The Korean Peninsula is one of the most volatile regions in the world. While the two Koreas largely maintain a position of “de facto ‘peaceful’ coexistence”, reconciliation between the two states in any meaningful way relies on reunification and the de-escalation of nuclear confrontation between the US and North Korea. Today, reunification and the neutralisation of military threats from the North is of utmost importance to global security. South Korean President Moon Jae-In has been vocal of his intention to achieve reunification without absorbing the North, first by securing peace and then by denuclearising the Peninsula. Moon has achieved some notable milestones during his presidency. However, with less than a year left of his term remaining, recent setbacks may mean that it is possible he will leave office with the North-South relationship severely damaged. If the history of inter-Korean conflict is anything to go by, any success is likely to be short-lived unless the states can halt the cycle of crisis diplomacy.
A Brief History of Inter-Korean Relations
Inter-Korean tensions have been brewing for over 70 years. Following Korea’s independence and the end of World War II, a temporary division of the Korean Peninsula was announced. By 1948, the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea had been established. The divide was soon solidified, with each government having declared a claim to the entire peninsula. These mutual claims resulted in a war breaking out between the states from 1950 to 1953, following from which an armistice was reached, and a demilitarised zone (DMZ) established across the peninsula.
Following the war, little to no communication took place between the states. A reconfiguration of Cold War dynamics in East Asia led Seoul and Pyongyang to re-initiate contact. Small signs pointed towards possible diplomatic progress with the establishment of the July 4 Communiqué in 1972. The two states maintained an “on again, off again” relationship for the next two decades, culminating in a series of successful talks that led to various agreements on reconciliation and denuclearisation. This was followed by the ascension of both states to the UN in late 1992. However, this streak of cooperation did not last long. Just as North Korea was opening its borders to external forces in the 1990s, a nuclear standoff with the US once again led Pyongyang to deploy isolationist policies.