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History of tensions on the Korean Peninsula

15th April 2013

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Tensions between North and South Korea may have reached a critical point in the past few weeks, but the Korean Peninsula has a long history of provocation and conflict. Here's what you need to know. 

History of the Korean PeninsulaThe Korean Peninsula (courtesy of The Economist)

  • Prior to 1945, the Korean Peninsula had been occupied by Korea and had been ruled by numerous dynasties, including the Japanese and Chinese.  
  • On 8th August 1945, the USSR declared war on Japan, which was ruling the north of the Peninsula at the time. Two days later, it came under occupation by the USSR. 
  • At the end of the war, the Allies divided the Peninsula. The USSR was to administer the north, and the USA administered the south.  
Tensions begin to surface

  • In 1948 the Republic of Korea (South Korea) was founded, shortly followed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea).
  • The Presidents of the newly established countries wanted to unify the Peninsula, but each wanted to unification on their own political terms. North Korea was communist and supported by the USSR and China, whereas South Korea was capitalist and staunchly anti-communist.
  • This exacerbated tensions and fighting along the border between North and South Korea was common.
The Korean War

  • By 1950, the conflicts on the border inflamed to become the Korean War, with North Korean invading South Korea on 25th June 1950.
  • United Nations member states sent aid to South Korea, and by October 1950 UN forces had moved the fighting north and taken the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. However, Chinese forces joined with North Korean forces and moved south, taking the South Korean capital, Seoul, in January 1951.
  • Peace negotiation began in July 1951, but fighting continued for a further two years until the Demilitarised Zone was formed along the border in July 1953.
  • An Armistice Agreement was signed by the Korean People’s Army, the Chinese People’s Volunteer and the UN Command, however South Korea never signed the treaty. Thus, there has never been an official peace treaty between North and South Korea.
  • Tensions remained at the forefront as each country attempted to unify the Peninsula under its own political system. Military hostilities have continued with over 100 incidents of provocations occurring since 1950. A culturally accepted principal of tolerance has meant tensions have not escalated into a second Korean War.
Nuclear Tensions

  • In 2006, North Korea revealed it had successfully tested a nuclear weapon, spreading much alarm. Tensions then further increased in 2008 when the South Korean President, Lee Myung-bak, ended his predecessor’s “sunshine policy” of rapprochement with North Korea.
  • Tensions reached an all-time high in 2010 when South Korea accused the North of sinking one if its warships, Cheonan, and severed all trade and ties with Pyongyang.
  • North Korea’s current President, Kim Jong-un, agreed to suspend long-range missile tests in order to receive food aid from the USA. Although, by October 2012, the North revealed it had missiles capable of reaching mainland USA, provoking immediate condemnation by the UN.
Provocation and escalating tensions

  • In February 2013, North Korea performed a third nuclear test against the warnings of its ally, China, and received further sanctions from the UN Security Council.
  • Currently, Kin Jong-un has declared a ‘state of war’ against the South, and has signed an order to aim missiles at US military bases in South Korea and the Pacific. The UN has advised member states to remain cautious but exercise restraint. 

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