Posted : 2010-05-21 14:32
Updated : 2010-05-21 14:32

Korea, long divided, will inevitably reunify

Soldiers from South and North Koreas stand guard at Panmunjom inside the Demilitarized Zone that divides the two Koreas in this file photo. The recent North Korean sinking of a South Korean ship has pushed the two Koreas to one of the most dangerous points since the Korean War. / Korea Times

By Ralph Hassig
Adjunct professor
at the University of Maryland University College

Several themes run through the history of inter-Korean relations. First, the Korean nation was divided by foreigners. Second, the division was sustained because of the incompatibility of the two Korean governments. Third, despite their sharp political divisions, the two Koreas have begun to develop economic and social relations. And fourth, the two Koreas will inevitably reunify, although their sharp diversion will make the social and economic costs of reunification staggering.

The Cold War Comes to Korea

In the closing days of the Second World War, the two emerging superpowers which would come to dominate the Cold War era were poised to accept the surrender of Japanese troops on the Korean peninsula. Soviet forces were already on the border of Korea, whereas American troops had yet to land on the mainland. The Americans hastily proposed that the two armies accept Japanese surrender north and south of the 38th parallel, which roughly divides the peninsula in half. The Russians accepted this proposal and did indeed stop at the newly drawn border, which seems uncharacteristic of Soviet expansionist designs during the Cold War but was perhaps understandable because neither the Soviet Union nor the United States placed any great value on Korea.

The Korean people, who had been colonized for the previous 50 years, were not consulted about the division. And although most Koreans strongly objected to having their country torn in half, they lacked the political and military power to enforce their objections. The new border between the two Koreas became part of the map of the Cold War era, and it would be left up to the Koreans themselves to breach this new boundary and reunite themselves.

Neither the Americans nor the Russians gave much thought to governance in Korea. The expedient choice was to install leaders who would run the country without bothering their sponsors. The American-educated expatriate Syngman Rhee seemed to be a safe choice to keep South Korea anti-communist. In the North, Kim Il-sung, a captain in the Soviet army, received the support of his communist sponsors. Once in power, neither dictator was willing to relinquish power or share it with others. The only way to reunite the country would be for one side to militarily defeat the other. This is what Kim tried to do when he launched his ``Great Fatherland Liberation War'' in June 1950 with the grudging consent of Moscow and Beijing. However, the intervention of American and United Nations troops foiled Kim's bid for reunification under communism, and after three years of fighting the newly-drawn Military Demarcation Line separating the two Koreas ― which was very much where the border was in 1945 ― became the new border, except now it was much more heavily fortified.

Precarious truce

In the years immediately following the 1950-53 Korean War, both Koreas concentrated on strengthening themselves in order to raise the living standard of their people and defend themselves in case the Korean War truce broke down. The South Koreans, especially under President Park Chung-hee in the 1960s, were more successful in building a strong economy and society, whereas the North Koreans, who no longer hosted foreign troops to back up their army, traded economic success for military strength under Kim's militarist policies of the 1960s. Both Koreas claimed jurisdiction over the entire peninsula. Whereas the South Koreans adapted to the status quo division of the Korean peninsula and went on with their lives, the North Korean regime continued to probe the South politically and militarily with the hope of extending communism over the entire peninsula.

Over the years, North Korean commandos staged numerous operations against the South. For example, in January 1968, 31 commandos launched an unsuccessful raid on the South Korean presidential mansion. In August 1974, a North Korean sympathizer in Japan attempted to murder President Park as he delivered a Liberation Day address in Seoul. In October 1983, a North Korean terrorist squad triggered a bomb that killed several top South Korean officials who were accompanying President Chun Doo-hwan on a state visit to Burma. In November 1987, a North Korean spy duo planted a bomb on a South Korean airliner, causing it to explode over the Indian Ocean. And in September 1996, a 25-member military squad from a North Korean submarine that ran aground on a South Korean beach dispersed into the countryside, killing 14 South Koreans before they themselves were killed or captured.

These attacks turned the South Korean people more strongly against the North Korean regime. The armed provocations also earned Pyongyang a reputation for belligerency throughout the international community. Given the negative consequences, and the very low probability that the attacks would destabilize the South Korean society or weaken its military, it must be assumed that they were launched either as a consequence of the frustration that the Kim regime felt as it fell farther behind the South economically, or were a means of warning South Korea and the rest of the world that North Korea was still a dangerous country.

From the North Koreans' point of view, the annual U.S.-ROK military exercises, which are meant to be defensive in nature, may well look like a military provocation, although these exercises never breach the border. North Korea's missile launches and nuclear tests are not included in these provocations because they seem to be targeted at the United States, not South Korea, although on more than one occasion the North Koreans have threatened to turn South Korea into a ``sea of fire.''

North Korea has also conducted a long-running political campaign to intimidate and/or win over South Koreans ― what might be called politics as an extension of war. The traditional pattern has been to alternate between dialogue and military action. The political offensive started in 1971 when North Korea offered talks to South Korea. After a series of meetings, the two Koreas signed, on July 4, 1972, a document in which the two sides pledged to work for reunification through ``independent efforts,'' a key phrase by which the North Koreans mean that South Korea should sever its political and military relations with the United States. Little came of this agreement, and two years later the North Koreans attempted to assassinate South Korean President Park.

