Mutual fighting killed thousands of Koreans. In 1947, the United States pulled the Korean conflict before the UN, which decided to hold general elections. However, the UN Electoral Commission was not allowed into the north. Elections were held separately and on both sides the men appointed by the great powers won. In May 1948, the Republic of Korea was proclaimed in the south, and in September of the same year, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was formed in the north.
The Korean War
The new states were armed by their respective sponsors. Along the stalemate at the 38th parallel, there were clashes and in June 1950, North Korea went on the offensive. The Korean War had begun.
The UN Security Council branded North Korea an aggressor and called on member states to rescue South Korea. The UN forces were dominated by the United States and led by US General Douglas MacArthur. The war swung back and forth, but since China had intervened on North Korea’s side, the front stabilized at 38 degrees latitude.
Negotiations began in 1951, but fighting continued until July 27, 1953, when a ceasefire agreement was concluded. Following a conflict that claimed several million lives – data varies between two and five million – stood both sides with the same areas as before the war. No peace agreement was reached and the four-kilometer-wide, demilitarized zone at 38 degrees latitude is still the border between North Korea and South Korea according to 800zipcodes.
“The military first”
After the war, both Koreans developed fairly equally economically. Both regimes were also formed more (North Korea) or less (South Korea) into dictatorships with the military as the power base. The United States placed nuclear missiles and artillery-borne nuclear warheads in South Korea near the border with North Korea. It was against this background that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program eventually emerged.
In the 1970s, the South and North took completely different paths. South Korea invested in exports and developed into one of the world’s leading industrial nations. North Korea isolated itself and built an ideologically driven economic system based on self-sufficiency (called juche = self-confidence) which led to poverty. After floods and droughts in the 1990s, the country fell into starvation and industrial collapse.
Politically, North Korea solidified into a communist family dynasty with an absurd cult of personality around Kim Il-Sung (died 1994) and his son Kim Jong-Il (died 2011). In the midst of misery, the regime gave priority to military spending under the motto “The military first”.
South Korea went in the opposite direction. A growing reform movement, led by protesting students, defied the military regime’s war laws and banned contact with North Korea. In the 1980s, demonstrations forced political liberalization, and in 1997, the former death row inmate Kim Dae-Jung was elected President of South Korea.
During Jimmy Carter’s presidency in the 1970s, the United States began removing hundreds of nuclear weapons from South Korea. When the Cold War ended in the rest of the world, attempts at dialogue between North and South Korea also paid off.
In 1992, they agreed to stop the production, testing and deployment of nuclear weapons on the peninsula. In 1993, the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) wanted to inspect facilities suspected of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons. North Korea said no.
The United States backed the IAEA and war threatened between the United States and North Korea. Former President Carter negotiated an agreement in 1994, in which North Korea would receive replacement energy if it stopped its nuclear energy program. The United States, South Korea and Japan promised oil and the construction of two light water reactors for electricity production. The delayed construction project was suspended in 2006, when North Korea had long since broken the agreement and resumed the nuclear weapons program.
Sunshine politics and counter-terrorism
Floods, droughts and famines are estimated to have killed at least one million people in North Korea during the second half of the 1990s. The disaster was followed by external aid, and contacts with the outside world increased. South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung launched a so-called sunshine policy and in June 2000 met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il at a summit in Pyongyang.
The two Kim agreed to work for relaxation, reconciliation and peaceful reunification of the peninsula. It was decided to start economic cooperation and allowed groups of Koreans to travel across the border to meet family members for the first time in half a century.
At the inauguration of the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the South and North Korean participants marched in together, and the same year, Kim Dae-Jung received the Nobel Peace Prize for her sunshine policy.
Then the sun seemed to go in clouds. The terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, also cast a shadow over the Korean Peninsula. South Korea increased its military preparedness with reference to terrorist threats, which was seen as an aggression in Pyongyang. South Korea also test-fired a robot with range to Pyongyang. North Korea had previously tested missiles that could reach Japan.
When US President George W Bush described North Korea in 2002 as one of the “axis of evil”, it led to hostile reactions from Pyongyang. That same year, the North and South fought firefights with many casualties in a disputed border area on the Yellow Sea, west of the Korean Peninsula.