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South Korean Dilemma

Updated on August 20, 2010
South Korean Flag
South Korean Flag

A rogue neighbour constantly threatens their way of living. The constant nuclear threat looms over South Korea with bigger nations using it as a toy in their battle against the North. How will South Korea come out of this?

South Korea faces a unique dilemma today. Brought on by factors beyond its control, which have been in play since the last century, the country is trying to cope with an unpredictable and volatile neighbour, along a boundary neither of them agrees to. To truly understand South Korea’s circumstances, one must start at the beginning, as each event in the country’s history, as well as that of its neighbours’, North Korea, history has played a role in taking the state of affairs where they are today.

The Korean peninsula, right from early history has known many wars and rulers. All these different rulers have contributed to and taken away from South Korean culture. With an evident leaning towards China, the peninsula came under Japanese Colonial rule from 1910 t0 1945. After the surrender at the end of the World War II, the Japanese gave up their rights on Korea to the Soviet Union and USA, which quickly occupied the Northern and Southern halves of Korea. The 1943 Cairo Declaration included a plan to unify Korea, but the ensuing tensions caused by the Cold War made this impossible, with USSR and USA using the two halves of Korea as pawns in their own battle.

Korea divided into two different political entities, North Korea and South Korea, in 1948. Their political ideologies were vastly different right from the start, with North Korea being led by an anti-Japanese guerrilla and communist, Kim Il-sung, and the South of the peninsula lead by right-wing politician Syngman Rhee. The tensions between the two countries took their worst turn on 25th June, 1950, when North Korea invaded South Korea, starting the Korean War. Ending with a split along the demilitarized zone, as per the 1953 armistice, which South Korea did not sign, the Korean War claimed over 2.5 million lives. North Korea also does not recognize the line, which was created by the US led, United Nations forces.

LEE MYUNG-BAK, South Korea's president
LEE MYUNG-BAK, South Korea's president

But before all this occurred, Kim Jong II, known for his eccentric and volatile personality, succeeded his father as leader of North Korea. Soon a skirmish arose between North and South Korea involving an incident wherein North Korean torpedo boats and two patrol boats moved into disputed waters. South Korean patrol boats soon appeared and the North Koreans responded by opening fire, this incident ended with the death of 30 North Korean soldiers, and 70 injured, meanwhile 9 South Korean soldiers were injured.

Ever since then, despite attempts from North Korea to improve relations during the 1990s, the two countries have been consistently hostile towards each other, with foreign involvement by the US, China and Russia being one of the major reasons. In 1968, North Korean agents lead an attack against South Korean President. This was followed by a consistently anti-USA North Korea creating more trouble after some North Korean soldiers killed two US Army officers on the de facto border between South and North Korea.

After several military coups and attempted elections later, South Korea faced a strong movement supporting democracy in the country, known as the Gwangju Democratization Movement. This movement was violently suppressed by the then military dictator of South Korea, General Chun Doo-hwan, which eventually led to drastic events, which resulted in the June 29th Declaration. This led to the direct election of the President, a post taken up by Chun’s party’s president Roh Tae-woo.

Democracy on the Street of South Korea (U.S. beef)

South Korea's Olympic squad
South Korea's Olympic squad

South Korea soon moved on to peaceful times, hosting the 1988 Summer Olympics, and in June 2000, President Kim Dae-Jung’s Sunshine Policy led to a North-South summit in Pyongyang. His efforts were rewarded by a Nobel Peace Prize in the same year. In fact the good turn of their blossoming relations were made further evident when on March 25th, 1991, the Korean Unification flag was used for the first time in history, by the unified team at the World Table Tennis Championship, held in Japan.

Despite these incidents the attempts made at reconciliation between the two nations resulted in the first reunion of families within the two countries that had been separated in the war. But unfortunately things started going downhill from there on, with another clash between North and South Korean sailors, in 2002. This incident caused several lives to be lost on both sides and South Korea even lost a ship, while North Korea ended up with a severely damaged one.

