President Yoon Suk Yeol’s regime is setting out to take a new, harder stance towards South Korea’s neighbours to the North. In the president’s first month in power, he made that very clear. This came in the form of an interview with CNN in which he claimed that the age of appeasement was over. He further stated that any further talks between North and South Korea will have to be initiated by Kim Jong-Un himself. This signals a new era of diplomatic relations between the two nations. Moreover, this comes at a time when we appear to be on the brink of an arms race on the Korean peninsula.
Before getting caught up in any contemplations as to the future, first, a brief outline of these two enemies will be presented. Until 1945, these enemies were, in fact, one. From 1392 until 1910, the region was known as the Choson Dynasty. Between 1910 and 1945, the Korean peninsula was largely under Japanese imperial rule. In the wake of the Second World War, Japan was forced to give up its territory. At this point, Korea was split along the 38th parallel amongst the US in the South and the Soviets in the North. As a result, two separate governments were established, one in Pyongyang, and another in Seoul.
This division was not, however, accepted unconditionally. Kim Il-Sung attempted a forced reunification of the region in 1950. With help from the Soviet regime, he invaded the South with the intention of creating a unified, Communist Korea. The result was then three years of war, alongside a US-backed South Korean resistance. An end to this violence came with armistice agreement, however, the two nations have actually been at war ever since.
Over the years, the nations have continued to diverge and develop separately. The North has been a socialist state since 1945. Prison camps and detention have been the state’s enforcement weapons of choice. Censorship and government impunity have become commonplace. Moreover, the UN has reported that a third of the poverty- and famine- stricken nation malnourished and lacking adequate healthcare. Contrastingly, the South has opted for capitalism and democracy. However, it is not only political systems which now differ. Rather, there are cultural differences too. The South has become the “Hollywood of the East”. A major export has become entertainment. Both K-dramas and K-pop have become staples, not only in the likes of Japan and Indonesia, but also in the Western world. The nation has also become highly experimental when it comes to fashion trends, with miniskirts trending. This stands in stark contrast to the modest North where tight jeans, short skirts, and non-regulation hairstyles are banned. Moreover, the South is largely dominated by Catholicism and Protestantism, while the North remains atheist. This separation along the 38th parallel is therefore not simply a geographical or political one. In the 21st century, this divide is now a cultural one. Simply put, over half a century of separation and isolation has created a divergence and evolution of cultures.
Where are we now?
As of this year, North Korea has launched 15 test missiles so far. The reality here is that Pyongyang has launched more missiles in 2022 than the preceding two years combined. And so, this points to a state of increased militarisation in the region. More than that, Kim Jong-Un’s regime has been rather bold. Only hours after President Biden left Seoul, on the 25th of May, North Korean officials fired three ballistic missiles. These were confirmed both by South Korean and Japanese authorities. Notably, President Biden’s presence does not seem coincidental. During his time in the region, Biden vowed to strengthen measures intended to deter North Korea. Additionally, the US president reiterated that South Korea remains an American ally. In response, the South Korean government released a statement suggesting that the “sustained provocations” will only result in a stronger and faster combined response from both South Korea itself, as well as from the US. This failed, however, to deter Pyongyang. On the 5th June, North Korean officials launched eight missiles off the east coast of the Korean peninsula. Since then, the US and South Korea have kept their word. They responded to Kim Jong-Un’s act of aggression with eight missiles of their own on the morning of the 6th June. Moreover, the US and Japanese militaries carries out a joint drill to demonstrate their readiness and capacity for defence.
It is therefore clear that tensions and aggression are escalating on both sides. Not only is rhetoric becoming more intentional and threatening, but there is also increased military intimidation and bolstering. While missiles with strategic targets have not yet been launched, both sides are guilty of using the launching of missiles as a show of force. The concern, however, is how this game of chicken will end. Will North Korea back down? Will there be war?
Where will it all end?
These are complex questions. What is clear, is that there is a definite switch. Former-president Moon, for one, was much more conservative in his approach. This stands in stark contrast with the in-coming president, who has explicitly adopted a stronger rhetoric. Moreover, the US has also experienced a rather extreme regime change. The Trump regime was rather accommodating in giving North Korea a voice and platform. More specifically, the then-president of the United States was in frequent communication with dictator Kim Jong-Un. This then changed with President Biden’s inauguration in 2020. In the past couple of years, the US has been much more supportive of the South, and far less prone to legitimising the North. And so, here, we see two key changes. First, a firmer and stronger South Korean leadership, as well as the removal of any American legitimisation of Pyongyang. What does become clear, therefore, is that the current political climate is more conducive to a war on the Korean peninsula than it has been in preceding years.
Stephanie is the Assistant Editor at the Journal of Political Risk. She has a B.A. in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics and an Honours degree in Justice and Transformation from the University of Cape Town. She is currently pursuing her MPhil in Public Law, focusing on a gendered analysis of transitional justice mechanisms. She has also contributed as a member of the research team for the South African Medical Research Council, focusing on the National Health Insurance bill.