A brief history: American and North Korean relations

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Trump and Kim go in for a handshake following their summit in Singapore today. Picture via Twitter.

Things are looking up on the DPRK-US front: for the first time in history, a sitting president has met with the chairman of the DPRK, in what has already become a politically momentous event. For the first time in the DPRK’s history, it seems that the USA is finally willing to both recognise them and take them seriously, which represents a major coup for its third chairman.

As is well documented, however, things have not always been smooth sailing between the two countries. We take a look at eight notable events that shaped the often-stormy relationship between the two nations.


The General Sherman Incident (1866)

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Pop quiz: who threw the first punch in US-Korean relations? If you guessed ‘America’, you’re bang on. In 1866, a merchant steamer named the General Sherman arrived on Korea’s west coast, looking to do some trade. Pretty standard stuff by 19th-century standards – after all, Western powers were making a killing in trade with neighbouring China. Of course they were only making a killing after, well, a bunch of killing – this was following the first and second Opium Wars, in which the British and French pretty much pointed a gun at China’s head and said “give us tax-free trade or we’ll do you.”

The Koreans, therefore, were wary and understandably isolationist. Though frequently providing food and assistance to any Americans passing through, they drew the line at trade. But Uncle Sam wasn’t taking ‘no’ for an answer.


Greeted by officials of the Joseon Dynasty upon reaching Korea, the General Sherman was offered food and provisions. The Koreans politely refused any trade overtures, but the Americans decided to ignore them and move upriver to Pyongyang. When the Koreans tried negotiating further, the Sherman took the Korean official hostage and fired upon Pyongyang.

Obviously, the Koreans did not react well to foreigners shooting their cities up. Crowds gathered on the shores of the Taedong river and starting throwing stones and such at the merchant vessel. The Sherman eventually ran aground on Yanggak island, and the Koreans sent fire ships. Only two crew members survived, but the angry mob promptly beat them to death.

And that, kids, is how you make first contact.


The Shinmiyango (1871)

The Americans, having learnt a valuable lesson about interfering with the affairs of foreign nations, promptly apologised and never again darkened Korea’s door.

Just kidding. They sent a bunch more ships and continued to violate the hell out of Korean sovereignty.

In a response to the General Sherman incident, the US sent five warships to Korea in May of 1871. Their ostensible goals were innocent enough; establish diplomatic relations, negotiate a treaty for the safe passage of shipwrecked Americans (which the Koreans had, incidentally, already been doing) and ascertain the fate of the General Sherman.

Unfortunately for all involved, the Koreans had a strict policy about foreigners exploring their waters willy-nilly. On June 1st, island fortifications opened fire on the US expedition. Little actual damage was done, but the Americans demanded an immediate apology. When none was forthcoming, the Americans attacked.

What followed was something of a disaster for the beleaguered Koreans. If there’s one thing Americans do well, it’s guns. The Koreans were armed with outdated cannons and matchlock muskets. The Americans had howitzers and carbines. When the smoke cleared, 243 Koreans were dead to 3 Americans.

The US also took around 20 Koreans captive, hoping to use them as bargaining chips. In an impressive display of ballsiness, however, Korean regent Daewon-gun refused any and all attempts at negotiations, doubled down on Korea’s isolationist policy, and invited the Americans to execute the captured Koreans.

The US expedition, presumably cowed by Daewon-gun’s diplomatic one-finger salute, promptly left Korean waters. There would be no further contact between the two nations for eleven years.

The division of Korea (1945)

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Nothing much happened in terms of US-Korean relations for the next seventy years. Korea did, of course, have that whole pesky Japanese annexation, but that’s another story.

Japanese control of Korea did mean, however, that it was fair game for Allied powers during World War II. At the conclusion of the war the country was occupied by the Soviets to the north, and the Americans to the south. The US government, concerned about continued Soviet incursion, threw two young army officers in the deep end by basically throwing them a map and saying ‘divide Korea’. The aforementioned officers, not having clue one about Korea, simply picked a line based on where Seoul was. This line – the 38th parallel – was by sheer coincidence the same line that pre-revolutionary Russia and Imperial Japan had discussed in their own country-carving plans. One of the officers responsible later said that he would have “almost surely” chosen different had he known. Whoops!

The Korean War (1950-1953)

Both Koreas were miffed at continued foreign meddling in their affairs. Naturally, then, they took it out on each other. A series of skirmishes escalated dramatically in June 1950, when North Korea invaded the south. Taken by surprise, the South Koreans were woefully unprepared. The North occupied 90% of the South by October.

