De-escalating Tensions on the North – South Korea Border

The history between neighbours North Korea and South Korea has been tenuous for over 100 years. Japan’s occupation of the Korean Peninsula ended in 1945 after 35 years, when Japan was defeated in World War II. The Soviet Union had successfully invaded Japan’s colony of Korea, and by the Yalta Conference of 1945, the USSR controlled the majority of Korea. Months later during the Moscow Conference, it was agreed to that Korea would be under the trusteeship of the USSR, USA, Great Britain, and Republic of China for 5 years, where after Korea would be able to gain independence as one nation. However, the Soviet Union had begun expanding their influence in Korea, notably creating the Korean Communist Party, which supported the idea of a USSR-led government in Korea.

 

Due to the ever-growing tensions between the Koreans who supported independence, and those who supported a Soviet-overseen government, joint commissions were held by the USSR and USA between 1946 and 1947 to determine how to handle Korean independence. The negotiations served as a backdrop to the looming Cold War. The largely pro-Soviet North and pro-USA South division became even deeper as these negotiations failed. With the fear of further Soviet expansion past Pyongyang and into the South, the US began planning an occupation of South Korea, under Lieutenant Governor John R. Hodge. Hodge began the process of curbing Soviet influence in the South, with Syngman Rhee leading the 1st Provisional Government.

 

With the US securing the South from Soviet expansion, the USSR leadership aimed to supplant their influence in the North. They formed a Provisional Government themselves, led by Kim Il-Sung, a former war general in Manchuria. The government began purging anti-communist ideals, leading to refugees fleeing across the border to the South, until the Korean border officially closed without acquiring a permit in 1946. Rhee and Il-Sung eventually became the 1st President and Prime Minister respectively of their respective sides, officially dividing the Korean land into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), and the Republic of Korea (South Korea). Both American forces and Soviet forces left their respective influenced lands

 

The tensions between the two sides were only beginning, as a series of bloody conflicts along the border lead to North Korean invasion of the South on June 25, 1950. Before the North could completely occupy the South, the USA led a joint intervention from the United Nations, which tracked the North Korean army back in the North, before Chinese forces joined the battle and restored the North under communist control. After 3 years and millions killed, the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed, which created a demilitarized zone along the 38th parallel, officially closing the border between the two sides.

 

Throughout the decades however, tensions have not stopped between the two sides. The first talks of peace were held in 1972, ahead of President Nixon’s visit to South Korea. Both sides came to an agreement that could lead to reunification, without the interference of foreign nations. Despite these conciliatory talks, North Korea’s actions were opposite of such, with the kidnapping of South Korean opposition leader Kim Dae-Jung in 1973, and the failed assassination of South Korean President Chun Doo-Hwan. With South Korea winning the rights to host the Olympics in 1988, North Korea became enraged that a joint bid wasn’t proposed by the South, leading to the North ending peace talks, and the bombing of Korean Air Flight 858, killing all 115 South Korean passengers on board. Tensions thawed however in 1998, when Kim Dae-Jung’s Sunshine Policy led to the first Inter-Korean Summit in June 2000, with now North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, the son of Kim Il-Sung. The two sides increased the relations, and trade expanded between the two as both become major trading partners with each other.

 

However, North Korea began testing for nuclear missiles beginning in 2001, a warning that they weren’t letting up their ambitions fully. Under Kim Jong-Il, North Korea conducted its’ first missile test on October 9th, 2006. In 2007, the Sunshine Policy was abandoned by South Korea, and then-US President George W. Bush urged North Korea to end its’ missile testing, or else action could be taken. A ship of 104 were sunk by a missile allegedly according to South Korean intelligence in March 26, 2010. International findings said North Korea was responsible, despite their objections, with South Korean President Lee-Myung Bak ending all trade relations with the North. Despite the death of Kim Jong-Il on December 17, 2011, North Korea continued testing missiles under new leader Kim Jong-Un. Crashed drones have regularly been found along the Yellow Sea, signaling the escalation of tensions on the Korean border.

 

Recently, North Korea have fired shells near the border city of Yeonchen, with South Korea responding with several rounds of artillery. North Korea has accused South Korean and the US of exercising military drills on the border, as part of the Ulchi Freedom Guardian Drills, and have promised retaliation. South Korea has also allowed the US to test its’ Thad Missile System near the border, which has brought objections from both North Korea and its’ biggest ally, China. North Korea’s missile testing program has increased drastically in the last couple of months, according to top intelligence officers, with fears that North Korea may be looking to cause conflict closer to when South Korea, specifically Pyeongchang, near the border with North Korea, which hosts the Winter Olympics in 2018.

 

With the impending threat of more conflicts between the two sides, especially with the big players on each side, delegates must now focus on finding a resolution which can not only ensure the stability of the border and this region in the near future, but also ensure no conflict breaks out in the future which could threaten the stability of not only the region, but the whole world as well.

 

References:

1: “US-South Korea War Games begin despite threats from North Korea”, http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/08/22/490921432/u-s-south-korea-war-games-begin-despite-threats-from-north-korea

2: North Korea playing clever game to try to ramp up China-US tensions”, http://www.cnbc.com/2016/08/22/north-korea-playing-clever-game-to-ramp-up-china-us-tensions.html

3: “A brief history of border conflict between North and South Korea”, http://www.pri.org/stories/2015-08-20/brief-history-border-conflict-between-north-and-south-korea

4: “Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea”, http://www.history.com/topics/demilitarized-zone

 

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