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North Korea: A 30 Year View

Thirty years ago this fall I was in Pyongyang, North Korea, talking to the Foreign Minister Kim Young Nam. I was part of a small delegation from the American Friends Service Committee, the first American non-sectarian group to visit North Korea since the Korean War. In 1980, the US government refused to talk directly with North Korea and would not give visas to any North Koreans to come here. Then, as now, tensions were high on the Korean peninsula. We wanted to learn how North Korea saw the situation and what common ground we might encourage the US government to explore. On our return we met with representatives of the US National Security Council and the State Department.

Although the US did slowly begin contact with North Korea in the years after that, American efforts have been incredibly erratic, making promises to the North during negotiations (such a supplying a safer type of reactor for power generation and other energy assistance) that were not been fulfilled and which triggered angry responses from the North. Sadly, two important lessons we learned in 1980 about how North Korea sees its situation have not yet been recognized as essential to reducing the threat of military conflict.

First lesson: North Korea felt then and still feels incredibly vulnerable militarily. Fifty-eight years after the end of the Korean War, the US still maintains over 28,000 troops in South Korea and still retains wartime operational control over South Korean forces. Every year the US joins South Korea in conducting huge and provocative military exercises near the demilitarized zone and in contested waters.

Second lesson: Ever since the Korean War ended without a peace treaty — just with a temporary armistice — North Korea has felt a need above all for a permanent peace treaty with the US to protect it from perceived potential military attack. A peace treaty would also include clarification of maritime and land borders between the 2 Koreas. In 1953, the US navy acted unilaterally to impose a Northern Limit Line which has never been recognized internationally. Disagreement about borders related to this line underlies the conflicts this fall over South Korean artillery firing exercises in contested waters that triggered return fire from North Korean units, substantially escalating the risk of war on the peninsula.

The US response to this fall’s exchange of shelling by the south and the north has been particularly disappointing. Instead of immediately taking advantage of China’s shared interest in lowering the escalating hostilities, the US turned down Beijing’s proposal to use the crisis to restart needed 6-party talks and instead revved up the conflict by dispatching a nuclear-powered air carrier to military exercises in the disputed waters and pressing both Japan and South Korea to ratchet up their military presence.

Even when former US Ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson made a trip to North Korea in December, bringing back North Korean offers to welcome back nuclear inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Commission and to decrease its stored nuclear material through shipments to South Korea, the US responded only with skepticism. Both offers provide potentially huge steps forward on the issue of North Korean nuclear weapons development, so it is encouraging that this week the US has sent its special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, to the region to meet with Japan, South Korea and China to discuss re-starting talks.

I fervently hope that a new round of talks emerges soon and that the US has the wisdom to enter them with an understanding of how North Korea sees its own needs. This will require addressing not only the nuclear issue, but all the issues involved in North Korea’s sense of military vulnerability.

It is in the US interest in so many ways to lower tensions with North Korea: not only to lower the nuclear weapons threat, but also to remove an obstacle to the gradual economic reintegration and peaceful reunification of North and South, economically and politically a major stabilization. Cooperation with China in this effort would also provide an excellent model for the Beijing-Washington collaboration which is needed in many parts of the globe.

Stability on the Korean peninsula would also allow Washington to back away from the US taxpayer expense of maintaining American military bases in South Korea and Japan, where both populations resent the American soldiers’ presence. All the December deficit reduction reports called for including military spending in needed budgets cuts. Successful negotiations with North Korea could make a major contribution to this deficit reduction, while increasing security and long-term stability for all Koreans.

This is the time to let President Obama and Congress know how much we’d like to move the Korean peninsula to the list of places in the world where diplomacy not military force is US strategy for peace-making. For more information, see the Korea Policy Institute website,

*Maud Easter traveled to Pyongyang as a member of an American Friends Service Committee delegation in 1980. She is currently the Steering Committee Coordinator for Women Against War in Albany, NY.


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