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North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho claimed back in September that President Trump’s increasingly bellicose rhetoric towards the country amounted to a “declaration of war” by the United States. However, in a certain sense, the United States is already at war with North Korea—and has been for 67 years.

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The Korean War ended in 1953 with an armistice agreement. Yet President Truman had characterized U.S. intervention in South Korea after North Korea invaded it as a “police action.” Rather than withdrawing, the U.S. military established a permanent military base in South Korea.

Recent diplomatic tensions between America and North Korea seem bewildering not just because of the boasts and paranoia of Trump and Kim Jong Un. The conflict can feel like a strange remnant of the Cold War in a world that now has very different geopolitics. Younger Americans have been shocked to contemplate the possibility of nuclear war at a time when the hysteria of the 1950s and 1960s seems long past. The end of the Cold War has directed security fears toward smaller asymmetrical conflicts and terrorism, which many see as resulting from rampant neoliberalism and U.S. neocolonialism. Yet America’s siege mentality in the 21st century has not improved but rather worsened. The current impasse with North Korea indicates that the time is ripe for new diplomatic ideas.

Semoon Chang chronicles the long history of U.S. economic sanctions against North Korea. Until recently, U.S. policy toward North Korea closely followed policies applied to other Communist and enemy countries. At the start of the Korean War, America banned exports to North Korea and set maximum tariffs on imports under the Export Control Act of 1949. It did not lift these sanctions in 1969 with the start of improved relations toward China. Rather, the U.S. shifted its justification for extended sanctions to North Korean sponsorship of terrorism and North Korea’s eagerness to develop a nuclear program.

The end of the Cold War inaugurated the liberalization of U.S. policy toward all Communist countries, as history seemed to be naturally leading toward their dissolution. North and South Korea were admitted to the UN in 1991, and the U.S. lifted some sanctions and even agreed to provide two light reactors to North Korea in 1994 in a disarmament agreement shortly after Kim Jong Il succeeded his father. Sanctions were lifted further in 1999 upon a general agreement to stop long range missile testing. While North Korea maintained arms trades with other sanctioned countries such as Iran, it did stop missile tests.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, however, President George W. Bush announced the neoconservative ideology of lumping together American enemies outside of “realist” assessments into an official policy. Bush declared North Korea part of an “Axis of Evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address.

This stance, encouraging a fear of U.S. power by North Korean hawks, helped push the country into isolationism just at the moment when it was initiating some domestic market reforms. North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 and resumed missile tests in 2005. These tests have accelerated under the insecure leadership of North Korea’s third leader, Kim Jong Un.

American sanctions in the Cold War helped shape the Communist world into a single economic bloc. But U.S. sanctions on North Korea have lasted so long past the end of this system that they have ceased to be an effective policy tool. And there are notable limits—Trump’s recent threat to stop American trade with any country that does business with North Korea immediately faces the fact that China is the biggest trading partner of both countries.

Moreover, there’s strong evidence that North Korean black market trading and other criminal activity readily circumvents new sanctions imposed since 2016, as the private sector has unofficially taken on renewed life in the country. While maintaining arms controls, it seems a more logical policy for the world’s capitalist countries be engaged in diplomacy, permitting trade in food, human rights necessities, and intellectual goods. This could eventually help legitimate private business as an ideological lever to alienate North Koreans from the official ideology of communist austerity.


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The Journal of East Asian Affairs, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Fall/Winter 2006), pp. 109-139
Institute for National Security Strategy