The Korean Crisis – OpEd


Before Korea was split in two, the peninsula was controlled as one country for hundreds of years by a succession of dynasties. Korea was colonized by Japan for 35 years, from the end of World War II to the end of the Korean War in 1953. This period began when Japan occupied Korea during the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 and legally annexed it five years later.

According to Michael Robinson, emeritus professor of East Asian studies and history at Indiana University who has authored numerous works on both modern and historical Korea, the decision made between the Soviet Union and the United States to divide Korea into two occupation zones was the catalyst. 

Control of the Korean Peninsula was split between the two “official” allies in August 1945. Northern areas, above the 38th parallel, were ruled by communist forces backed by the Soviet Army from 1945 to 1948. Military rule was established south of that boundary with direct U.S. assistance. A large portion of the North’s working class and peasantry supported Soviet policies, while most of the country’s middle class migrated south of the 38th parallel. In the meantime, the Southern government sponsored by the United States was biased toward anti-communist right-wing groups.  At least 2.5 million people died in the Korean War (1950–53), yet the question of whether the state represented the “true” Korea was not settled. As U.S. military aircraft targeted civilian targets across the northern half of the Korean Peninsula, however, the United States became North Korea’s persistent bête noire.

With papers from before 1990, American historian Bruce Cumings was able to establish clear lines of responsibility for the tragedy that was the Korean War. His work is the most comprehensive English-language account of the causes of that conflict. Even though many people argue that the Korean War began on June 25, 1950, Cumings stated in his writing that this is not the case. This could not have been “started” by Kim II Sung at that time if it had not already begun at an earlier date. The farther we go into history in pursuit of that instant, the more we come to terms with the fact that civil wars do not begin; they appear. There are several root causes, and everyone from the Americans who carelessly partitioned Korea to the Koreans who afterward served under colonial authority has some responsibility. What percentage of Koreans may now be living if that hadn’t taken place? This includes the Soviet Union, which was just as indifferent to Korea’s ancient purity and as intent on “building socialism” as the Koreans themselves, regardless of whether or not they wanted this type of government. Who knows how many more Koreans would be here now if that hadn’t occurred? After that, we have a very long list of things the Korean government might have done differently to prevent national separation and fratricidal violence if it had looked within instead.

Present-day 2022 finds North Korea having launched a record number of missiles following a two-year hiatus from testing. The Hwasong-18, the country’s first solid-fuel ICMB, has been tested repeatedly since 2022. It takes less time to launch and is easier to conceal; therefore, testing has continued through 2023. If this technology can be perfected, it will make a preemptive strike on North Korea’s nuclear weapons less likely to succeed. A missile was launched over Japan for the first time since 2017, and a total of 23 missiles were tested in a single day. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il hosted high-ranking delegations from China and Russia in July 2023, promising to improve ties with both countries.

However, now more than ever, it is crucial that tensions on the Korean Peninsula be reduced. The need to de-escalate the situation on the Korean peninsula and China’s role in doing so were both addressed by South Korean President Yoon during the 43rd ASEAN Meeting and East Asia Summit. The President of South Korea, Yoon Suk Yeol, recently met with Chinese Premier Li Qiang to discuss the issue of North Korea’s nuclear threat and whether or not China could do more as a member of the United Nations Security Council. Yoon reportedly urged Li that China should “fulfill its responsibility and role as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council,” and he also emphasized the need to strengthen ties with Washington and Tokyo to resist North Korea. On the outskirts of the ASEAN conference in Jakarta, Yoon and Li met.

Simply put, the future of peace on the Korean Peninsula and its effects on Northeast Asia is of great importance to six countries: North and South Korea, the United States, China, Japan, and Russia. There is a plausible overlap between several of these passions. Denuclearization of the Peninsula is a goal shared by all six parties, but one with varying meanings and time frames. Even North Korea has made at least a verbal commitment to this aim, despite its actions suggesting otherwise. The presence of US soldiers on the Korean Peninsula and the human rights situation in North Korea are two examples of seemingly intractable disagreements that might, with more communication and trust, offer opportunities for positive change. Other interests pose difficulties since they are either specific to one country (such as Japanese abductees) or directly contradict each other (such as the sequencing of disarmament and reciprocal confidence-building measures). A better understanding of these interests can assist peacemakers in highlighting common ground while minimizing disagreements.


Simon Hutagalung

Simon Hutagalung is a retired diplomat from the Indonesian Foreign Ministry and received his master's degree in political science and comparative politics from the City University of New York. The opinions expressed in his articles are his own.

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