The Complicated History Of The U.S. And The Korean Peninsula University of Southern California professor David Kang looks back over the past seven decades of history on the Korean Peninsula with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro.
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The Complicated History Of The U.S. And The Korean Peninsula

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The Complicated History Of The U.S. And The Korean Peninsula

The Complicated History Of The U.S. And The Korean Peninsula

The Complicated History Of The U.S. And The Korean Peninsula

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/604702036/604702037" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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University of Southern California professor David Kang looks back over the past seven decades of history on the Korean Peninsula with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The leaders of North and South Korea will meet face-to-face this week. Ahead of the summit, Kim Jong Un announced that North Korea will stop its missile tests and close its nuclear test sites, and there's now a direct telephone hotline set up between the two leaders on the peninsula. This is a surprising development for two countries whose conflict has seemed intractable.

DAVID KANG: The tragedy of the Korean peninsula is that it's the only place in the globe where the Cold War still exists.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's David Kang. He's a professor of International Relations and Business at the University of Southern California.

KANG: Nothing has essentially changed since 1945. We are in the same place we were with two regimes nose-to-nose.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a complicated history that involves not just the North and the South but also China, Russia, Japan and the United States. And this morning, we're going to delve into how we got here.

KANG: Korea had been one political unit from the Yalu River down to the southern part of the peninsula for about 1300 years - had been one country.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That would change after World War II and a fateful agreement made between the U.S. and the Soviet Union - two allies that would become enemies. Japan was in control of the whole peninsula when it was defeated by the Allied forces.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The battleship Missouri becomes the scene of an unforgettable ceremony, marking the complete and formal surrender of Japan.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: David Kang takes over the story from here.

KANG: At the end of World War II, the Japanese Imperial Army was all over Korea, and so the U.S. forces and the Soviet forces agreed simply to disarm the Japanese army. The Russians would disarm the northern side, and the Americans would disarm the Japanese on the southern side of Korea. What happened, of course, was the minute that the troops got in there, they both said, well, you leave first. You leave first. And the Americans pulled out the troops in 1948.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: But hope for peace was already dying as 1950's summer bloomed.

KANG: The North side under Kim Il Sung, who is the grandfather of the current president, Kim Jong Un - he decided to try and take over the South by force.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: On the 25 of June, the well-equipped North Korean army struck in force, pushed across the border and plunged the nation into war.

KANG: The U.S. flooded troops in - hundreds of thousands of American troops after some up-and-down conflict for the first year turned into trench warfare.

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KANG: The war lasted three years. We ended up exactly at the same place as the war started at the 30th parallel, with about 36,000 American deaths and potentially a million or 2 million Korean casualties, including civilians.

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DWIGHT D EISENHOWER: My fellow citizens...

KANG: And the war didn't end. Ultimately, the parties just said, OK, we'll call a truce.

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EISENHOWER: An armistice was signed almost an hour ago in Korea.

KANG: And that is where we are today.

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MASTER SGT STUART QUEEN: Yet in the backwash of war, there always remains a second challenge.

KANG: The war was devastating.

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QUEEN: The thousands of orphans, the countless villages and cities ravaged and almost completely destroyed.

KANG: Seventy-five percent of all productive capacity on the entire peninsula had been blown up, so this is literally starting from zero. But the North recovered quicker. And for the next 10, 20 years or so, there were real fears that the North might attack again because it was doing better than the South. As the South began to catch up and then surpass the North by the '70s and the '80s, the thinking switched.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: The speed of South Korea's catch-up in the 1980s was meteoric.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Korea invested heavily in its steel, oil, chemicals, machinery and shipbuilding industries.

KANG: As the South began to catch up to the North in the '70s and the '80s, as the North became poorer and poorer, as the Soviet Union disappeared, the North began to feel more threatened.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: With Stalin gone, Mao gone, Kim is the last to maintain a personality cult.

KANG: And so it began a pilot nuclear program in the 1980s - just a very small sort of testing, experimental program which it began to ramp up in the early '90s. In the '90s is when the United States looked around and said, it's dangerous that the North Koreans might pursue nuclear weapons, but the North also might sell those weapons to other groups. And so we really began to pay attention to the North Korean nuclear program.

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BILL CLINTON: This afternoon, we have received formal confirmation from North Korea that it will freeze the major elements of its nuclear program.

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GEORGE W. BUSH: North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction.

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BARACK OBAMA: North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs pose a grave threat.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: There's a 10 percent or a 20 percent chance that I can talk him out of those damn nukes because who the hell wants him to have nukes?

KANG: In January 1, 2017 on his New Year's speech...

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SUPREME LEADER KIM JONG UN: (Speaking Korean).

KANG: ...Kim Jong Un said, we are in the final stages of testing our ICBM. And all last year, they tested and tested and tested.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: North Korea showing the world its new intercontinental ballistic missile.

KANG: Despite sanctions and threats and informal offers to talk by the United States...

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: North Korea late today launching a new missile, this time flying higher and longer than any missile that country has launched before.

KANG: In January 2018...

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: It was a pretty extraordinary day of negotiations.

KANG: ...Kim Jong Un said, we have achieved our national goal. Let's talk. Let's go to the Olympics. Let's have meetings.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: Olympic diplomacy on the Korean peninsula. North Korean athletes arriving in South Korea.

KANG: This is a nationalistic Korean regime that I think has a very long-time horizon, that is planning to survive indefinitely into the future. We have to live with his country, and we have to manage the problem in some way. And in many ways, the North Koreans have been preparing for decades for what they are going to do with the United States.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: This surprise announcement tonight at the White House - the president has accepted an invitation to meet with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: CIA Director Mike Pompeo made a top-secret visit to North Korea over Easter weekend.

KANG: If I had said three months ago that I think there will be a round of summits, and we will be talking nuclear freeze and missile test freeze and possible peace treaty, people would have laughed at me. This is the beginning of a process where we might take a step or two back from super-high tensions. Are we going to solve the North Korean problem in the next couple of months, and just everything will be fine? No. So let's keep our expectations realistic.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was David Kang, professor of International Relations and Business at the University of Southern California.

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