For as long as I’ve been alive, the Koreas have always been…the Koreas. Not Korea. There was always a north and a south, just like the Dakotas and the Carolinas. When you’re a kid, you just accept that there are two. It never occurs to you that these two places share a name because they once were one.
Until something happened.
In a way, the Koreas have always served as a source of intrigue for us over here in the western world. South Korea gave us Gangnam Style, which has over 3 billion views on YouTube and is now an actual staple at American weddings, and intricate beauty routines.
North Korea, on the other hand, gives us nukes and an endless supply of, “OK, but what are they actually up to over there…?” They’ve spawned countless investigative documentaries which have often been left to fill in considerable gaps where access and details have been withheld from reporters, and they’ve inspired a highly-controversial comedy film that nearly threatened national security with its release.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Known for extreme levels of volatility, mistreating and imprisoning their own citizens, regular bouts of famine, dangerous levels of government control and propaganda, and severe isolationism, North Korea isn’t exactly anywhere people would want to visit, besides in an attempt to satiate an otherwise insatiable curiosity.
And I wouldn’t blame them. North Korea operates behind a veil of secrecy, with those on the inside seemingly oblivious to the outside world, and those of us on the outside almost desperate for a way in.
What goes on inside this country that regularly threatens the security of the planet?
The situation in North Korea is one that has perplexed many a US president, both Democrat and Republican, each of them unsure of how to deal with an unstable ruler (three different ones) who doesn’t seem to play by any precedence. To date, no US president has even met with a North Korean leader. At best, they’ve consistently managed to keep us from nuclear war, which I would call a success. At worst, they’ve been unable to eliminate the nuclear threat of North Korea, which has become an incessant loom over American heads. Those nukes are a powerful bargaining chip, to say the least.
What’s interesting, though, is that we definitely contributed to the current state of things.
Korea Before the War
The Korean Peninsula is a relatively small region hanging off the northeastern side of China in the Pacific Ocean. Its northern region barely borders Russia, and to its east lies the island nation of Japan.
Korea was doing pretty well for itself until the 16th and 17th centuries when foreign powers began taking interest in the peninsula. As a result, Korea became more and more closed off from the outside world, resulting in the highly isolationist culture that we still know them for.
In the 1800s, both the Soviet Union and Japan had dreams of imperial expansion, and the Korean Peninsula was highly coveted. In an effort to avert conflict, Japan offered the Soviets control over Manchuria, a northeastern region of China, in exchange for control over Korea. The Soviets said no and proposed splitting the Korean Peninsula at the 39th parallel (sound familiar?), with the northern region serving as a buffer zone between the two nations. Japan refused the counter-offer and the two nations went to war in 1904.
Japan eventually defeated the Soviets in a historic victory, and in 1905, Korea signed a treaty to become a protectorate of Japan. What this means is that Korea was made a dependent territory of Japan while still being allowed to hold on to some of its autonomy. When Korea abused this power in an effort to break the treaty, Japan responded by annexing Korea in 1910.
Korea Under Japanese Rule
The Japanese weren’t great to the Koreans. During their rule, which spanned from 1910-1945, the Japanese used the peninsula and its people very much for its own benefit. The Koreans led several resistance movements against Japan, but each movement was met with a tighter grip.
Japan wanted to make Korea a part of its own empire, but it had no interest in integrating Korean culture with Japanese culture. It just wanted Korea to be Japan. They made efforts to destroy historic buildings and artifacts, they outlawed Korean language, literature, and religion, they enforced Japanese Shintoism, and during the war, the Korean men were drafted to fight in the Japanese army, while their women were forced to serve as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers. All the while, the Koreans were resisting, some even fleeing to China and resisting from there.
By the end of World War II in 1945, the Soviet Union had invaded the northern part of Korea, and Japan was forced to surrender the rest of the peninsula over to the Allies. Splitting Korea in two at the 38th parallel, the United States took (what was supposed to be temporary) control of the south with the intent of eventually unifying the south with the north. Expectedly, the US and the Soviet Union never agreed on terms of unification.
The Korean War
Still split in two, the north invaded the south in 1950, marking the beginning of the Korean War. Both sides wanted a unified Korea, but neither side was willing to submit to the ideologies of the other. It was democracy versus communism. Typical. Both sides were heavily aided by foreign powers; the Soviet Union aiding the north, the US aiding the south.
In 1953, an armistice – not a peace treaty – was signed. The difference is that an armistice is simply a cease-fire. It’s not a declaration at peace. The peace treaty, which was to be negotiated the following year, was never signed because representatives from the US, China, and the Soviet Union couldn’t agree to terms. The Demilitarized Zone, or the DMZ, was established as neutral ground, running roughly along the 38th parallel.
North and South Korea are technically still at war.
Nukes in Korea
General MacArthur is notoriously known today as the guy who kept pushing into China. During the Korean War, MacArthur, who was unpopular with the UN, wanted to push into China’s Manchuria region to better resist an attack from the Soviets. President Truman opted not to go that route, deciding it was a bad idea to dedicate troops to that particular fight at that particular time. In an effort to avert WWIII, MacArthur was basically deemed too volatile to continue his mission in Korea, so Truman relieved him of his duties in 1951, calling him “a dumb son of a bitch.”
