Featured Image: Kim Jong Un of North Korea and Moon Jae In of South Korea meet during one of several impromptu summits between the two countries.
Monday, 28 May 2018, Shanghai, China – Relations between the United States and North Korea have never been very warm. The Korean War has not ended since it began in the 1950’s, the United States has placed major economic sanctions against North Korea, and there aren’t even any diplomatic relations between the two countries. But against all the odds, a summit between the two countries has been planned for June 2018, which is anticipated not only to ease tensions, but could even pave the way for an end to the Korean War and unification of the Korean Peninsula. All of this sounds incredibly exciting, but before we can understand how important Korean peace is, we must understand how it even got this way in the first place.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is one of the most surreal places in the world. It is an isolated hermit nation, cut off from the rest of the world, a Soviet-era communist dictatorship with the feel of Orwell’s 1984. 1% of their population lives in prison camps. 10% of their population starved in 1994. And it is under heavy sanctions from most countries of the world. Quite frankly, it is a place where hopes and dreams come to die.
The foundation for North Korea was laid with the occupation of the Korean Peninsula by Japan in 1910. This, of course, was during Japan’s Imperial Period (1868-1945), during which Japan was its own fascist rogue state. In order to legitimise their occupation of Korea, the Japanese wanted to convince the Korean people that they were a subset of the Japanese race, and that they needed their “parent race” to protect them. When Japan fell in 1945, the Korean peninsula was divided along the 38th parallel – The U.S. Army governed the southern half, whereas the Soviet Red Army governed the Northern half. The division was intended to be temporary, with the goal of eventual reunification within the next decade.
The American and Soviet occupation zones were granted independence as South and North Korea, respectively, in 1948. During the same year, UN supervised democratic elections took place in both Koreas. Two years later, in 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea, beginning the Korean War. By the end of 1950, North Korean forces had South Korea cornered in the southeastern tip of the peninsula, and a communist victory looked imminent. But General MacArthur found a way to cut off the North Korean supply lines, and then it was the other way around – South Korea had North Korea cornered. But in response to this, China intervened and pushed South Korea back down to the 38th parallel.
In 1953, an armistice agreement was signed, and an armistice line was set. This armistice line still exists – it is known as the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) and forms the de facto border between North and South Korea today. Notice that it was an armistice agreement that was signed, not a peace accord. This is why the Korean War is technically still going on today, as a peace treaty was never signed between the two sides. Even today, both countries claim to be the legitimate government of all of Korea, and so they claim each others’ territory and do not recognise each other as countries.
Following the Korean War, North Korea was actually a fairly prosperous nation, as it enjoyed massive subsidies from the Soviet Union, as well as protection from its enemies by the Soviet Union’s massive nuclear arsenal. Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, all of this was lost, and disaster struck. Without Soviet funding, North Korea was too poor to feed its own people, and 10% of their population starved to death. And without Soviet protection, the regime was convinced that the only way to protect itself was to develop their own nuclear weapons. And this has been the status quo ever since.
On the left is a picture of Pyongyang in 1989, before the collapse of the Soviet Union. On the right is a picture of Pyongyang today. Notice how much livelier the left image is.
Now that the boring history is out of the way, let’s move on to the recent developments. The current situation is optimistic, but complicated – President Trump had cancelled the meeting on 24 May, but the very next day, he changed his mind and left open the possibility of the summit. If the summit does happen, it will occur on 12 June in Singapore, and will mark the first time a sitting U.S. President meets the Supreme Leader of North Korea since the Korean War. Leading up to the summit has been a series of informal talks between the leaders of the two Koreas, as well as a diplomatic flurry to prepare for the summit due to the President’s indecisiveness.
On 30 May, literally as we were writing this article, Kim Yong Chol, an ex-spy and top North Korean official met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for dinner in Manhattan. Kim Yong Chol is the most senior North Korean official to visit the United States in nearly two decades. The dinner, which lasted around 90 minutes, was part of a long series of impromptu pre-summit talks between the two leaders, so that both leaders agree on how the summit will go down. The Department of State has “stated” (no pun intended) that they want this summit to be “something historic”.
The department is right. Even though the summit will not focus on a Korean peace treaty or unification of the peninsula, it will focus on denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, and the ramifications of this alone are unprecedented. A denuclearised Korean Peninsula would be a huge win for the International Community, as there is no longer the threat of a rogue state triggering World War III and the nuclear apocalypse, among other things.
Relations between the United States and North Korea have always been tense, and we’re pretty sure there will always be suspicion between the two countries. And despite this historic summit, there is still a long way to go to achieve peace on the Korean peninsula. But I think we can all agree, that we should all give ourselves a pat on the back for the achievement of a historic peace that will benefit future generations to come.