June 25 marked the 70th anniversary of the Korean War. Pyongyang “commemorated” the occasion early by detonating the Inter-Korean Liaison Office on June 16.
For years, the building, which cost South Korea $15 million to build and was located inside North Korea, symbolized the hope of possible peace and reconciliation in the Korean Peninsula. Watching this significant symbol being demolished in such a barbaric way was a stark reminder that after 70 years, peace is still an unattainable dream in the region.
What Prompted the Korean War?
After World War II in 1948, two governments with very different ideologies and supported by different allies emerged in Korea on each side of the 38th parallel. In the south, Syngman Rhee, who opposed communism and was strongly backed by the United States, became the first president of the Republic of Korea.
In the north, Kim Il-sung, underpinned by the Soviet Union, established a communist regime named the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea. What Kim established, however, was anything but a democracy — it was a dynastic dictatorship controlled by his family.
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From the very beginning, Kim was not satisfied with retaining control of half the peninsula. He begged Joseph Stalin for permission to “liberate the south” and “reunite” the country. Stalin initially opposed Kim’s suggestion out of concern that the United States might intervene. After witnessing Korea’s neighbor, the Chinese communists, win the Civil War in China and drive the nationalist government to Taiwan with little intervention from the United States, Stalin permitted Kim to carry out his plan.
With an army trained and equipped by the Soviets, Kim launched a surprise invasion on the south on June 25, 1950. Since the south was ill-prepared and ill-equipped, it quickly crumbled. It seemed Kim was unstoppable.
Then the United States intervened, gaining support through the United Nations’ Security Council to send a multinational UN militia (composed of forces from more than 21 countries) under U.S. command to the Korean Peninsula. Led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the UN force drove Kim’s Korean People’s Army back to the 38th parallel.
MacArthur made a mistake, however, that caused him to lose strategic ground. He pushed his troops further, until they reached all the way to the North Korea-China border. MacArthur ignored the intelligence that Mao Zedong had been preparing the Chinese army to go to Korea since the summer of 1950, and he devastatingly underestimated Mao’s capability for war.
Mao wanted to participate in the Korean War. He saw it as an opportunity to achieve several goals: challenge a superpower, establish his international prestige, and consolidate his power domestically. More importantly, China needed North Korea to be a buffer against any possible land invasions. The UN force’s presence at the border gave Mao a good excuse to send the Chinese army into North Korea.
Compared to the UN force, the Chinese troops were poorly fed and equipped, but they had one advantage: a seemingly unlimited supply of manpower. Mao was willing to achieve his goals at any human cost. China committed a staggering 3 million troops during the Korean War.
Marking the end of the fight among China, the United States, and North Korea, the three nations signed the Korean Armistice Agreement on July 27, 1953. The agreement also established the Korean Demilitarized Zone as a de facto border between the two Koreas.
What Has Happened Since the Korean War?
The Korean War is remembered today as one of the bloodiest periods in modern history. An estimated 5 million soldiers and civilians lost their lives during the war, including close to 1 million Chinese troops. However, since no peace treaty was ever signed between the two Koreas, to this day, they are still technically at war.
In the decades since the Korean War, South Korea has gone through democratic reforms, namely the riddance of its dictator and its rapid development into one of the most modernized and prosperous nations in the world. China, on the other hand, also launched an economic reform in 1980. The once-impoverished communist regime evolved into the world’s second-largest economy by benefiting from the free trade system, as well as the peace and stability guaranteed by the liberal world order.
China’s newly found wealth has enabled its dictator, Xi Jinping, to incorporate Marxism into the digital age by deploying high-tech tools, such as facial recognition technology, to monitor the Chinese people. As China continues to suppress political dissidents domestically, it also applies its military and economic might internationally, bulling nations that do not bend to Beijing’s agenda.
Only North Korea seems to be stuck in the past, remaining the world’s most isolated and repressive state. Few visitors are allowed, and even fewer can leave at will. Three generations of Kims, including current dictator Kim Jong-un, have ruled the country with an iron fist.
According to Human Rights Watch’s most recent report, Pyongyang “restricts all civil and political liberties … prohibits all organized political opposition, independent media, civil society and trade unions … routinely uses arbitrary arrest and punishment of crimes, torture in custody and executions to maintain fear and control over the population.”
