Since the end of the War in 1953, the Korean peninsula is divided by a frozen conflict that still awaits a definitive settlement. The recent developments as the signs of detente between North and South Korea or the meeting between the former’s leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump leave some hope of a peaceful resolution of the Korean issue. But will it actually be the case?
The historical background
After having been under Japanese domination for nearly four decades, in 1945 Korea was divided in two occupation zones separated by the 38th parallel: the Soviet one to the north, and the US-led Allied one in the south. While the original plan was to ultimately restore an independent and unified Korean state, in practice things unfolded differently. As the Cold War emerged, the disagreements between Moscow and Washington led to the establishment of two different states: a pro-communist one ruled by Kim Il-sung in the north, with Pyongyang as capital, and an authoritarian but pro-American one in the south, whose government was based in Seoul. The former took the name of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK, while the latter became known as the Republic of Korea, shortened in RoK. The efforts to reach a common agreement over the reunification of the Peninsula were all unproductive, and the situation stalled until 1950 when North Korea invaded the South.
Exploiting the surprise effect, its troops captured Seoul and almost managed to occupy the whole Peninsula. The international coalition created to defend the South, patronised by the United Nations and headed by the US, struggled to stop the advancing enemy. But then, the US organized a counter offensive. With a bold amphibious landing at Inchon, they cut the supply lines of the North’s armies and pushed them back to the initial positions. Acting beyond the UN directive, the allied forces proceeded further north, taking Pyongyang and almost reaching the Yalu river, Korea’s border with China. Feeling threatened, the PRC intervened in support of its North Korean ally in December 1950. The coalition was expelled from the North’s territory, and the communist troops conquered Seoul a second time. But once again, the US and its allies counterattacked and retook the city in March 1951. the situation stabilized along the 38th parallel, and no notable changes occurred until the signature of an armistice in 1953. While this practically put an end to the conflict, a true peace treaty was never signed, and as such the Korean War is officially still unresolved.
Since then, the situation has stalled. The South maintained an authoritarian regime for several decades, before becoming a democracy in 1987 and beginning a period of rapid economic growth that turned it in one of the world’s most dynamic economies. The North, under the leadership of the Kim family, has remained a ruthless, isolationist, heavily-militarized and economically fragile dictatorship centred upon the Juche ideology; a peculiar combination of communism, nationalism, Korean tradition and cult for the ruler.