The Reagan-era invasion that drove North Korea to develop nuclear weapons

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tags: nuclear weapons, Reagan, Trump



Benjamin R. Young is a graduate of The College at Brockport and a PhD candidate in Korean history at George Washington University. His research focuses on North Korea’s relations with African, Latin American and Asian countries during the Cold War era. He was a recent Fulbright scholar in Seoul.

Over the past few days, the United States and North Korea have become locked in nuclear brinkmanship. After North Korea declared that its ballistic missiles could hit anywhere in the United States,  President Trump vowed that continued North Korean provocations would be “met with fire and fury and — frankly — power.” North Korea responded by threatening to attack the tiny island of Guam.

But it was another tiny island that set the U.S. and North Korea down this path. Few Americans will recall the 1983 invasion of a small Caribbean nation thousands of miles from North Korea. But in fact, this conflict set the stage for the nuclear standoff today. It intensified the animosity between the two countries, sending North Korea on a quest for nuclear weapons to combat what it saw as a looming American threat.

In October 1983, the United States invaded Grenada. The Kim family regime that controls North Korea saw this invasion as an early warning sign: If the United States could perceive even a small spice island as a threat, so too could it eventually train its sights on North Korea. Without an effective deterrent, any regime perceived as a threat would be little match for American military might.

It wasn’t just Grenada’s size that caught the Kim family’s attention. Grenada, a country of only 110,000 people that is known primarily for producing nutmeg, had significance for the North Korean leadership in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Kim Il Sung, grandfather of North Korea’s present-day leader Kim Jong Un, viewed the new Grenadian socialist government headed by Maurice Bishop as brave revolutionaries directly fighting U.S. imperialism in the Caribbean. Kim Il Sung also sought the help of recently decolonized nations like Grenada in international forums, as a way to undermine South Korea’s legitimacy abroad and garner support for a North Korean-led reunification of the two Koreas.




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