On a parallel note, North Korea is also one of the world’s poorest nations. Other than the ruling Kim’s family and their cronies, the vast majority of North Korean people survive at a subsistence level.
North Korea Has Bolstered Its Weapons Program
The only “progress” the hermit kingdom has made in the last 70 years is its weapons program, having fired 23 missiles as part of its tests in 2017 alone. Pyongyang has conducted six successful nuclear tests.
North Korea has become a nuclear power that threatens the peace and prosperity of neighboring countries, and after its 2017 nuclear weapons test, the UN had to impose economic sanctions. Although the sanctions did cause economic hardship in North Korea, they failed to stop Pyongyang from its weapons development and testing.
Beyond its nuclear weapons program, Pyongyang has done more to terrorize people. It has persistently carried out abductions of South Korean and Japanese citizens for decades. In February 2017, Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of Kim Jong-un, was assassinated at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia by two women hired by North Korean agents. The assassins used a VX nerve agent, a lethal chemical weapon banned by the UN, and Kim died a brutal death.
In June 2017, North Korea returned the then-23-year-old U.S. college student Otto Warmbier in a comatose state. Warmbier died just a few days later. Evidence suggests Warmbier was tortured while the North Korean authorities held him illegally during his visitation. The illegal and inhumane treatment of foreign citizens in the communist state led President Donald Trump to designate North Korea as one of the “state sponsors of terrorism” in November 2017.
North Korea would not have survived 70 years without leaning on China’s economic aid and taking advantage of policy failures from both the United States and South Korea. Since the Korean War, China has been the only steadfast economic backer of North Korea, and has provided it food and fuel to sustain the regime. It’s estimated that North Korea-China trade accounts for about 70 to 90 percent of North Korea’s total trading volume. China’s increasing economic power has only enhanced its ability to absorb the cost of sustaining North Korea.
Both countries also continue to lie in their history books, claiming they fought the Korean War to defend their fatherlands because they were invaded by the imperialist United States and its South Korean ally.
North Korea Won’t Let Up
Successions of U.S. and South Korean governments have tried to extend olive branches to Pyongyang. Neither South Korea’s “sunshine” policy nor the rounds of six-party negotiations since 2003 have curtailed North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Instead, Pyongyang took advantage of these diplomatic efforts to extract food, energy, and other forms of aid from the international community. Then it used these resources to support its ruling elites, military, and nuclear programs. In many respects, these good-intentioned diplomatic efforts helped extend the North Korean regime’s longevity.
North Korea’s current dictator, Kim Jong-un, initially tried to follow the same playbook as his father and grandfather. His provocations of firing missiles, conducting nuclear weapons tests, and insulting the United States, however, met equally fiery narratives from Trump and harsh economic sanctions from the United States and its allies.
Soon after, Kim tried to act like a statesman for change, holding a flurry of summits with Trump, China’s Xi Jinping, and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in. He thought he could charm his way into getting economic sanctions lifted without having to give up his nuclear weapons program. But the Trump administration has held its line firmly this time.
The nuclear negotiation has been a stalemate since 2018. Kim changed his strategy again by trying to intimidate South Korea back to the negotiating table. He fired a barrage of short-range missiles in April this year, enough to terrorize Seoul but not enough to provoke any strong response from the Trump administration.
Right after those missile tests, Kim mysteriously disappeared for 20 days, possibly due to underlying health issues. Since Kim has no apparent heir, his half-sister Kim Yo-jong rose to prominence during his absence. Even after Kim Jong-un’s reappearance in May, Kim Yo-jong has maintained her high profile.
Kim Yo-jong was the mastermind behind blowing up the Inter-Korean Liaison Office, where Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon held their last summit in 2018. She certainly demonstrated that, should she be in charge someday, she could be even more reckless than her brother.
The demolition of the liaison building symbolized the failure of another round of South Korea’s peace and reconciliation policy. Seventy years after the Korean War, neither the United States nor South Korea has identified a viable solution for the constant threat North Korea poses to the Korean Peninsula and the rest of the world. North Korea’s belligerent leaders are bent on making sure that long-lasting peace is still an unattainable dream in this region.