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History, The Post-Korean War Period

reconnaissance plane, nuclear inspection, Park Chung Hee, United States intelligence, labor policies

The war caused enormous damage, but KWP discipline and forced-labor policies resulted in considerable recovery and development by 1960. At the same time, the North Korean leadership began to turn away from Soviet tutelage, emphasizing the national character of the Korean revolution. As the quarrel between China and the USSR intensified, North Korea maneuvered for even more independence of action. During the 1960s heavy industrial growth was emphasized, but the production of consumer goods and the general standard of living lagged. Late in the 1960s, North Korea developed an especially aggressive stance toward the south: An assassination team tried and nearly succeeded in killing South Korea’s president, Park Chung Hee. In 1968 the Pueblo, a United States intelligence-gathering vessel, was seized by North Korean gunboats and its crew held in extremely severe circumstances for a year. Guerrilla raids were launched on the south, but without much effect. A U.S. reconnaissance plane was shot down in April 1969. These events, rather than weakening the south, stimulated renewed defense measures and were probably counterproductive. They also influenced the formation of a harder political order in the south.

In the 1970s, secret talks with southern officials led to a joint declaration (July 4, 1972) that both sides would seek to develop a dialogue aimed at unification, but by spring 1973 this effort had dissolved in acrimony. Sporadic discussions on unification were held throughout the 1980s.

At the KWP Congress in 1980, Kim Il Sung’s son, Kim Jong Il, was given high ranking in the Politburo and on the Central Committee of the party, placing him in a commanding position to succeed his father. Kim Il Sung was reelected president in May 1990 for a four-year term. In 1991 both North and South Korea joined the United Nations (UN), and the two nations signed accords regarding nuclear weapons and reconciliation.

In 1992 North Korea signed a pact with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to allow the country’s nuclear facilities to be inspected. However, in 1993 the North Korean government refused to let inspectors examine sites suspected of nuclear-weapons production, and threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968, which North Korea had signed in 1985. In December 1993 the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) announced that North Korea had most likely built at least one atomic weapon.

Throughout the first half of 1994, the North Korean government continued to resist a full IAEA inspection of alleged nuclear-weapon production sites. The crisis was defused in June, however, when former U.S. president Jimmy Carter met with Kim Il Sung in North Korea. The following month Kim died unexpectedly. Nevertheless, the United States and North Korea reached a framework agreement in 1994 in which North Korea agreed to permanently shut down facilities capable of making weapons-grade material and to allow IAEA inspections of its nuclear sites. In return, the United States agreed to assist North Korea in replacing two of its nuclear reactors with modern versions designed to produce less weapons-grade plutonium.

A formal agreement regarding construction of the reactors was signed in 1995. Under the agreement, a U.S.-led international consortium pledged to supervise and finance the project, estimated to cost $4.5 billion. Also under the framework, the United States agreed to finance annual deliveries of heavy fuel oil to North Korea until the new reactors were constructed, as compensation for the loss of energy the reactors had provided.

In April 1996 North Korea announced that it no longer would honor the 1953 armistice that brought an end to the Korean War; in violation of the armistice, North Korea sent heavily armed troops into the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a buffer zone that was created between the two Koreas after the Korean War, for three days. At the request of the United States and South Korea, North Korea agreed to peace talks with South Korea under mediation of the United States and China.

In September 1998 North Korea revised its constitution to recognize the chair of the National Defense Commission, a position held by Kim Jong Il, as the country’s top government post. Kim had been the de facto leader of North Korea since the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, in 1994.

Meanwhile, a nationwide food crisis that surfaced in 1995 became a widespread famine by 1996. Factors contributing to the crisis included the withdrawal of food subsidies from the Soviet Union and China in the early 1990s, the cumulative effect of government agricultural policies, and a series of severe floods and droughts that damaged agricultural crops. International humanitarian relief agencies responded to the crisis with ongoing food aid and other relief efforts. Nevertheless, it was estimated that between 2 million and 3 million people had died of starvation and famine-related illnesses by 1998. Although the famine peaked in 1997, the food crisis continued into the early 2000s.

In June 2000 Kim and South Korean president Kim Dae Jung held talks in P’yongyang and agreed to promote reconciliation and economic cooperation between the two countries. The landmark event was the first face-to-face meeting between the leaders of North Korea and South Korea since the division of Korea in 1945. The thaw in relations led to the first officially sanctioned temporary reunions of families separated by the Korean War, the start of mail service between the two countries, and the reopening of road and rail links that had been severed by the creation of the DMZ.

In September 2002 Kim Jong Il and Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi signed a joint declaration to begin normalizing relations between their two countries. Koizumi’s unprecedented visit to North Korea marked the first diplomatic relations between the two countries since 1948.

In October 2002 United States officials confronted the North Korean government with intelligence evidence showing that North Korea had been secretly pursuing a nuclear-weapons development program, in violation of the 1994 agreement and other international obligations. North Korean officials reportedly acknowledged the existence of such a program. The United States announced in November that it would stop financing monthly shipments of heavy fuel oil to North Korea, as required under the 1994 agreement. North Korea responded by declaring that the agreement had collapsed.

The standoff escalated in December, when North Korea rejected a demand for new inspections of its nuclear facilities by the IAEA, the nuclear inspection and regulatory organization linked to the United Nations. North Korea also announced that it was restarting a nuclear reactor that had been shut down under the 1994 agreement and a reprocessing laboratory that could convert spent fuel rods into the plutonium needed for making atomic bombs. At the end of December, North Korea evicted IAEA monitors from the country and dismantled IAEA monitoring equipment. The crisis further escalated in January 2003 when North Korea announced that it was withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The withdrawal, which would take 90 days to go into effect, was unprecedented among nations that signed the treaty. United States officials insisted that any deal to end the standoff with North Korea, including economic aid and other incentives, was contingent on North Korea first verifiably abandoning its nuclear-weapons program.

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