Dividing the Korean Nation
In 1947 the United Nations proposed independence for Korea. The North and South issued a joint declaration calling for a united government and withdrawal of foreign troops. However, President Truman’s anti-Communist resolve was implacable and the United States decided instead to proceed with separation of the North and South. In his book, Korea- Where the American Century Began[i], Michael Pembroke describes how, soon after the USA detonated bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, it initiated the partition of Korea at the 38th parallel.
A government was constituted in Seoul with Syngman Rhee, a fanatical anti-Communist as president of the Republic of Korea in the South. A parallel state came into existence in the North – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) where Kim Il-sung was appointed leader.
The US had divided the Korean nation.
War of Reunification
Kim Il-sung, as leader of the DPRK planned to bring about the military reunification of the Korean Peninsula and the North Koreans attacked on 25 June 1950, but within three months, the North Korean invasion was repulsed by the US. However, Washington embraced the opportunity for war. American troops crossed the 38th parallel in early October, capturing Pyongyang and heading further north to the Yalu River on the Chinese border. There, thousands of Chinese troops lay in wait and within days, the eighth US Army was routed. The Americans had gone from withdrawal to retreat, to flight. The Chinese kept chasing, but when Mao sent his armies south, across the 38th parallel in pursuit of the eighth Army, the Americans decided to head back north once more.
Most of North Korea was levelled by US bombing. In 1951, General MacArthur said, “The war in Korea has almost destroyed that nation. I have never seen such destruction. If you go on indefinitely, you are perpetuating a slaughter such as I have never heard of in the history of mankind”.
A front was eventually established along the 38th parallel while the conflict continued for another two years. Pyongyang and Seoul eventually signed an armistice to end hostilities in 1953. However, as no formal peace treaty was established, the two countries technically remain at war to this day. Since the early 1970s, North Korea persistently called on the US for a peace treaty, but that could have led to pressure on the US to withdraw and to downgrade its military support for South Korea.
February 2018 marked the start of the 23rd Winter Olympics which were held in South Korea. It was agreed that North Korea would participate with South Korea in a “Unified Team Korea” which South Korea promoted as the “Peace Games”. It heralded reconciliation and peace[ii].
After the Games, Kim Yo Jong (KYJ) (the sister of then leader, Kim Jong Un) met with South Korean President Moon who had been calling on the US to concede to Kim Jong Un on sanctions enforcement and allow South Korean investment in North Korea. KYJ signed the guestbook writing: “I wish for Pyongyang and Seoul to come closer together - - - - and for an accelerated future of reunification and prosperity”. She handed Moon a letter from her brother requesting that Moon visit North Korea and she told Moon that if he met with chairman Kim, “North-South relations will be able to leap forward”.
In April 2018, Kim Jong Un held his first summit with President Moon Jae-in. Millions around the world watched as the two principles shook hands across the Military Demarcation Line. In the guestbook, Kim wrote: “A new history begins now. An age of peace, at the starting line of history”. President Moon declared: “There will never again be war in the Korean Peninsula – complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula is our common goal”.
Donald Trump Meets with Kim Jong Un
Six weeks prior to that inter-Korean meeting, South Korea informed Donald Trump that Kim Yong Un wanted to hold a summit with the US president. Trump was keen and a date was set for June 2018 in Singapore. The Trump/Kim meeting ended with a joint statement in which North Korea committed to work toward complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. Three months later, President Moon visited Pyongyang. North and South Korea agreed to cease military hostility and to engage in constant communication. The second Kim Jong Un-Donald Trump summit in Vietnam took place in February 2019. However, it ended in deadlock and set back North and South Korea’s common interest in persuading the United States to lift sanctions against the Kim regime.
In June 2019, Trump again met with Kim Jong Un at the Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), becoming the first sitting US president to step into North Korea. North Korea pledged that it would dismantle its Yongbyon nuclear facility complex if the US agreed to lift its sanctions on the civilian and commercial sectors which affected the lives of the North Korean people. However, Trump’s approach was stymied by the US deep state demanding even more than the dismantling of the Yongbyon complex before North Korea would receive any economic or other benefits. This led to a breakdown in negotiations.
