreas hit a new low.
And now, with Kim Jong-il’s death, the future of the American relationship with the two Koreas is as uncertain as ever.
In a surprise announcement this past February, North Korea promised to suspend uranium enrichment and nuclear weapons tests.
But the Obama Administration has reacted cautiously, because deals like this have been made and broken in the past and experts caution that history could again repeat itself.