Mark Twain once wrote, “It is not worth while to try to keep history from repeating itself, for man’s character will always make the preventing of the repetitions impossible”(1). We do find this axiomatic logic to hold true in the case of North and South Korean relations.
As tensions continue to mount in this troubled region, the international community watches this conflict with great uneasiness. So what has changed in the 57 odd years since the Korean War ended?
Over the past one hundred years, Korea became a nation in search of an identity. The 1910 Japanese-Korea Annexation Treaty established Korea as a Japanese colony, and a ban instituted on Korean culture rendered such acts as usage of Korean language, reading of Korean literature as illegal. When the Second World War loomed heavily over the Pacific region, the Japanese implemented conscriptions wherein participation in the war industry and soldiering became mandated.
By the end of the Second World War, the United States officially established a partition of Korea along the 38th parallel creating North and South Korea in the absence of any Korean delegates. Therefore, the destiny of the beleaguered peninsular nation fell into the hands of men 10,000 miles away.
Consequently, the partitioned areas of North and South Korea became client and/or puppet states of the USSR and US, respectively. Each of these larger nations worked diligently to ensure its ideological sympathies, communistic or democratic, were firmly established. Korea would become the stage and living, breathing manifestation of the Cold War.
On Sunday, June 25, 1950, North Korea’s Korean People’s Army (KPA) crossed the 38th parallel as a counter measure for what they cited as military provocation. They stated that South Korea’s Republic of Korea Army (ROK) had first breached the 38th parallel and they were merely responding to that threat. War ensued.
In July 1953, the Korean Armistice ended hostilities and firmly established the 38th parallel as the Korean Demilitarized Zone or DMZ. After three years of warfare and an estimated 1.5 million war casualties, North and South Korean relations resumed as they were in the pre-Korean War era.
As we fast-forward some forty years later, the ideological super powers adjusted their post Cold War grip on these client or puppet states. Consequently, both regions seek an identity.
In 1993, North Korea, in an attempt to establish itself internationally, declared that they possess a nuclear weapons program and demonstrated to the world their advancement in this arena. Additionally, they withdrew from the 1985 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. As time progressed, North Korea utilized its nuclear weapons program as a bargaining chip, enticing the world to offer aid and support with promises to dismantle their weapons program.
With an eye toward denuclearizing Korean, the Six Party Talks were established. The latter being a consortium of nations including U.S., China, Russia, South Korea, North Korea and Japan and, presumably, in the spirit of the Cairo Declaration (1943) that stated “in due course Korea shall become free and independent”(6) (8).
As North Korea continued to play a cat and mouse game with its nuclear weapons program, then US President George Bush denounced North Korea at his 2002 State of the Union address as an entity within the “Axis of Evil”. Some six years later, the Bush Administration agrees to remove them from the notorious “Axis of Evil” listing in accordance with the dismantling of their weapons program (5).
North Korea initially responds by dismantling a cooling tower at a weapons factory, and then re-establishes their program until October 2008 when the Bush Administration does remove North Korea from the list (5).
South Korea, too, seeks an identity as a 2006 South Korean Gallup poll showed that 67% of the South Korean population are in favor of a unified Korea, while a growing grassroots movement among the young (15-19 years of age) are in favor of a complete US withdraw (56%). Interestingly enough, 80% of the South Korean population strongly opposes the idea of US withdrawal. Will this be the re-enactment of the unification of a divided Germany as witnessed in 1989? (2) (3)
Some pundits suggest that North Korea’s recent military actions including the sinking of the South Korean naval patrol boat the Cheonan and artillery bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island as a way to re-establish their pre-eminent power in the region as they prepare to transition leadership. (4)
The international community now sits back to watch the final act in this Shakespearean tragedy wherein we view the death of one of the last remaining remnants of the Cold War era. North Korea, once again, utilizes such phrases as military provocation and counter measures as they did in the days leading up to the Korean War. The US sends warships to the area for “military exercises”. As Twain suggested it is not history that repeats itself but the character of Man that creates repetition.
1) Mark Twain in Eruption: First Edition, 1922, by Harper and Brothers
9) Illustration: James Thornhill, Thetis Accepting the Shield of Achilles from Vulcan, C.1710, Tate Gallery, London