The Two Koreas: Despite Nukes and Succession Issues, It's Status Quo

July 8, 2010

Painting of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il at Lake Baekdusan, sacred to all Koreans. Photo by Yeowatzup (CC)

With a flurry of news about escalating tensions between North and South Korea, it might seem that the game has completely changed. But for Koreans, exactly what has changed that would make the current events so crucial?

From a historical perspective, the recent back and forth between North and South Korea reveals nothing new. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak portrayed the March 26th sinking of a South Korean warship, allegedly by a North Korean torpedo, as one more act in a long list of aggressive actions by North Korea. During the keynote address at The Shangri-La Dialogue on June 4, President Lee cited two similar acts of aggression by North Korea. One was the attempted assassination in 1983 of South Korea's then president, in which 17 high ranking officials, including the deputy prime minister, were killed. The other was the 1987 bombing of a Korean Air flight, killing all 125 passengers on board.

The denial of responsibility and the rhetoric coming from North Korea remains the same as it was in the 1980s, and in my opinion, prospects for change remains unlikely, despite two new factors: 1) North Korea now has nuclear weapons, and 2) North Korea is in the midst of a possible succession of power from leader Kim Jong-il to his third son, Kim Jong-un.

Nuclear Weapons

Having nuclear weapons undoubtedly gives North Korean threats more weight and makes the worsening relations between the North and South headline news. In 2006, North Korea conducted its first underground nuclear weapons test. They did another one in 2009, despite international warnings. For most people viewing the situation from a non-Korean perspective, North Korean possession of nuclear weapons would indicate a stepped-up threat to South Korea. Yet for many South Koreans, the situation seems to be far more complex.

North Korea's possession of nuclear weapons does not increase or decrease the likelihood of destruction for South Korea if North Korea attacked. The threat of destruction by North Korea has hung over South Korea ever since the Korean War began in 1950. For the last half century, North Korea has made countless threats, including the famous statement in 1994 about turning Seoul into a "sea of fire" through the use of non-nuclear missiles This constant threat is something that the current generation of South Koreans is already used to. What's more, for many young Koreans who didn't live through the Korean War and therefore never experienced the brutality of North Korean aggression firsthand, North Korean possession of nuclear weapons means simply that when both Koreas reunite, South Korea too would have nuclear weapons and reap the benefits.

The naivety displayed by South Korean youths needs to be understood from a historical perspective. Korea was under Japanese rule for 35 years, from 1910 until the Japanese defeat in World War II in 1945. When the war ended, Korea was divided along the 38th parallel, with United States troops occupying the southern part and Soviet troops occupying the northern part. South Korean textbooks teach that Korea was forced to separate into two countries by foreign powers, implying that the breakup was against the North Korean people's will.

When the Korean War broke out in June 1950 with North Korean forces crossing the 38th parallel, a civil war between brothers occurred. A sympathetic viewing of North Koreans as their own brethren is not far-fetched. Many families were separated during the war, and a considerable number of South Koreans still know family on the other side. In contrast to the situation between Taiwan and China, South Korea has a much stronger sense of one common people than Taiwan does. The South Korean people very much desire a reunified Korea.

Although a ceasefire agreement signed in July 1953 halted the fighting, the Korean War never really ended. Korea remains divided, despite enormous reunification efforts by past South Korean administrations. While the North has remained a totalitarian communist state, the South lives in a democracy that has also become one the world's largest economies. The fact that there are two Koreas for one common people remains to this day a hot button topic in South Korea. The March 26th warship sinking prompted South Korea to redesignate North Korea as its "archenemy." For those South Koreans sympathetic to North Korea, this is a condemnation of their very own brothers, and the subsequent North Korean severing of ties with South Korea dims hopes of a reunited Korea.

While anti-North Korean sentiments have run high, especially since 46 sailors were killed during the March 26th sinking, a return to fighting is not what South Koreans seek. The best course of action for South Korea is the internationally recognized steps that they have been taking, such as carrying out what U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton described as a "very thorough, highly professional" investigation into the March 26th sinking, and South Korea's formal request for UN Security Council action against North Korea over the sinking.

Nevertheless, North Korea does not agree with the investigation's conclusion that a North Korean torpedo sunk the Cheonan warship. Furthermore, North Korea warns of a military response to any Security Council condemnation of North Korea. It is important to note, however, that North Korea has used such rhetoric many times before in various crises concerning North Korea over the past few decades, and they have not followed through on it.

Any Security Council action would have to go through China, which has veto power in the Council and which supports North Korea. So far it remains unclear what China will do, as it has remained cautious about taking any outright action for or against North Korea concerning the March 26th sinking. China has also in the past been the host of the six-party talks, a series of North Korean denuclearization talks involving North Korea, South Korea, the United States, China, Russia, and Japan. China continues to hold a deciding card in North Korean nuclear non-proliferation issues.

Even with nuclear weapons, a sort of status quo has continued in the Korean peninsula. Unless China changes its position, such a status quo is likely to continue.

Succession

North Korea is in the middle of what many analysts believe to be a transfer of power from leader Kim Jong-il to his 27-year-old third son, Kim Jong-un. In securing power, major changes in the North Korean government include the recent firing of Prime Minister Kim Yong-il and replacing him with Choe Yong-rim, a confidant of Kim Jong-il's family. The process of a possible succession had been brought on by Kim Jong-il's failing health. It is believed that he suffered a stroke in 2008.

Among the general public in South Korea, there is optimism that conditions in North Korea will change for the better with the young Kim Jong-un. Not much though is known about Kim Jong-un, and the few stories circulated in the South Korean media portray him as sympathetic to the plight of the North Korean people. The positive media portrayal spreads optimism that when Kim Jong-un takes power, progress will be made towards Korean reunification.

Unlike his father, however, Kim Jong-un was not selected at an early stage and has not had decades as the official successor to prepare for the role and acquire the necessary influence. Analysts believe that it was only after the alleged stroke in 2008 that Kim Jong-il chose Kim Jong-un. How much power Kim Jong-un will have remains in question. Some argue that unless there is a shift in power between the ruling factions, the old leaders of the Workers Party of North Korea will have the real decision-making powers and not Kim Jong-un.

Communist successions are problematic and non blood-related successions often end in betrayal. For example, Mao Zedong's second-in-command and designated successor Lin Biao supposedly died in a plane crash, but many historians believe he was murdered because he attempted a coup against Mao. Deng Xiao-ping, Mao's eventual successor, reversed many of Mao's policies. In the former USSR, Nikita Khrushchev denounced Joseph Stalin and began a de-Stalinization policy. Thus in order to keep the Kim family name supreme, Kim Jong-il's father, Kim Il-sung, the first leader of North Korea, made sure that his son was the successor.

Now that the time is near for Kim Jong-il to be succeeded, it is very likely that he has done the same as his father by trying to arrange for the succession to go to a son. As a gift to his son, Kim Jong-il will undoubtedly hand over a North Korea with nuclear weapons. Most importantly, he will hand over a Korea with the same oppressive regime that has kept the Kim name paramount for over 50 years. If this transfer of power is successful, the Kims and their followers will remain in power and all things in North Korea will probably remain status quo.

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