In 1952, President-Elect Dwight D. Eisenhower took a trip to Korea to see what the situation was over there. Admiral Radford accompanied him and suggested a possible solution to the war – threaten the Chinese with nukes. Eisenhower liked Radford’s candor, so he promoted him to US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Following the armistice, in 1954, there was a conference in Geneva that was supposed to discuss reunification of the now split Korea. Basically (and obviously), no agreement was made and the land remained split.
In 1956, Admiral Radford announced that the US was seeking to introduce nuclear weapons in South Korea, which went directly against the terms of the armistice. Two years later, nukes were deployed to South Korea.
Since then, the armistice has been reinstated and then denounced several times, over the course of several US and North Korean leaders. North Korea has expressed interest in negotiating peace with the US a few times, but they’ve also launched nuclear tests as threats. The US has relied on China to keep them in check as recently as this year, but…
Well, that brings us to today.
Whoever we choose to blame for this conflict, we all played a part in not only creating it, but in escalating it. We all failed to diffuse the situation when given the opportunity to do so, and we all failed to establish productive lines of communication.
When Donald Trump was elected President of the United States in 2016, he promised that there would be no nukes in North Korea. He proceeded to have a terrifying back-and-forth with Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un, in which he coined the now infamous “fire and fury” phrase. There was a lot of name calling and “my button is bigger than your button” talk, and North Korea stated, “It is a daydream for the US to think that its mainland is an invulnerable Heavenly kingdom.” They directly threatened the US territory, Guam, and the American naval base that lies there, and in 2017, they tested their first intercontinental ballistic missile.
And then…North Korea seemed ready to talk.
Kim Jong-Un said he’d be open to discussions regarding his nuclear capabilities in exchange for guarantees that no one would mess with them. It’s worth mentioning that their economy isn’t great and the country is regularly hit with famine and blackouts. Their isolationism doesn’t seem to be working out well for them. It’s also worth mentioning that this is nothing new. North Korea has been open to talks in the past.
President Trump jumped at the chance to sit down with Kim, even though that’s not really how diplomacy usually works. Typically, it’s a “have your people call my people” situation, where the details are hammered and ironed out way before the two leaders ever sit down to shake on it. But, nothing about any of this is typical.
In a historic and strange event, Kim Jong-Un met with South Korean leader, Moon Jae-In. This was the first time the leaders of the two countries had met in a decade. They chatted. They hugged. It was nice. They made moves to finally end the war between them and discussed denuclearization options. However, while the South Korean people were happy with what transpired, they were reportedly not getting their hopes up too high about anything. North Korea’s always been tricky and unpredictable.
The Trump administration then proceeded to celebrate a victory they hadn’t yet achieved. A date was set for a summit between Trump and Kim Jong-Un in Singapore. A call was made by some Republicans to nominate Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize, even before any semblance of peace had materialized. A commemorative coin was minted in honor of the summit.
And representatives from the Trump administration started talking. National Security Adviser John Bolton expressed the desire to see a Libya-style denuclearization of North Korea. I’m not sure why they chose to discuss this with the press before discussing it with North Korea, but Kim wasn’t happy about it. His threats came back, with a vengeance.
By the way – the “Libya model” for denuclearization eventually ended up with the overthrowing of the Libyan government and the death of its leader, Muammar Qaddafi.
Kim insisted that if complete denuclearization is what the US wants, they aren’t going to get it. Trump’s all-or-nothing insistence regarding nuclear policy echoes his sentiments for pulling out of the Iran Deal. He didn’t like it because it wasn’t comprehensive enough. He said the Obama administration’s negotiators shouldn’t have signed the deal because they didn’t get enough out of the Iranians. However, common sense tells you that negotiations are often based in compromise and terms are agreed upon after several rounds of negotiations. It also tells you that partial and, for all intents and purposes, debilitating denuclearization is better than no denuclearization.
As of a few days ago, North Korea destroyed one of their nuclear testing sites as a show of good faith to the South Koreans and the Americans leading up to the summit. They even invited international press to witness the destruction.
And then Trump responded by cancelling the summit in a letter, which you can read here. This could have been in response to Kim’s increasingly hostile rhetoric. This could have been the result of North Korea failing to respond to American outreach efforts, according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. This could have been Trump cancelling the summit before Kim did to save face, attempting to gain control over the situation. This could all just be a really scary game.
As of about an hour ago, Kim and Moon met again at the DMZ, discussing Trump’s cancellation of the summit. Kim is allegedly still open to meeting with Trump.
Where Does This Leave Us?
The summit’s currently up in the air. All this rhetoric between two nations would usually have happened behind the scenes, but since our president is who he is, it’s all playing out very publicly, with updates coming in on a daily basis.
Best case scenario is North Korea gives up their nukes, although they’ve already said they won’t completely do that. Given their history, you can’t blame them for being a bit overprotective of their stuff.
A likely scenario is that things stay as is. Maybe they give up some of their nuclear program; maybe the Korean War is finally ended. Either way, we’re basically in the same position we’re in now.
Worst case scenario? Eh, you know what that is.