By March 2020, the days of cordiality were over and only South Korea clung to the hope that the good days might return. In July 2020, KYJ declared that while denuclearisation was not impossible, bilateral talks would be conditional upon the US withdrawal of hostility.
Kim Yo Jong (KYJ)
In 2020, Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of Kim Jong Un took on more powerful roles and effectively became “Deputy Leader” of North Korea. She had the ear of her brother and could potentially become the first female co-dictator with her finger on the nuclear button. In 2021, Kim Jong Un created the position of his most senior deputy, the First Sister - KYJ.
In August 2021, KYJ called on South Korea to cancel their annual military exercises with the US. Seventy South Korean law makers signed a petition calling for the military exercises to be cancelled, but later that month the Moon administration reluctantly started the military exercises under pressure from Washington. KYJ upped the ante saying that for peace to settle on the Peninsula it was imperative for the US to withdraw its troops and its military hardware, and for so long as they remained, the situation on the Korean Peninsula would not end.
In April 2022, KYJ issued a nuclear threat intended for the incoming South Korean Administration of Yoon Suk Yeol. Yoon had proposed a process of denuclearisation saying that Seoul would provide food aid and revamp the North’s infrastructure, building power plants, ports, hospitals, and airports. However, KYJ responded referring to his statement as an absurd dream and suggesting that he “shut his mouth, rather than talking nonsense”. The North proceeded to carry out its nuclear tests with more than 70 missiles being fired.
In 2023 a US bill (Peace on the Korean Peninsula Act) was introduced in the US House of Representatives calling for urgent diplomacy in pursuit of a binding peace agreement to formally end the Korean War. The peace proposal may have required the withdrawal of US troops stationed in South Korea. Thomas L Friedman wrote in the New York Times that the US should recognise the legitimacy of the North Korean regime and offer peace, full diplomacy, economic aid, and an end to the Korean war if North Korea denuclearised.
The US as the more powerful party could and should have offered something bold. There was nothing to lose and everything to gain. The offer to end the Korean war could easily have been made subject to North Korea following up with the demolition of its nuclear facilities and complete disarmament within six months, failing which, the US would reinstate its sanctions. American hubris prevented it from taking such bold action which could, with minimal risk, have led to real peace on the Korean Peninsula. It was a missed opportunity.
North Korea Abandons Reunification
At the start of 2024 Kim Jong Un declared that North Korea was abandoning the goal of reunification and would treat the South as an enemy under the control of the United States. The Korean Peninsula had again become a zone of confrontation, with Russia and China supporting the North, and the United States standing with the South.
North and South Korea are separated by forces beyond their control. Both had wanted reunification. Today, North Korea regards its nuclear program as an important deterrent against external aggression and this stands as its security guarantee for the survival of the regime. Kim Jong Un is neither irrational nor suicidal.
Where do the Parties Stand in Early 2024?
Yoon Suk Yeol became President of South Korea in 2022 on a platform of reduced tolerance of the North. His administration has rejected prioritising engagement with North Korea which had been a foundation of the previous president, Moon Jae-in. Instead, the current South Korean government looks to a trilateral partnership with Japan and the United States and Yoon has tied any improvement in relations with the North to the cessation of its nuclear development program and clear steps towards denuclearisation. Kim Jong Un issued a statement describing South Korea as the North’s primary foe emphatically ending thoughts of reunification.
Pyongyang has enshrined its status as a nuclear power in its constitution and it conducted a record-breaking series of weapons tests in 2023. On 15 January 2024, North Korea announced that it had successfully test fired a new ballistic missile, tipped with a hypersonic manoeuvrable warhead, the latest breakthrough in its pursuit of advanced weaponry to threaten South Korean and US targets.
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[i] Korea by Michael Pembroke (Published 2018). Pembroke is a writer, historian, and author. He was educated at Sydney University and at Cambridge. Until his recent retirement, he was a judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales
[ii] The Sister by Sung-Yoon Lee 2023