How did the U.S. get to this point with North Korea?

The back-and-forth between President Trump and Kim Jong Un is the latest dramatic period in a conflict almost as old as the commander-in-chief.

The U.S.’s combative relationship with Korea began at the end of World War II, when the formerly Japanese-controlled peninsula was divided between the Soviet-backed north and the American-backed south.

Both North and South Korea were declared as separate countries in 1948, eventually leading to the outbreak of war that was ended not with a treaty but an armistice in 1953.

The time since has seen three heads of the authoritarian state, with the first ruling for decades and setting in motion the country’s controversial nuclear program.

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It remains to be seen whether Kim Il Sung’s grandson Kim Jong Un and Trump will find a sustainable solution to the panic the program has caused, continue cycles of conflict that have lasted generations or let the relationship fall into violence.

Kim Il Sung

Kim Il Sung was the country’s first “Supreme Leader,” ruling through the civil war and building the country’s identity around himself for more than four decades until his death in July 1994.

North Korea began using a nuclear reactor built by the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s, though it began its quest for weapons of mass destruction by trying to enrich plutonium to weapons-grade levels.

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A missile believed to be a North Korean Hwasong 12 is paraded across Kim Il Sung Square in 2017.

(Wong Maye-E/AP)

With geopolitics shifting during the fall of the Iron Curtain, North Korea signed an agreement with South Korea to denuclearize in 1991, according to the Arms Control Association.

The agreement comes along with the Kim regime saying it will satisfy conditions under the global Nonproliferation Treaty, though suspicions that it is cheating lead to U.S. sanctions and international efforts to curb the program.

Under the Clinton administration, the end of Kim Il Sung’s life also sees the beginning of negotiations that represent the closest the global community has come to ending the nuclear threat.

Kim Jong Il

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The beginning of Kim Jong Il’s reign sees the “Agreed Framework” where North Korea agreed to stop and eventually get rid of its nuclear program in exchange for aid including oil.

North Korea was still under U.S. sanctions amid negotiations about its missile technology.

The economic punishments added to the effects of a famine that devastated North Korea in the late 1990s, with hundreds of thousands dying while their government continued to focus on military might.


Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, left, meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in 2009.


While the late 1990s provided some hope with the presence of international monitors and inspectors finding no violations of the agreement, and a possible trip by Bill Clinton to Pyongyang was floated after a high-level meeting with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

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The “Agreed Framework” came undone in the early 2000s under the administration of George W. Bush, who took a harsher tone to the conflict and included North Korea in the “axis of evil” in 2002.

His administration says in late 2002 that Pyongyang has admitted to having a secret program to enrich uranium, rather than the original plutonium.

The claim, denied by North Korea, leads to progress being destroyed in a matter of months, where oil shipments into the country were stopped, Kim Jong Il announced that he was restarting his reactors and international monitors kicked out of the country.

As talks and UN resolutions try to halt the situation from deteriorating, North Korea begins claiming in following years that it has nuclear bombs and tests one in 2006.

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Continued talks during the Bush administration see the U.S. ready to remove North Korea from its state sponsors of terrorism list and Pyongyang say it will disable its reactors, though that deal later falls apart.

The beginning of the Barack Obama’s tenure in the White House was equally rocky, with another rocket test and nuclear test in 2009 leading the administration to focus mostly on passing UN sanctions.


Kim Jong Un assumed power in the hermit kingdom after the death of his father in 2011.


Obama’s strategy, called “strategic patience,” did not try to entice North Korea back to the negotiating table, though the regime did make progress towards its current capabilities both under Kim Jong Il and his son Kim Jong Un.

Kim Jong Un

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The ascension of Kim Jong Un after his father’s death prompted speculation about whether his style of leadership could dramatically change his country’s relationship to the world.

Talks with the U.S. do resume at the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012, though the following years saw a third, fourth and fifth nuclear test as the UN continued applying sanctions.

The last two years have also seen North Korea test a variety of missiles, including those from submarines and those capable of flying far beyond the immediate area around the country.

Those tests have increased worries about Kim Jong Un being able to reliably strike U.S. forces and allies in South Korea and Japan, fears that were accelerated after a successful intercontinental ballistic test last month thought to be able to hit the mainland U.S.

Hope Trump talks less and trusts his generals more

This week’s focus on North Korea has come after leaked U.S. intelligence reports suggest that the regime can successfully miniaturize a nuclear warhead to put on one of its missiles.

It remains to be seen whether President Trump’s promise of “fire and fury” towards Kim Jong Un’s threats will lead to a lasting solution to the crisis, though the Associated Press reported Thursday that bombastic public statements from both sides accompany backchannel negotiations about the relationship.

north korea
donald trump
kim jong-un
bill clinton
george w. bush
barack obama

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