60 Years After Korean War, Peninsula Still Divided and Tense

By Denny Roy

(Note: This commentary originally appeared in The Honolulu Star-Advertiser on June 24, 2010)

The tragic Korean War, which began 60 years ago, resulted from the post-World War II division of Korea by the USA and the USSR—intended to be temporary—and from the political struggle that developed between Seoul and Pyongyang. After the division, the South Korean government under Syngman Rhee and the North Korean government under Kim Il-sung each wanted to rule all of Korea and to extinguish its peninsular rival.

Better armed than his southern opponent, Kim tried to do this in late June 1950 after much lobbying to secure backing from China and Russia.

Kim gambled that he could overrun the southern half of Korea before sufficient numbers of U.S. and allied forces could arrive to turn back the tide, and he nearly succeeded. U.S. and other forces under a United Nations mandate intervened, the Chinese counter-intervened, and the battle lines shifted dramatically for a year before settling down for another two years of stalemate before the war ended in an armistice that restored the original division between North and South Korea. Perhaps three million Koreans died in a war that did not resolve the North-South rivalry, but rather intensified it. This is why the prospect of "another Korean War" is so terrifying, especially to newly-prosperous South Korea.

To any fair-minded observer, the question of which Korea has the superior system is no longer an issue. South Korea's economy and living standards dwarf those of the North. South Koreans enjoy vibrant democracy and have access to a rich cultural and intellectual life. Ordinary North Koreans, by contrast, lead a grim existence in a state that tolerates no dissent, deifies leader Kim Jong-il (Kim Il-sung's son), and eschews economic development out of fear that it might undermine the regime's control over society.

The Kim dynasty has amply and irretrievably failed, yet it refuses to die because the small group of elites at the top are political survivalists who command the police, the military and the media. South Korea has joined and thrived within the modern world politically and economically. North Korea's government remains a holdout, a traditional monarchy wrapped in an extreme form of Maoist totalitarianism that China never achieved and has long since turned away from.

Economically weak, North Korea has increasingly relied on a policy of provocation. Its demonstrations of bravado are an effort to compensate for its lack of capabilities. They are also part of a strategy of extortion: intimidating other countries in the region to pay protection money in the form of handouts and concessions.

Previous South Korean governments were willing to seek rapprochement with Pyongyang by addressing the North Koreans' demands for status, economic assistance and security guarantees. Presently, however, inter-Korean relations have hit a double-layered wall. South Korea's ruling Lee Myung-bak administration quickly demonstrated a resolve to cease rewarding North Korea for provocative behavior and to require a more peaceful posture by Pyongyang as a precondition for future benefits.

Pyongyang has responded by unwisely overplaying its accustomed strategy, plunging relations with Seoul into an abyss. North Korea carried out its most egregious post-armistice act of war to date, the sinking of a South Korean warship on patrol near disputed waters, and followed up with a threat to unleash "all-out war" if the South Koreans seek UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea in response.

Clearly in poor health, 68-year-old Kim Jong-il now appears to be preparing his woefully unaccomplished son Kim Jong-en to succeed him. Kim Jong-il's death might create an opportunity for a rapprochement-minded faction to take power, but the more likely short-term result would be a conservative retrenchment and continued outward prickliness.

It is bitter and tragic indeed that the 60-year anniversary of the catastrophic Korean War finds the two Koreas not only still separated, but also moving from a stalemate of indefinite duration to another spike in the military tensions between them.

Denny Roy is a Senior Fellow at the East-West Center and author of The Pacific War and Its Political Legacies. He can be reached at royd@eastwestcenter.org.


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