Patrick Flannery | Indo-Pacific Fellow
The 25th of June 2020 marks 70 years since the Korean War began, a devastating and divisive conflict between North and South. Despite a tentative truce in 1953, a formal peace treaty has never been agreed upon. The two Koreas remain in an uneasy and unending stand-off. Estranged from the global community, North Korea has perpetuated an endless cycle of provocation and compromise.
Recently, in a theatrical demonstration, North Korea blew up a joint liaison office in the border town of Kaesong. Pyongyang was angered by a leaflet campaign from North Korean defectors living in the South. The North has seized upon this slight to ratchet up tensions, creating leverage to force concessions.
North Korean blusters would normally fill the headlines, but amidst Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement it has struggled to attract as much global attention. Despite this, speculation was rampant earlier in the year when Kim Jong-un was thought dead. Countless articles emerged proposing possible successors. The most commonly suggested candidate was his sister, Kim yo-Jong.
Now - though Kim Jong-un has been pictured alive—Kim yo-Jong has not faded into the background. Instead, she allegedly ordered the office detonation. This may be aimed at positioning her as successor. A hard-line against the South would enhance her status within North Korea’s male-dominated bureaucracy.
This all goes to show that aggression towards South Korea remains an integral part of ruling the North. The Kim family’s history of inflammatory actions constitutes a long list.
North Korea’s founder and Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, presided over numerous incidents—from hijacking South Korean airliners to attempting to assassinate South Korea’s then President. The ultimate aim always to forcefully reunify North and South.
But it was the successful development and demonstration of nuclear weapon capacity in the early 2000s under Kim Jong-il that marked the most drastic change in the way the United States (US) and the world approached the regime.
Testing missiles has become the incendiary move of choice, as North Korea inches closer to creating an intercontinental ballistic missile—primarily designed for nuclear weapons delivery—capable of striking the US mainland. These shows of force can bring countries to the negotiating table as North Korea struggles under sanctions.
In 2013, US President Barack Obama and South Korean President Park Geun-hye asserted that North Korea’s ‘crisis for concession’ days were over. But with Donald Trump and Moon Jae-in now in charge, engaging North Korea has become the preferred approach.
In 2018, President Trump halted US-South Korea military exercises prior to his meeting with Kim Jong-un. But former US National Security Advisor John Bolton claims that Trump was more focused obtaining an historic photo opportunity, rather than any meaningful compromise.
The divide between North and South on the peninsula is decidedly intractable, and not just because of nuclear weapons.
Geopolitically, North Korea provides a buffer between China and South Korea, with its significant US military presence. Beijing fears regime collapse and is intent on propping up the country through aid and trade.
The continued legacy of the Korean War fuels mistrust and frustrates hopes for reunification. North and South Korea are at odds politically, socially and economically. A resolution can seemingly only come from violent collapse or slow and gradual integration.
It has now been so long, that the people of the two Koreas are also physically different. Those from the North are shorter on average due to a poorer diet. Defectors routinely face discrimination in the South.
So how might the cycle end? There are no easy options.
The US has attempted to control North Korea’s actions through a range of means – military exercises, economic sanctions, heated rhetoric, pressuring China and, more recently, cyber sabotage. But progress in the relationship may ultimately require accepting North Korea as a nuclear power.
Given Kim Jong-un’s rumoured ill-health, there may well be a change in leadership soon. But current signs indicate that the Kim family dynasty and the cycle of violence is set to continue.
Patrick Flannery is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs