Solemn ceremonies marked this summer’s 70th anniversary of the “Forgotten War.” In 1950, conflict in Korea shattered a country and set off decades of global tension. Those hostilities still exist. After all, the Korean War never ended.
Before the close of World War II, the Empire of Japan ruled a unified Korea. Following the war, Allied forces divvied up the territory. The Soviet Union controlled Korea’s north, the United States the south. The 38th parallel of latitude became (and remains) the dividing line between two distinct Koreas.
The Korean War (June 25, 1950 - July 27, 1953) began when North Korea (supported by China and the Soviet Union) invaded South Korea (supported by the United Nations, mostly the United States). The war killed 36,000 American soldiers and more than two million Koreans, both soldiers and civilians.
At war’s end, there was a truce but no peace treaty. For nearly 70 years, the two Koreas have remained suspended in a state of war. Each side believes it is the only lawful government.
World leaders have attempted to bring the two sides together many times without success.
Current South Korean President Moon Jae-in hoped meetings and diplomacy between the North-South rivals would change their hostile relationship.
In April 2018, the leaders of North and South Korea agreed to work toward a treaty to formally end the war. Each side promised to scale back some military exercises. But many experts believe North Korea’s Kim Jong-un will promise anything to keep his sanctions-crippled economy afloat. As with other attempts at peace, North-South friendliness wore off.
It didn’t take long until North Korea threatened to abandon parts of the 2018 agreement. In June, Kim Jong-un blew up an empty office building in a fit of rage. The gesture was likely symbolic: The office was where the North and South were supposed to work on their peace deal.
Today, NK officials continue to blast the South for allowing activists to float anti-North leaflets across the border in giant balloons. (See “Balloon Wars” at teen.wng.org/node/2204.) As payback, NK even printed 12 million of its own propaganda leaflets to fly into the South.
Some say Moon Jae-in is too optimistic about Kim Jung-un’s intentions. He insists progress between the two Koreas could help ease global nuclear tensions. Still, the South won’t go too far in defending the North for fear of offending its biggest defender: the United States.
“South Korea doesn’t have many options,” says Professor Nam Sung-wook of the South’s Korea University. “We are the same Korean people but also [war] enemies.”