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Listeners Ask About The U.S. Relationship With North And South Korea


This week's summit with North Korea was really just the latest chapter in a long and tense U.S. relationship with that country. Let's look back to Dwight Eisenhower. After he was elected president, he visited the peninsula as the Korean War was dragging on. That 1952 visit was covered extensively.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The general, who pays high tribute to the fighting quantities of the men of the South Korean forces, says that he intends to make their army both bigger and better. Although, he points out, they will need help from outside for a long time to come.


GREENE: A long time to come - Eisenhower probably didn't realize just how long America would be giving that outside help. Now, many of you wanted to know about how the relationship with Korea has developed. And we're going to put those questions to commentator Cokie Roberts, who is with us. She answers your questions each week about how the government works. Hi, Cokie.


GREENE: Well, let's get right to it. Let's cue the tape here.


CRAIG MCLEOD: This is Craig McLeod from Dayton, Ohio. Where and when did the tensions between the U.S. and North Korea begin? Who have been the major players since the beginning of the U.S. and North Korean tensions? And what are the major events throughout the tensions that have led us here?

GREENE: OK. Cokie, that's a good way to start, some basics. What do you think?

ROBERTS: It goes back to World War II. Japan had ruled Korea brutally since before World War I. But when Japan surrendered after the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima and then the Soviets came in to Korea, the U.S. was alarmed about the spread of communism. So we went in and drew a line of the 38th parallel. It was similar, David, to the division of Berlin after the war. The Soviets were in the North. The West was in the South. But then in 1950, Northern Korean soldiers invaded the South, and the Korean War followed.

GREENE: OK. Well, let's move on a little bit in history to another question, and it comes from Mike Koeppen. He wanted to know about the Korean War and how the Korean War compared to the Cuban Missile Crisis. How close were we to a world war?

ROBERTS: Well, it essentially was a world war in that world powers were very much involved. The Soviets and Chinese backed the North. The U.N. came in on the side of the South. Soldiers from 16 countries were under an American commander. And, David, almost 40,000 Americans died - 12,000 after the peace talks began. And those lasted two years despite President Eisenhower's desire to end the fighting. There was never a document ending the war. The peninsula is still living under the armistice, and that's a cautionary tale about doing business with North Korea.

GREENE: Yeah. It's so easy to forget when so many years go by that armistice is still in place and the war never officially ended. One more question, and it's about South Korea's role in the talks as they go forward. It's from Matt Fox, and he wanted to ask you, when did South Korea become the more prosperous of the two nations? How does that economic imbalance inform negotiations?

ROBERTS: Well, it was the less prosperous agricultural part of the country pre-war, but after a good bit of aid from other countries, especially the U.S., robust trade and a commitment to educating girls, development took off. So by the '70s, the South was richer than the North. And then after the fall of the Soviet Union, which supported the North, that country has fallen into poverty and famine. And that's a reason for Kim to come to the table. So it does affect the negotiations.

GREENE: All right, commentator Cokie Roberts. You can ask Cokie questions about how politics and government work. Just email us at askcokie@npr.org or you can tweet us and just use the hashtag #AskCokie. Cokie, thanks as always.

ROBERTS: Always good to talk to you, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF RJD2'S "A BEAUTIFUL MINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.