Korea has always been stuck between a rock and a hard place, also known as China and Japan. If it was not under the thumb of its neighbors in modern times, it was under the influence of imperialist European nations. We might as well begin at the conclusion of World War II, when Korea had been forcibly liberated from Japan–a period of brutal treatment that has not been forgotten (as is evident from the Japanese textbook scandal a few years back which riled China, North Korea and South Korea with its glossed over account of Japan’s war crimes committed against the occupied people of these two countries). Not unlike World War II Germany, Korea was divided by the Soviets and the Americans in the Allied attempt to defeat the Japanese. The Soviets established the Korean Workers’ Party and installed their man, Red Army-trained Kim Il-Sung, founding the People’s Republic of Korea in 1948, accompanied by Soviet withdrawal. When the South declared its independence the Korean War began with North Korea’s invasion. Thus, it was one of the few hot spots during the Cold War.
When folks refer to the Korean War as the forgotten war they are in part referring to the preference to look at the Second World War and Vietnam, while neglecting this brief but brutal conflict. Over two million people died between 1950-1953. Only twenty thousand fewer Americans died in that span than died in seventeen years of the Vietnam War. In the end, with the involvement of U.S.-led coalition forces, the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, two Koreas were forged in brutal warfare, separating families and isolating the people of North Korea.
Roughly along the 38th Parallel is a no-man’s land, legendary for its absurdly large collection of land mines, which is guarded around the clock by North Koreans on the north wall and South Koreans and Americans on the south wall. American forces have remained in South Korea since the Armistice that ended the Korean conflict. (They have mostly been welcomed, but more recently their presence is controversial to a younger generation, especially given a level of inappropriate behavior by some soldiers.) Whereas South Korea has achieved some economic stability, the North has been in a dire situation for decades with extremely poor health, short life expectancy and widespread hunger and starvation. Conditions for aid have often been dependent on a more humane government, but it has sacrificed its people for weapons and a desire to establish a nuclear armament.
Throughout the last decade and a half, the West and North Korea’s neighbors have been concerned about its attempt to negotiate for nuclear energy to solve some its internal problems. The potential to turn energy into arsenal has always been a concern, though many agree that clean and abundant energy would be an asset to a nation that is significantly behind in medicine, food production, manufacturing, everything but military arsenals. The so-called Six Party talks, named after the six countries at the table: North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States, have been orchestrated on numerous occasions to discuss the nuclear situation. In the last decade North Korea even agreed to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA of the United Nations to conduct investigations and inspections intended to insure that all nuclear-interests were peaceful, but ultimately failed to make good on such promises. Traditionally, China has insisted on protecting the North, and as with a small sibling, scolding and cajoling them into cooperation, but many question China’s influence, particularly in light of its recent economic changes. Current events, including two attacks, may sorely test China’s right to keep little brother from straying into international conflict.
In 1994, Kim Il-Sung died after amassing a substantial military regime, bolstered by Soviet and Chinese aircraft, artillery and guns, and was replaced by Kim Jong-il. It is believed that the next succession is under way from Kim Jong-il to his youngest son Kim Jong-un, but given its closed society it is difficult to say for sure what it is intended. If Kim Jong-il is about to end his career as North Korea’s supreme leader, it is worth remembering the brief thaw in North-South relations which many Koreans, separated since the conflict in the early 50s, were reunited. It came during a brief period of hope that has since evaporated. In contrast to this touching scene, we may also recall the presentation of his father as Eternal Leader ten years after his death and the fact that the country resembles nothing so much as a giant concentration camp.
In the last few months, North Korea has become increasingly provocative. The most recent missile attack on Seoul has certainly ignited the South and led many to question whether war can be avoided–an unpleasant thought under the “best” circumstances but more disturbing now, given the confirmation of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities on par with Iran. It becomes more difficult to predict what the next course of action will be and whether a non-violent solution is possible.
This has been every bit as brief as advertised and as such is likely to be vulnerable to the inaccuracies or misguiding points that are often the product of brevity. For this reason I wanted to provide some fast but more thorough resources recommended for further investigation.
For a quick analysis on economics, history and current political situation, such as it is known, the first place to start is the CIA World Factbook for North Korea: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/kn.html and for South Korea: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ks.html. I would also suggest the US State Department to see what it is providing and saying about current events.
For a summary on Korean history in an easy to access package, try the BBC’s website: http://search.bbc.co.uk/search?go=toolbar&uri=/history/worldwars/coldwar/korea_hickey_01.shtml&q=korea. From that page you can link to country profiles on both North and South as well as recent headlines and news. While you are there you may want to make use of the timeline: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/country_profiles/1132268.stm and the summary of the Korean War http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/coldwar/korea_hickey_01.shtml–it is succinct, but more in depth than what I provided. There are better and more academic sources out there, not least because they are written by political scientists, economists and historians, but they are not so brief.
The Economist also provides a brief commentary on the current situation and what should be done: http://www.economist.com/node/17577117?fsrc=scn/tw/te/mc/solvekorea
For a report on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities visit Foreign Policy: http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/11/23/hecker_north_korea_now_has_same_nuclear_defense_as_iran
Foreign Affairs also provides analysis on North Korea’s political situation in general with two articles from August 2010: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/66581/sung-yoon-lee/the-pyongyang-playbook and October 2010: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/66870/by-jennifer-lind/the-once-and-future-kim. Note: both of these articles predate the most recent round of hostilities and the most escalating to date.
Finally, I recommend The Week, with its broad summary coverage of what the media is reporting and how it is commenting: http://theweek.com/article/briefing_blog/141/conflict-in-the-koreas–Bonus!: the site includes cartoon commentary!