Donald Trump hasn’t shown much restraint in talking about the potential of a war with North Korea — which has plenty of people worried. After all, a North Korean nuclear attack could devastate the U.S. economy. A war with North Korea could also number among the bloodiest in world history. And the risk of nuclear war is very real.
The situation on the Korean peninsula sounds pretty urgent. But amazingly enough, Donald Trump isn’t the first U.S. president to consider a war with North Korea. And he’s not the first to think about launching a nuclear strike against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as North Korea calls itself. Read up on the surprising history between the two countries, below.
Lyndon B. Johnson almost nuked North Korea
As Smithsonian Magazine reports, Lyndon B. Johnson “almost nuked North Korea” over the Pueblo incident. In 1968, the U.S.S. Pueblo — a spy ship with advanced sensors and sensitive encryption devices — entered the waters off the North Korea to get an update on the nation’s military. For weeks, it monitored communications. But eventually, North Korean warships showed up and opened fire. They captured the Pueblo and held its crew for 335 days.
The ship’s crew members were interrogated, beaten, and threatened. Lyndon B. Johnson and his administration brainstormed about a U.S. response. They considered air strikes on military targets, an attack across the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas, a blockade of the North’s ports, and phony intelligence leaks. As a contingency plan, Johnson even considered using nuclear weapons to stop a possible communist invasion of South Korea, or mounting a massive air attack to wipe out North Korea’s air force. North Korea eventually released the crew — but kept the Pueblo.
Richard Nixon considered using nuclear weapons against North Korea
As NPR reports, President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, considered using nuclear weapons against North Korea. In 1969, an American reconnaissance plane carrying a full crew took off fro a base in Japan to gather intelligence. North Korean fighter jets intercepted and shot down the spy plane, killing all 31 Americans on board.
Nixon and his advisers reportedly struggled to figure out how to respond. As NPR reports, the Nixon administration wanted to respond in a way that wouldn’t “spark a wider war.” Two months after the attack, advisers presented the idea of using nuclear weapons to the president. Nonetheless, Nixon opted not to retaliate — was praised widely for his restraint.
Gerald Ford almost went to war with North Korea over a single tree
As Timeline reports, the United States and North Korea almost went to war over a single tree growing in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. The United Nations Command sent 10 officers and five South Korean laborers to cut back the 80-foot Normandy poplar, which was obstructing the view from a vital checkpoint. North Korean troops attacked the group, killing two officers.
News of the attack reached Washington, where Secretary of State Henry Kissinger advocated for a bombing campaign. However, President Gerald Ford wanted to mitigate the risk of war. So he had U.S. troops cut down the tree, leaving a six-foot section to mark the site. The U.S. response aimed to show American power, while heading off further conflict.
Ronald Reagan focused on the USSR instead of North Korea
The Huffington Post reports that during President Ronald Reagan’s term, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung “established the foundation for the facilities and expertise required for nuclear weapons.” Scientists and engineers trained at Soviet universities and research institutes. Soviets built North Korea’s first research reactor, which became operational in 1967. Then, North Korea constructed a plutonium-producing reactor that began operating in 1986.
During that time, the Post reports, Reagan’s focus remained on the Soviet Union. He knew about North Korea’s nuclear developments. And toward the end of his term, Reagan initiated the first diplomatic talks with the North. As the Post puts its, “Reagan left office with North Korea having laid the foundation for its nuclear weapons program, but he also began a dialogue with the North.”
George H.W. Bush withdrew American nuclear weapons from South Korea
Some presidents have considered going to war with North Korea. But others have done their best to get on good terms with the nation. As The Huffington Post explains, President George H.W. Bush had to respond when the end of the Cold War changed North Korea’s outlook on the world. China and Russia, which supported the North during the Cold War, pursued closer ties with South Korea. And North Korea itself “began to seriously explore accommodation with the West, especially the U.S.”
Bush chose to withdraw nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991. So Kim Il Sung took steps toward reconciliation with South Korea. Bush knew about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. And while Kim Il Sung began to cooperate with the Bush administration, it put all the pieces in place for plutonium production and extraction. As the Post explains, “When Bush left office, North Korea had what it needed to build nuclear weapons, but Bush also left the door open for diplomacy.”
Bill Clinton tried (unsuccessfully) to get North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program
In recent decades, many American presidents have tried to counter North Korea’s nuclear program with diplomacy. As The New York Times reports, North Korea threatened to withdraw from the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in the early 1990s. It eventually did, but not before Bill Clinton tried to intervene. The administration struck an agreement to lift sanctions, supply oil, and provide aid in exchange for an end to the North Korean weapons program.
But things didn’t turn out as Clinton expected, and neither side lived up to its promises. Republicans swept Congress in the 1994 midterm elections, and then Congress delayed oil shipments. Congress also refused to lift sanctions. And the reactors never got built. By 1998, North Korea had restarted its weapons program — meaning that the U.S. spent millions of dollars and only briefly delayed the nuclear program.
George W. Bush confronted North Korea
As The New York Times explains, George W. Bush confronted North Korea for secretly building a bomb and violating the terms of its agreement with the United States. As The Times explains, “The administration hoped to overthrow the government of Kim Jong-il by imposing punishing sanctions.” But when Kim Jong Il announced that his country possessed a nuclear device, the U.S. decided to negotiate to trade food aid for a suspension in weapons building.
Yet by 2006, North Korea had developed and tested a bomb. As the Times explains, “The North Koreans successfully gamed the United States. As the Bush administration waited for the country to collapse under the weight of sanctions, Mr. Kim successfully developed a nuclear weapon, shifting the stakes of all future courses of action.
Barack Obama pursued a policy of ‘strategic patience’
The New York Times reports that just months into Barack Obama’s first term, North Korea detonated a series of nuclear bombs. Rather than negotiate, Obama decided to pursue a policy of “strategic patience,” hoping that North Korea would eventually decide to talk. Instead, the nation further advanced its nuclear weapons program, and initiated a series of cyberattacks on American businesses.
During the Obama administration, Kim Jong Un became North Korea’s leader after the death of his father. Kim began a program to develop an intercontinental missile. And as The Huffington Post reports, serious diplomacy with North Korea “never gained traction in the Obama administration. It appears that the president did not sense signals from Pyongyang indicating serious interest in diplomacy. When Pyongyang did appear willing to negotiate, his administration considered the North’s price too high.”
Donald Trump is faces the challenge of averting war with North Korea
As the Post reports, “It is not that diplomacy with Pyongyang failed over the past 30 years but rather that Washington has not carried out diplomacy effectively. It has vacillated between negotiations and threats.” Yet nuclear progress in the North has slowed in times of diplomacy and accelerated in times of isolation, sanctions, and threats. The Post reports that Trump faces a different challenge than his predecessors: averting war on the Korean peninsula.
The New Yorker notes that Americans are accustomed to “eruptions of hostility” from North Korea. But the “crisis has been hastened by fundamental changes in the leadership on both sides,” the publication explains of the actions of Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump, two leaders with surprising similarities. North Koreans wonder whether the American public is ready for a war, whether Congress wants one, and what Donald Trump’s plan is — just as Americans wonder the same things about North Korea.
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