The Americans, in full “Red Scare” mode by this point, decided they were having none of that, and a US counter-attack pushed the Northern forces back beyond the 38th parallel. At this point China, historically protective of its buffer states, warned that they’d get involved if the Americans didn’t back up. The US forces ignored the warning, and China struck back.

Eventually the conflict arrived at a stalemate – right around the 38th parallel. An armistice was negotiated and a new border was established, which was basically the same as the old border. After three years of bloody fighting, both North and South Korea were in the exact same situation in which they’d started. A four-kilometre-wide buffer zone was established between the two nations, known to this day as the demilitarised zone (DMZ).

The USS Pueblo (1968)

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In January of 1968, around the same time that a DPRK hit squad attempted to assassinate the South Korean President, a US spy ship entered North Korean waters.

Or perhaps not. Accounts invariably differ on both sides; the Americans claimed they had not entered North Korean waters, whereas the DPRK insisted they had. Whatever the truth of the matter, North Korea wasted no time in attacking and capturing the vessel.

Displaying an impressive amount of defiance for people routinely tortured and threatened with execution, the Americans proceeded to thoroughly mock their captors. During a televised propaganda video the Americans covertly flipped off the Koreans, and their commander penned a ‘confession’ in which he wrote “we paean the DPRK. We paean their great leader Kim Il-Sung.”

North Korea eventually released the crew, but the Pueblo remains docked at Pyongyang, and is the only commissioned US ship to be held captive.

The Axe Murder Incident (1976)

Things heated up again in August of 1976 when the US despatched a number of soldiers to cut down a poplar tree in the DMZ. The tree in question was blocking the UN observation platform. The North Koreans despatched a number of soldiers, and the confrontation rapidly escalated.

As with any conflict between the DPRK and the USA, accounts differ. The North Koreans claim the Americans initiated hostilities, and the Americans the opposite. Whoever struck first, the end result was two dead Americans – Captain Arthur Bonifas and Lieutenant Mark Barrett.

The Americans responded in force three days later. A joint force of more than 100 American and South Korean soldiers returned to the tree. They were backed by seven attack choppers, several flying fortresses, and a whole bunch of fighter jets, in what is probably history’s most aggressive act of horticulture. The North Koreans responded with around 150 men, but didn’t interfere in the removal of the tree.

The axe and axe handle used in the killings are on display at the ironically named North Korean Peace Museum.

The Mogadishu Incident (2007)

The following four decades were largely business as usual between the DPRK and the USA – namely, coldly ignoring each other. However, in 2007 there was a rare moment of cooperation between the two nations. Somalian pirates attacked and boarded the North Korean merchant vessel Dai Hong Dan on November 4th. The North Koreans found an unlikely saviour in the form of the US ship James E. Williams, who helped the crew repel the boarders and then treated their injured. This resulted in an extremely rare pro-US statement in the North Korean press.

Detention of US journalists (2009)

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In August of 2009, DPRK soldiers detained two American reporters who had allegedly crossed into North Korea. The two journalists were recording a documentary on human trafficking across the North Korean border.

In what was the highest-profile US visit to the DPRK since Jimmy Carter’s 1994 visit, former President Bill Clinton went to Pyongyang to secure the reporters’ release. After meeting with Kim Jong-Il and conducting an “exhaustive conversation”, Clinton managed to secure the reporters’ release.

Trump-Kim summit (2018)

As previously mentioned, the Singapore summit between US President Donald Trump and DPRK Chairman Kim Jong-Un marks the first time a sitting president has met with a North Korean leader. Hopes are certain to be high on both sides, with Trump seeking reassurances from Kim regarding denuclearisation, and Kim certain to be pleased with the legitimacy granted by a meeting with the country that has never officially recognised his own.

And there we have it – a tempestuous, fraught relationship characterised by cold hostility, frequent misunderstandings, political grandstanding and bursts of extreme violence. But recent years have shown a significant thawing in relations between the two countries, and the Singapore summit brings hope that, one day, the US and DPRK can finally leave their stormy past behind.

Why not see history for yourself? Young Pioneer Tours’ varied and comprehensive list of North Korea tours can take you to Pyongyang, the DMZ, the USS Pueblo, the North Korean Peace Museum, and many more! Check out their tours here.

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