By Benjamin R. Young
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.
Shortly after establishing diplomatic relations with Grenada in 1979, Kim Il Sung offered large amounts of free technical and agricultural assistance to Bishop’s regime. From sending tractors and cement to helping build the national stadium in the capital city of St. George’s, North Korea spared no expense in assisting its Grenadian allies.
The North Koreans also provided a large cache of weapons to Grenada. According to documents captured by American military forces during the invasion, when Bishop visited North Korea in April 1983, the two countries signed a secret military agreement. North Korea’s “free offer of military assistance” gave the Grenadians 12 million U.S. dollars worth of weapons and ammunition, which included 1,000 automatic rifles, 30 heavy machine guns and 50 rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Richard Jacobs, Grenada’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, remarked at the time of the U.S. invasion, “We have the best Soviet, Czech and North Korean military equipment; we will win the fight, no question about it.”
President Ronald Reagan justified his decision to launch Operation Urgent Fury by citing the presence of 600 American medical students in Grenada and a military coup that took place six days before the invasion. Reagan argued that the coup, which deposed Bishop and brought even more radical Stalinists to power on the island, threatened to destabilize the entire Caribbean region.
The North Korean news media attributed far darker motives to the United States. A Nov. 6, 1983, article titled “The U.S. Imperialists’ Invading Army Carries Out Brutal Crimes Against Humanity in Grenada” described American “atrocities” and “slaughter of peaceful residents,” such as the bombing of a hospital and the firing of missiles at residential areas, including near a kindergarten. North Korean propagandists depicted this conflict as David vs. Goliath, with the Grenadian Davids bravely resisting a mighty invading army.
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