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N. Korea's decades of diplomacy

Kim (center) in 1999 with  People's Army General Hyon Chol Hae (far left) and vice chair of the National Defense Commission, Jo Myong Rok (right)
Kim (center) in 1999 with People's Army General Hyon Chol Hae (far left) and vice chair of the National Defense Commission, Jo Myong Rok (right)

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• Analysis: What are the options?
• Six-nation talks: Where they stand
• Interactive: N. Korea military might
• Timeline: Nuclear development
• Interactive: The nuclear club
• Satellite image: Nuclear facility
• Special report: Nuclear crisis
Which do you think is the best way to solve the North Korean nuclear crisis?

Agree to talks
Threaten to use force
Impose economic sanctions
None of the above

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Nine U.S. presidents have come and gone since Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a cease-fire agreement with North Korea in July 1953.

But the U.S. government's relationship with North Korea's leaders has changed little.

U.S. and South Korean soldiers still routinely patrol the demilitarized zone which separates a now vibrant, democratic South Korea from its isolated, Communist neighbor.

"It is none other than the United States which wrecks peace on the Korean peninsula," North Korea's Ambassador to the UN Pak Ui Chun has said.

The current crisis over North Korea's nuclear weapons program is just the latest in a series of stand-offs between Washington and Pyongyang.

In 1968 North Korea seized the USS Pueblo, a U.S. spy ship and held 82 U.S. sailors for almost a year -- one US sailor died.

"They don't know when to stop and they might find themselves falling over the edge of a cliff, down the precipice into war even if that is not their intention," Wendy Sherman, former special advisor to president Clinton and the secretary of state on North Korean policy.

In 1993, after it first agreed to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) -- North Korea threatened to pull out and forced weapons inspectors to leave.

The U.S. it seemed was poised for war.

But months of high-stakes diplomacy -- including a trip to Pyongyang by former president Jimmy Carter -- paid off in October 1994. The North agreed to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for fuel oil and 2 light water nuclear reactors.

By October 2000 the U.S. and North Korea appeared close to a missile deal and normalizing diplomatic relations.

"They wanted two things from us primarily. They wanted us to help them launch communications satellites. Secondly, they wanted some benefits," Sherman says.

Suspicious and highly critical of Kim Jong Il's brutal dictatorship -- President Bush worked to further isolate the North, calling it part of an "axis of evil" along with Iran and Iraq.

Last October the U.S. confronted the Stalinist state -- which admitted it had a secret nuclear weapons program.

The U.S. and its allies stopped fuel shipments, and within weeks the North upped the ante, tossed out inspectors, and withdrew from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

"I think it's a very serious situation" U.S. Secretary Colin Powell said last week.

"The one thing I will say is that we're not going to be intimidated."

But, experts say, neither will the North.

"They're rattling the sabre loudly because they know we understand how catastrophic a war would be. We are focused on Iraq," Sherman says.

So what will defuse this crisis?

North Korea says it wants the U.S. to guarantee its security in writing and to resume shipping oil. The U.S. says the North must end its nuclear weapons program.

But some in the administration suggest that due to the speed with which things are unraveling the North has already made a calculated decision to develop nukes no matter what.

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