Chance for dialogue

In 1988, South Korean President Roh Tae-woo launched his ``Northern Policy'' with the goal of normalizing South Korea's relations with communist countries. The policy was highly successful, and within a few years South Korea had secured diplomatic relations with virtually all the communist states. Perhaps responding to this initiative, as it had responded to Nixon's overtures to China in the early 1970s, North Korea again invited dialogue with South Korea. This time the upshot of the talks was the signing of two agreements in late 1991. The first, the Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation, was a more detailed version of the failed 1972 agreement. The second, a Joint Declaration of a Nuclear-Free Korean Peninsula, was a pledge to keep the Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons. As events would subsequently demonstrate, the agreements were not honored by North Korea, but they did facilitate inter-Korean dialogue, which became much more frequent than in earlier decades.

Beginning in the late 1980s, North Korea's development of nuclear weapons complicated its international relations, including its policies on South Korea. From this time forward, the United States took a strong interest in North Korea (see box), and South Korea had to pursue inter-Korean relations in the context of U.S.-North Korea relations. At times, such as during the administration of President Kim Young-sam, South Korea was more hawkish toward the North than was the United States. At other times, for example during the decade-long administrations of Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, South Korea was more accommodating toward the North than was the United States. With the current administration of President Lee Myung-bak, the two countries have been on the same page: South Koreans have grown tired of offering unreciprocated aid to North Korea, and the United States has grown skeptical that it will ever give up its nuclear weapons.

Elusive reunification

The political relationship between the two Koreas has never changed. By the early 1990s, the Kim regime in the North realized that it could not gain control of South Korea, which had grown much stronger economically than North Korea. Since then, the regime has proposed a ``reunification'' campaign that would transfer some of South Korea's wealth to the North while keeping the two halves of Korea politically separate. Inter-Korean dialogue continues, but even summit meetings, in June 2000 and October 2007, did little to bring the two governments closer together. Almost from the day he was elected, President Lee has been called a traitor by the North Korean press, and North Koreans continue to view the South Korean government as a puppet of the United States.

In recent years, the South Korean government has come to see North Korea as less of a threat to its national security and has loosened its National Security Law to allow South Korean citizens to apply for permission to visit North Korea. As many as 100,000 South Koreans travel to North Korea every year, not counting the tourists who have visited the fenced-in Mount Geumgang resort, which hosted over a million visitors before it was shut down for security reasons in 2008. In North Korea, it is still a treasonous offense for citizens to leave their country without permission, which is rarely granted, but in frustration and desperation almost 20,000 defectors have sneaked across the border into China and made their way to South Korea.

Since the administrations of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, South Korea has provided economic aid and promoted investment in North Korea with the hope that the Kim Jong-il regime would gradually abandon its commitment to state socialism and adopt realistic policies, thereby lessening the economic burden of eventual reunification. Nonetheless, the North Korean government has remained implacably hostile toward the market economy, which is slowly spreading in North Korea only because the people need and want it. South Korean investments in North Korea usually lose money, and in early 2010 North Korea the latter is in the process of confiscating some of the former's businesses, although inter-Korean trade continues. That is to say, the two Koreas are just beginning to normalize their economic and social relations, but it is hard to see how the two governments can reach a political reconciliation until the North Korean regime comes to an end.

US-N. Korea ties

Koreans have always had a healthy dose of skepticism about U.S. interests and motives on the Korean peninsula, and for good reason. Compared to its neighbors ― Japan, Russia, and China ― Korea is a small country. In 1905 the United States, in the Taft-Katsura Memorandum, acquiesced to Japanese domination over Korea in order to control Japanese expansionism in East Asia. At the end of the Second World War, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to divide Korea in order to quickly gain stability on the Korean peninsula. During the Cold War era, the United States tolerated, but did not condone, a series of dictatorial governments in South Korea, so long as they remained anti-communist. And in the post-Cold War era, American concern about North Korea's nuclear weapons prompted Washington diplomats to enter into negotiations and agreements with North Korea (for example, the 1994 Agreed Framework) without adequately consulting South Koreans. Indeed, the North Koreans have long tried to engage in direct dialogue with the United States in the hope of creating a gap between Washington and Seoul and reducing American support for the South Korean government. If not for a history of North Korean attacks on South Korea, more U.S.-North Korea dialogue might have been possible, but in the face of repeated North Korean threats and aggression against South Korea, the U.S.-ROK security treaty remains firm. Most South Koreans appreciate the value of the treaty, yet they continue to be nervous about the American tendency to overlook them when global issues of national security affect the United States.

Who is Ralph Hassig?

The writer is an independent scholar specializing in North Korean affairs and an adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Maryland University College, where he teaches courses in psychology and marketing. He is the lead author of the 2009 book, ``The Hidden People of North Korea: Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdom.'' He can be contacted at
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