Back to the Future – What History Teaches Us About America’s Standoff With North Korea

Infantrymen board a U.S. Army helicopter somewhere in Korea in 1953. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“Can history teach us anything about the current standoff between Washington and Pyongyang? The answer is yes.”

By Christopher Kelly

THE FIRST, though unstated, rule of American foreign policy since World War Two has been a simple one: “Don’t start World War Three!”

Judged by this admittedly low bar, every occupant of the White House from Truman to Obama has succeeded. JFK came the closest to failing with the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis; Nixon had a close call during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, which coincided with the paralysis of the Watergate scandal. Unfortunately, the jury is still out with America’s 45th commander-in-chief. Are we truly in the calm before a storm on the Korean peninsula, as the president seemed to suggest earlier this month?

Even Trump’s most ardent admirers must concede that a failure to manage the ongoing North Korean nuclear crisis could cost countless lives and ignite a global depression. Even his most forceful detractors must concede that finding a peaceful solution to the impasse would be a tremendous foreign policy win for the White House. But how long can Trump skate near the edge of a gaping hole in the ice and not plunge in taking humanity along with him?

North Korea’s absolute dictator, Kim Jong Un. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The world holds its collective breath while the supreme leaders of the West and North Korea trade insults and play rhetorical brinksmanship. The entire spectacle combines existential terror with moments of sheer hilarity as two bad adolescent hair days collide. Trump rages that North Korea “will be met with fire and fury.” The dictator Kim Jung Un boasts that he will “tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire.” Yet the only leader who really seems actually to have unleashed fire this past summer is Daenerys Targaryen on the wildly popular Game of Thrones.

Early on, Trump raised eyebrows when he said he’d be willing meet one-on-one with Kim Jung Un. Does Trump believe that he can cut a deal with the North Korean leader by selling him a condo at Mar al Lago?  “Believe me, Rocket Man, I could improve your lifestyle! Maybe I could even get you drafted by an NFL team…?”

This might all be terribly funny if it were not also deadly serious. Artillery shells landing in Seoul or rockets striking Tokyo, even if delivering only conventional payloads, could kill hundreds, perhaps thousands.

As we watch and wait, many find themselves looking to the past for clues about the future. So, can history teach us anything about the current standoff between Washington and Pyongyang? The answer is yes.

Long before North Korean ballistic missiles threatened the American west coast, Japanese balloon bombs were a cause for concern.

The West Coast in the Crosshairs

Of course, this is not the first time the United States’ Pacific coast has been menaced by intercontinental weapons.

The earliest threat came during the closing days of World War Two, when Japan launched thousands of Fu-Go balloon bombs against America’s shores.

The unmanned weapons were propelled into U.S. airspace from Japan by way of hi-altitude air currents. After three days aloft, a rudimentary timer on the balloons would automatically release the payload, ideally somewhere over the continental United States. Tokyo fully realized that the chances of any Fu-Go actually reaching North America, let along striking an important target, were slim to none. But the regime bet that if enough of the weapons were released, some were bound to get through and do some damage, which might precipitate a panic.

Tokyo’s military government put thousands of Japanese school girls to work fashioning Fu-Go out of paper and sweet potato paste. More than 9,000 were constructed in the war’s final year.

As many as 15 American states are known to have had balloon bombs explode within their borders. Six American civilians, including five teenagers, were killed by one of the weapons, which landed near Bly, Oregon in 1945. Another struck the Hanford Engineering works in Washington state, briefly halting production of the enriched uranium that would power the device later dropped on Nagasaki. Wartime censors kept a tight lid on news of the balloon bombs, not just to prevent panic, but also to deny the Japanese any intelligence about the success of their campaign.

The threat ended with Japan’s surrender. Today, the story is remembered as a strange chapter of World War Two.

U.S. Marines pose with a captured Korean flag following a shore action in 1871. (Image source: WikiCommons)

America’s Korean Wars

History also reveals a long and troubled history between the United States and Korea.

In fact, America’s first official foray into the region was marred by violence. In 1866, the SS General Sherman voyaged to Pyongyang hoping to jump start bilateral trade between the two nations. Suspicions were raised among the Koreans who eventually burnt the ship and killed its crew.

Years later, American gunboats arrived to once again attempt to establish trade, this time by force if necessary. Korea’s regent, Heungseon Daewongun, again refused contact. A brief battle ensued. Despite storming and capturing a coastal artillery fortress, the Americans withdrew, their mission a failure. It would be another 10 years before the two countries would finally establish friendly ties.

Decades later, a mutual misunderstanding of intentions would precipitate Kim Il Sung’s invasion of south Korea on June 25, 1950. The U.S., along with the United Nations, swiftly intervened to halt the Communist assault. Although North Korea committed an act of naked aggression, the Truman Administration also deserves some blame for not having made it crystal clear that America and the West would fight to protect the sovereignty of Syngman Rhee’s South Korea. Over the course of the next three years, more than 36,000 Americans would be killed in a war that is too often forgotten. But let’s not forget that during the fighting American troops did invade North Korea. At one point, Allied ground forces pushed as far north reached the Yalu River. Bob Hope even gave a USO performance for the troops in Pyongyang.

And even after the 1953 armistice ended the fighting on the Korean peninsula, relations between the US and North Korea have been problematic and tense.

In 1968, for example, North Koreans boarded and captured the USS Pueblo — an intelligence vessel that was likely in international waters. It remains today the only U.S. Naval vessel in enemy hands.

A North Korean soldier observes U.S. and South Korean troops along the 38th Parallel. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Looking Ahead

Where does all of this tragic history leave us now?

Kim Jong-Un, the grandson of Kim Il Sung, seems bent on provoking a crisis with his development of nuclear technology and continues testing his new arsenal. In recent months, North Korean missiles have twice been fired through Japanese airspace.

Military solutions to the dilemma posed by Kim Jong-Un are hardly attractive. Any use of force will likely result in a retaliation against Seoul or Tokyo.

Ultimately, our best options would seem to be a mix of sanctions; diplomacy through regional players, like China; and if all else fails, some form of regime change.

Ultimately, all we can do is pray and remember the immortal words of Winston Churchill:

“Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.”

About the Author

Christopher Kelly, an American history writer based in Seattle and London, is co-author with English historian Stuart Laycock of America Invaded: A State by State Guide to Fighting on American Soil (August 2017). Other titles by Kelly and Laycock include: America Invades: How America has invaded or been Militarily Involved with nearly every Country on Earth and Italy Invades: How Italians Have Conquered the World. Kelly has also edited An Adventure in 1914: The True Story of an American Family’s Journey on the Brink of World War I. His articles and op-eds have appeared in publications including USA Today, Investor’s Business Daily, The New York Daily News and The San Francisco Chronicle, and he has conducted more than 200 radio interviews.

2 comments for “Back to the Future – What History Teaches Us About America’s Standoff With North Korea

  1. LSM
    20 October, 2017 at 10:46 pm

    This is pathetic. Imagine the Russians deserve some of the blame for Hitler’s attack for not having made cyrstal clear that they would oppose such an invasion!

  2. RAB
    23 October, 2017 at 8:28 pm

    Apparently Truman was guilty of the same nonsense by your account.

    Diplomatic language is made crystal clear – even if delivered by a man born in Noo Yawk City.

    Why the need to ‘share’ everything including blame?
    Do you report PC or history – pick one or change the site’s name.

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