Tensions reached a peak when North Korea test fired long-range missiles with Taepodong-2 rockets in July 2006. This was followed up by a nuclear test near Kilchu, North Hamgyong province, later in the same year. Concerns over North Korea’s nuclear program had already started to become a major concern for South Korea and USA since the mid-90s. The first set of nuclear tests resulted in USA agreeing to meet North Korea for one-on-one engagements to discuss the former’s crackdown on North Korean overseas bank accounts.

satellite image of the Yongbyon nuclear Plant
satellite image of the Yongbyon nuclear Plant

In 2007, North Korea managed to reach an agreement, under which it would shut down the Yongbyon plan; in return it would receive shipments of fuel oil. But North Korea stood firm till the overseas bank accounts were unlocked, and eventually a team of foreign inspectors were allowed to enter the country. The report submitted by the team in 2008 was inconclusive about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, though the act was greatly hailed by President Bush, who even removed North Korea from ‘Axis of Evil’.

Things once again peaked after a failed attempt by North Korea to fire a satellite into orbit, in April 2009. This attracted an immediate international response, mainly led by South Korea and USA, which eventually resulted in the Security Council passing a resolution imposing tighter sanctions on the nation. Key North Korean allies, Russia and China, were also heavily involved in drafting the resolution, though they opposed any efforts to make inspections of suspected cargo legal.

South Korea seems to have become badly tangled with its neighbouring nation, which is often confused between provocations and conciliatory gestures, both tactics which have been employed often to nudge other nations onto the negotiating table. Its relations with several other nations has been equally tumultuous, such as China and Japan. Despite all these ups and downs, South Korea has managed to become one of more affluent Asian countries, even as North Korea reels under poverty and totalitarianism.

Currency traders work in a dealing room at the Korea Exchange Bank in Seoul.
Currency traders work in a dealing room at the Korea Exchange Bank in Seoul.

Taking a keen interest in developing its economy, South Korea even offered government sponsored schemes which encouraged family-owned conglomerates, with Hyundai and Samsung becoming world business players. The South Korean economy is the 3rd largest in Asia, and 13th in the world, though they do have an extraordinarily high amount of foreign debt, highlighted by the recent global economic crisis.

The recent sinking of South Korean ship, Chenoan, allegedly by North Korea has added a fresh stain across the North-South relations. An international investigative team reported that the ship seemed to have been sunk by a North Korean submarine, a fact claimed to be pure fabrication by Pyongyang. South Korea has stopped all trade ties with its neighbour since the incident and negotiations between the two nations appear to be stalled.

In response to this move by South Korea, North Korea severed all ties with the former, abrogated the previous pact on non-aggression and even expelled all South Korean nationals from Kaesong. With Mr. Kim reported to be in declining health, everyone is waiting for the announcement of the successor, from amongst his three sons. Even though a new hope can be spawned from this, there are no guarantees that South Korea will face an abler and more rational leader from North Korea. The US on the other hand, has plans to further tighten the financial noose around North Korea, and South Korea can only hope the dwindling power of its once untouchable ally, will help resolve its dilemma with North Korea.

What's Happening in South Korea?

Meanwhile the two nations still remain in a state of war, with every move being scrutinized by the rest of the world. The nuclear ambitions of North Korea in particular have sparked concern even amongst close allies China and Russia, which though reluctant to act out against North Korea, are also keen on avoiding a nuclear hazard from a rogue nation. A military situation in the region is not in the interests of either nation, particularly as the resulting imbalance it would cause in the socio-political and economic arenas. If the two nations do go into open war, there is little doubt that the international community will intervene, preferably in South Korea’s favour. Though a repeat of 1950 is least desirable, the chances of a repeat are unlikely as well, considering the rise in technology with all nations involved in this predicament. Despite this assurance, the very prospect of war between the two Korean nations conjures up images of definite loss of human life and materials, all of which can be avoided by a change in the diplomacy pattern adopted by North Korea. This however does not seem likely, and so far a war seems to be brewing in the horizon.

Korean War Documentary-Part 9

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