Relations between the United States and North Korea have seesawed for decades, with neither side fully trusting the carrots the other had offered. In recent years, Kim Jong Il played his one card — his nuclear program — to the hilt. He used it to extract badly needed energy and food assistance from the United States and other countries, all the while developing the program behind the scenes. U.S. officials, meanwhile, have always remained dubious of North Korea’s claims to disarm and have generally insisted on strict verification measures before rewarding Pyongyang.
Here’s a rough timeline of significant events in U.S.-North Korean relations since war broke out on the peninsula in 1950:
1950-1953 — Korean War rages on the peninsula
1968 — North Korea captures the USS Pueblo, an American intelligence gathering ship. The crew is eventually released but the ship remains in North Korean custody. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson toured the ship when he visited North Korea in 2007.
1969 — A US reconnaissance plane is shot down by North Korea
1994 — Jimmy Carter visits Pyongyang to explore whether nuclear negotiations were possible. North Korea’s founder and leader Kim Il Sung died shortly thereafter, but a deal known as the Agreed Framework was eventually signed. International nuclear inspectors invited are in.
1998 — North Korea fires a missile over Japan
2000 — Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visits North Korea
2002 — President Bush labels North Korea as part of the “Axis of Evil” (in 2005 Condi Rice would rebrand North Korea as one of her “outposts of tyranny”). U.S. envoy to North Korea James Kelly confronts Pyongyang about the existence of a uranium enrichment program. Inspectors are kicked out and the Agreed Framework declared dead
2003 — North Korea withdraws from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The so-called Six Party talks are launched to discuss North Korea’s nuclear program
2005 — A Six Party agreement is reached in September on disarmament, but Pyongyang stops participating after the Bush administration freeze some of the leadership’s funds in a Macau bank account due to money laundering concerns
2006 — North Korea fires more missiles in July, then tests its first nuclear device in October
2007 — Macau funds released, finally a deal to end nuclear program
2008 — President Bush sends a letter to Kim Jong Il. Cooling tower at the Yongbyon nuclear facility is blown up in front of foreign television cameras, inspectors invited back in to monitor disabling of the facility. North Korea provides documents on its program and is removed from State Department’s State Sponsor of Terrorism list.
2009 — More missiles fired, North Korea conducts second nuclear test in April. More U.N. Security Council sanctions result and North Korea pulls out of talks. In August, former President Bill Clinton visits Pyongyang to retrieve two American journalists who were detained there since March. In December, U.S. envoy Stephen Bosworth visits Pyongyang
2010 — In November American nuclear experts invited to see uranium program, which is revealed publicly for the first time. Kim Jong Il’s youngest son, Kim Jong Un, is presented as the leader’s choice to take power after him. North Korea sinks a South Korean naval ship, the Cheonan.
2011 — U.S. and North Korea hold talks in New York over the summer and in Geneva in the fall, leading to what may be a breakthrough whereby U.S. food aid resumes and North Korea then halts its nuclear activities. Officials say that is sidelined for now after the news that Kim Jong Il has died.