Relations between North Korea and the US involve a volatile mix of land occupation, perceived threats from each other, misconceptions and [mis]representations of facts with biased views, and an endless list of grievances attributed to historical events. The US and North Korea do not have formal diplomatic relations, and according to a recent Gallup poll, US citizens see North Korea as the least favorable country and most critical military threat. However, in this article, we examine the main reasons why North Korea hates the US, and how the current geopolitical situation and long history keep the relations strained.

North Korean Perception

After the victory of Allied forces in World War II, which ended Japan’s colonial rule of Korea, the US and the USSR agreed to divide and occupy Korea as a trusteeship temporarily. This “temporary” arrangement was intended to help establish an independent government in a unified Korea, but the US and USSR failed to agree upon terms. As a result, two parallel governments came into existence in the north and south. In 1948, the northern region (present-day North Korea) established a communist government, while the southern region (South Korea) established a pro-western government. With the backing of two world superpowers, the two states started to operate independently. This laid the foundation of anti-US sentiments in communist North Korea.

Attempts to smooth the relationship did show sporadic progress in the past, but limited developments and frequent backing off led to “one step forward and two steps back” scenarios, including the 1994 agreement on the peaceful use of nuclear technology.

North Korean censorship on free expression, control of access to information, and anti-US propaganda have fueled the view that the US is an imperialist and capitalist colonizer with a long history of exploitation. Anti-America rhetoric is consistently used by the North Korean authorities to maintain the control and administration in the country. The anti-US agenda enables the regime to portray itself as the mandatory “guardian” against an “aggressive and hostile” US, a claim that is justified by the long-term US presence in South Korea.

The following are more reasons for the rift:

  • China, Japan, the USSR, and the US have all occupied the Korean peninsula, and this has led to resentment towards foreign powers in general.
  • Although the US did assist in liberating Korea from the Japanese imperial rule, it is alleged that the US did not dismantle the power structure and impositions set by Japan, but rather continued them. With the backing of the communist USSR, North Korea viewed the US a replacement for Japan, which was perceived as capitalist and imperialist and in complete opposition to communist principles.
  • The situation deteriorated further with the North Korean invasion of South Korea in 1950 (the beginning of the Korean War), which led to US retaliation. The US imposed economic sanctions against North Korea under the Trading with the Enemy Act (TWEA) that continued until 2008. 
  • War memories are hard to forget. Despite the Korean War being initiated by North Korea, the US is accused of alleged war atrocities, such as violating the rules of war, taking measures leading to painful and torturous deaths, and massive bombings that wiped out more than 10% of the North Korean civilian population.
  • The US is still seen as the primary reason for the continued division of the Koreas. The long-lasting US-South Korea alliance has made the North Korean attempts towards their “intended” reunification of Korea futile. The US presence is perceived and portrayed as “occupation” of South Korea, often being cited as a major roadblock to Korean unification.
  • North Korean citizens’ low standard of living is blamed on the US and its sanctions against North Korea.
  • Repeated sporadic events, such as the Internet blackout in North Korea, allegedly by the US in retaliation for a North Korean hacking attempt into Sony Pictures, have also fuelled anti-US sentiment in North Korea.

The Bottom Line

The animosity between the two countries is quite common across the globe. The special case of North Korea and the US is an extreme one, owing to the long period of continued conflicts despite the geographical distance between the two nations. History, current geopolitical realities, and political alliances add to the strained relationship between North Korea and the US.