In the final part of a three-part series, JOHN ELLISON catches up with the present-day situation on the Korean peninsula
THE enormous losses suffered in the three-year Korean war (five million dead, destruction in the South, incomparably more in the North) were halted by the armistice of July 27 1953.
This was signed by Kim Il Sung for the North — Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) — and signed too on behalf of the US and China, but the absence of a signature for the South — the Republic of Korea (ROK) — spoke volumes.
Progress towards a peace treaty was attempted the following year at a major conference in Geneva. But it was predictable that a one-sided proposal by the US and South Korea for elections in North Korea only, supervised by the United Nations, would gain no support from the North, which proposed, gaining no support from the South, nationwide elections and the withdrawal of all foreign troops in the country. South Korea remained a US client state.
A tense stand-off between the governments of the two halves of the country continued, with many violent border incidents over the years to come.
In 1969, when a US plane was shot down by the North, president Richard Nixon recommended dropping a nuclear bomb in response, before throttling back. Chinese forces withdrew from the North in 1958, having played a considerable part in reconstruction of a devastated land.
Agriculture was collectivised, and significant economic development took place, against the backdrop of an economic embargo by the US.
The DPRK government, which was headed by “Dear Leader” Kim Il Sung until his death in 1994, has been described by US professor Bruce Cumings as “a dictatorship in a mould that is Confucian as well as communist” and “in many ways authentically nationalist.”
In the South, US nuclear missiles were installed in 1958. President Syngman Rhee was ousted by popular demonstrations in April 1960 “as he tried to rig yet another election.”
From 1961, the ROK was run by a military dictator General Park Chung Hee (formerly an officer in the Japanese imperial army), until his assassination in 1979 by his own intelligence chief.
In the ’70s Park Chung Hee’s government worked on a secret programme to build ballistic missiles capable of bearing nuclear warheads and only backed off from this under US pressure.
Another military coup, in 1979, was led by General Chon Doo Hwan (earlier a paratroop commander with the US in Vietnam) who remained in power until 1988.
In spring 1980 his men massacred anti-government protesters, using bayonets and flamethrowers in the city of Gwangju. Seven years later large popular demonstrations flared up against his rule.
In the late ’80s some 40,000 US troops based in South Korea were engaging annually in huge joint military exercises with the ROK.
Over several decades the North responded to the ever-present threat of renewed war by building huge facilities (including munitions factories and warplane hangars) underground.
Not having oil, seeking energy independence, and possessing substantial deposits of uranium, the North built its own nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, operational from 1987.
Following the Gulf War in 1991, the US, preferring the latest “smart bombs” to battlefield nuclear weapons, removed the latter from South Korea and elsewhere.
The end of the Soviet Union’s support was a serious loss for the North, which from May 1992 accepted inspection of its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
In January 1993, president Bill Clinton announced the largest military war games ever (in which all sorts of nuclear weaponry featured).
These took place in and around Korea’s shores in March. The DPRK reacted to a more belligerent environment by giving notice of intention to withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it had joined in 1985. The North also demonstrated the viability of a medium-range missile, the Nodong 1, in May 1993.
Kim Il Sung died in July 1994 and his son, Kim Jong Il, replaced him as leader.
In the early summer of that year the US government concluded that a military strike on Yongbyon — under serious consideration — would start a war with the North.
But instead of war, influenced by a voluntary shutdown by the North of the Yongbyon reactor, talks led to the October Framework Agreement of 1994.
Under this agreement, the North agreed to continue the reactor’s shutdown in exchange for light water reactors and a new relationship with the US.
Loans and credits were to ease the agreement, and the US undertook to supply heating oil to tide over the North’s heating problems in the short term.
The agreement called for full diplomatic relations and a US pledge not to threaten or target the North with nuclear weapons.
Eloquently, no missile testing by the North proceeded between May 1993 and August 1998.
In June 1998 the Pentagon staged simulated long-range nuclear attack drills against North Korea, and in October that year a US lieutenant general spoke publicly about plans for replacing the North Korean regime, and of even beginning the project preemptively if there were solid grounds for expecting an attack.
These developments hardly confirmed US commitment to developing a more co-operative relationship with the North.
George W Bush’s ascension to president in 2001 produced a declaration from his advisers that the 1994 agreement was dead in the water.
And so in December 2002, the DPRK expelled the IAEA inspectors, restarted the Yongbyon reactor and withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Bush meanwhile declared his intention of dealing with North Korea after Iraq.
In spring 2003 the North made another offer to the US: it would scrap its nuclear development if the US would normalise relations and provide basic security guarantees.
Six years later, in 2009, substantive talks involving Russia and China as well as Japan, the US and both Koreas had goals which included the normalising of diplomatic relations, an end to trade sanctions and acknowledgement of the North’s right to use nuclear energy.
But these talks collapsed after both the US and the ROK rejected the North’s gradual dismantling of its nuclear weapons.
Then, in 2011 Kim Jong Il died and his second son, Kim Jong Un, became the North’s new leader. During these past three months the risk of war, indeed of nuclear war — not necessarily restricted to the Korean peninsula — has increased dramatically.
The North has over decades responded to the threat of aggression, and the repeated failure of negotiation, by developing nuclear missiles as a vital part of its defensive structure.
Its latest nuclear capability advance seems to have been the successful testing of a hydrogen bomb in early September, a weapon perhaps capable of attachment to an intercontinental ballistic missile of the type the North recently fired over Japan.
The reputation the US has acquired as a veteran rogue state has been richly earned, but it has been matched lately by tigerish rhetoric and actions from the North placing it — and the world as a whole — at risk.
While it seems inconceivable that this small country of around 25 million inhabitants would attack another country preemptively (as this would indeed produce its own annihilation), a US government with a long habit of belief in its invincibility may yet persuade itself to set fire to the North Korean peninsula, with incalculable consequences for that country and for the world as a whole.
An obvious trigger event would be if a North Korean missile test actually strikes South Korean, Japanese or US territory, such as one of its military bases, or comes close to doing so. Another would arise from US planes threatening the North’s air space.
Journalist Jonathan Steele suggested recently in the Guardian that after decades of sidelining of the UN, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres could be asked to take charge of a mediation process.
Jeremy Corbyn’s call in August for two both sides to “calm down,” to “come back from the brink,” points to the necessary solution. A moderating factor may be that South Korean President Moon Jae In has not been averse to dialogue with the North.
The danger of nuclear war today may be as high as it was during the Cuba missile crisis of October 1962.