So… to begin our discussion on the Koreas we need to go back to 1945. Korea had been colonized by Japan from 1910 until 1945 when Allied powers split up areas that Axis powers had previously controlled. Much in the same way that Germany was divided into East and West, and the Berlin Wall was erected, Korea was split at the 38th parallel. It was agreed that the Soviet Union would control the North and the United States would control the South. This was meant to be a temporary arrangement until a permanent Korean government could be put in place. However, when it came time to decide who was to control that government an issue arose.
What began after the conclusion of WWII? That’s right, the Cold War. The USSR backed a communist government in the North, while the U.S. was concerned with the issue of “containment” (not allowing the spread of communism throughout Asia) and supported a democratic government in the South. Eventually, the government in the North became the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the South became the Republic of Korea (ROK). All of this came to a head in June of 1950, when the North crossed the 38th parallel to invade the South, beginning the Korean War.
While the U.S. and the U.N. aided South Korea, North Korea was given materials by the USSR and massive troop support by their ideologically similar friend, China. It is interesting to note that while this is known to us as the “Korean War”, in North Korea and China, this conflict is known as the “War of U.S. Aggression.” In 1953 an agreement was reached that divided the peninsula into the two distinct countries we have to day, roughly on the 38th parallel, now referred to as the Military Demarcation Line, which is buffered by the 2.5 mile wide and heavily guarded Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
Okay, now lets fast-forward though occasional border skirmishes, a few authoritarian republics in South Korea and a few famines and hard times in North Korea, led by Kim Il Sung and then his son, Kim Jong Il who remains the current leader (although the deceased Kim Il Sung is the Eternal President). Today South Korea is a democracy with a thriving economy that has become one of Asia’s best development success stories. North Korea on the other hand, has over time, adopted increasingly isolationist polices and become a very militarized state that relies heavily on foreign aid for the survival of its people.
Despite the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which they pulled out of in 2003, North Korea has been (allegedly) developing nuclear weapons. This poses a serious global risk and as such, has resulted in the ‘Six-Party Talks.’ The six parties involved are North Korea, South Korea, the U.S, China, Russia and Japan. Thus far, there have been 5 rounds of talks that have not been successful in getting North Korea to abandon their nuclear weapons program. Instead, the DPRK pulled out of the talks in April 2009 in response to international disapproval of a satellite launch that was suspected of being a missile. After pulling out of the talks and removing UN inspectors from their nuclear facilities, North Korea performed an underground detonation of a nuclear weapon, receiving the condemnation of the rest of the world and increased international economic sanctions.
The matter is further complicated by the fact that China remains something of an ally to the DPRK, providing lots of aid and having signed a Treaty of Friendship in 1961 that promises to defend North Korea in the event that it is attacked. China has been integral in negotiations with North Korea but also does not want to risk its status as an economic powerhouse which is contingent upon a friendly relationship with the U.S. and the rest of the World.
Earlier this year in March, a South Korean warship was sunk by a DPRK torpedo killing 46 sailors. In early November a navy patrol boat went down when it collided with a North Korean fishing boat. In just the past couple of weeks a few things have happened. First, North Korea unveiled a previously undisclosed uranium enrichment facility much to the dismay of leading UN nuclear scientists. (Enriched uranium can be used for energy or as material in nuclear weapons.) Then on November 23rd, North Korea attacked South Korea on the island of Yeonpyeong, a territory whose ownership is disputed by the DPRK. In shelling the island, two civilians and two South Korean military officers were killed and others were injured.
is an Economist article explaining more about the attack.
Some speculate that these most recent events will be used as leverage to return to the six party talks.
Also related is the hot topic of WikiLeaks, and the exposé of China’s disapproval and thinning patience in dealing with North Korea, and the desire to see a peaceful reunification. Here is a further article about that.
is one more article that gives an overview of recent issues with North Korea.
The future of this conflict is uncertain, and North Korea’s recent actions have been making policymakers very nervous. Many speculate that this new-found aggression is the result of the DPRK preparing for Kim Jong Il’s son (Kim Jong Un) to take the leadership reins from his father. You can read more about this here
What, then, is there to do about North Korea? For now, we’ll just wait and see what happens…
~Marie, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh Intern