Politics 101: North and South Korea - frenemies at last?
Fatima deciphers the latest twist in the political game, the 'peace talks' between North and South Korea. What led up to this and will harmony finally stick?
After decades of hostilities between North and South Korea, the two nations have seemingly called it quits on their hatred for one another. Kim Jong-un made history in April 2018 by being the first North Korean leader to step across the Military Demarcation Line, which has divided the two Koreas since 1953. A disorienting sight met us all as we watched Kim’s handshake with South Korean leader, Moon Jae-in. It was almost like finding your divorced parents in bed with one another after years of hating each other’s guts - except, maybe less traumatising. If you’re wondering how this unlikely handshake occurred, refresh yourself with the epic break-up that rivalled Brangelina’s.
The Korean War
It all began with the Soviets and the Western Bloc embroiling Korea into a war that divided their nation. After the Second World War, Korea no longer belonged to the Japanese empire, and it was up to the Americans and the Soviets to run off with the spoils of the three-year conflict. In August 1945, the Korean peninsula was divided in half along the 38th parallel, with the North being snagged by the Russians and the South now belonging to the Americans. This, however, wasn’t the end of the conflict. Not by a long shot. Border skirmishes were common, with both Koreas wanting to annex the entire peninsula for themselves. On June 25 1950, the North Korean army invaded the South, marking the first military conflict of The Cold War. This war became a dog fight between two ideologies; communism and Western democracy. Both the Soviets and the Americans feared that the ideology of the other would dominate the world. The war lasted three years, culminating in around 984,400 casualties worldwide, not including North and South Korean civilians, whose numbers are estimated to be in the millions. The United States contributed approximately $67 billion to the effort. It all ended with an agreement that drew a new boundary near the 38th parallel that gave South Korea extra territory; and created a 3.2km wide “demilitarized zone” (DMZ) that still exists today.
The end of the Korean War didn’t mean the end of the bad blood between the two nations. Decades of reunification talks, peace treaties, military clashes and nuclear tensions have made relations between the two Koreas an absolute rollercoaster ride. Now I could bore you to death with decades worth of historical details, or you could skim through this excellent timeline of detailed events compiled by the BBC.
More recently, you may have heard of the threat of nuclear war between the two Koreas, the United States, Russia and China. Since the early 2000s, North Korea has been developing nuclear weapons for “self defence”, admitting this publicly in 2005. In July 2006, North Korea test fired seven missiles for the first time, resulting in the UN imposing economic and commercial sanctions. North-South relations worsened in March 2008 after new South Korean President Lee Myung-bak vowed to be tougher against North Korea. The next ten years were characterised with nuclear testing from both Koreas, causing much concern over the possibility of a full-scale worldwide war with devastating implications. Suddenly, South Korea was not the only country threatened. Throughout 2017, North Korea flaunted its development of long-range missiles that had the potential to reach Alaska. This, as you can imagine, injected the fear of god into most Americans. You may remember the explosion of tweets from US President Donald Trump that revealed the US’s own nuclear capability. In August 2017, North Korea threatened to fire ballistic missiles near US Pacific territory of Guam. This new technology could very well mean a war that would result in the end of life on Earth as we know it today. That was until, March 2018, when the United States and North Korea announced that their leaders plan to meet before June to discuss nuclear disarmament on the Korean peninsula. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what led to the iconic meeting between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in.
Waving the white flag… finally:
Kim Jong-un became the first North Korean leader to enter the South when he met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in for talks at the Panmunjom border crossing. They agreed to end hostile actions and work towards reducing nuclear arms on the peninsula. The two leaders also vowed to meet again later this year to talk about family reunification, opening a liaison office in the North, and engaging Washington and even Beijing in negotiation for a Korean War peace treaty.
Will this stick?
It seems almost sad that the sight of two clashing leaders waving the white flag can arouse so much suspicion and disorientation. Plans for denuclearisation are underway. North and South Korean time zones have been synced. But the bottom line is, will this unlikely ‘friendship’ withstand the test of time? Or is it akin to the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact between Hitler and Stalin that was supposed to withstand ten years, but in reality only lasted a month? Ideological differences still remain and need to be overcome for complete peace on the Korean peninsula.
Though it may seem that this meeting seems to be a historic day, the leaders from North and South Korea have met on several occasions, each time promising denuclearisation, and improved relations between the divided nations. The only distinction this time, is that a North Korean leader stepped over to the South for the first time since 1953. Each previous meeting has been followed by a period of peace, only to be breached by mutual rising tensions and North Korea expanding its nuclear capability further. Even more concerning is that while a joint statement from both sides shared the goal of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, and Moon explicitly referred to denuclearisation, Kim never did. Johns Hopkins-based expert Jenny Town commented on her lack of surprise towards Kim not outwardly stating his commitment to denuclearisation. North Korea’s preferred terms for denuclearisation are also disconcerting:
Removal of all US nuclear presence from the peninsula (that has posed as a defensive measure for South Korea and Japan)
Strengthening China’s influence (who border North Korea) and leaving Japan vulnerable.
The possibility of a unified Korea under the North’s totalitarian rule
In the short-term, this meeting puts many world leaders in a favourable position. Kim gets to appear to be a diplomatic innovator rather than a shunned dictator. Moon progresses with his goals for peace in the peninsula or at least appears to be doing so. Trump gets to take credit for this entire meeting, arguing that his aggressive stance over the past year is what made the handshake a reality.
But what will it mean in the long-term? Only time will tell...
This article was brought to you by Fatima Olumee, a second-year Journalism student. Besides being an absolute bookworm and obsessed Potterhead (not to be confused with Pothead), her passions include yoga, horse-riding, and Bollywood movies. This girl is a big bag of weird… the good kind, she hopes.