The Korean Peninsula:

Dynasty, Colonialism, War, and Reunification



By, Justin Wilson


December 6th 2002

Ethics of Development in a Global Environment – Engineering 297A

1st Quarter: War & Peace

Professor Lusignan














            Korea is an East Asian country divided since 1948 into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea).  The Korean peninsula has been the “storm center” of Eastern Asia, surrounded by three of the world’s greatest nations – Russia, China, and Japan.  As a result they have been an active player in the histories of these countries, particularly in China and Japan.  The clash of the cultural, political, and military forces from these and other larger areas have made Korea a strategic zone of contact in East Asian history.[1]  Thus, Korea was invaded many times by various states. This has had a formative effect on Korean culture and a subtle transformative effect on their conquerors’ histories as well. 

            The Korean people have a rich and ancient history which bind current generations to their collective past.  Although most have come to associate the Korean peninsula with a communist North and democratic South, one should keep in mind that the country has only been separated for 50 years out of its 4,000 year history.  Korea has suffered through five major occupations and has seen four wars in and around their country in the past hundred years.  However, prior to Japanese colonialism, Korea had a history of well over a millennium as a unified, autonomous nation.[2]

Korea continues to play a major role today, having expanded beyond its regional influence to become a prominent member in world affairs.  While current tensions between South and North Korea have subsided significantly from their heights during the Cold War, the two sides are still a long ways from their stated goal of eventual reunification of the Korean peninsula. 


Ancient History

The beginnings of Korean history dates back to the period of Tan'gun, who is said to have descended from heaven 24 centuries before Christ to found a Utopian tribal state. Tangun is said to have established the first Korean "kingdom" of Choson in 2333 BC, in what is now northwestern Korea and southern Northeast China.[3] In time, three main kingdoms - the KoguryO, Paekche (Paikje), and Silla - arose in the Korean peninsula with varying relationships with their Chinese and Japanese neighbors.  Although KoguryO, in control of much of the peninsula and Manchuria by the 5th century was the most powerful dynasty at first, the Silla allied with the ruling Chinese dynasty at the time to create the first unified Korean state in 688.

The Shaping of Korean Identity

Silla’s intellectual and artistic life was largely inspired by Buddhist influence, which appeared on the peninsula during the 4th century and grew to a powerful force by the 6th century.  Chinese culture, written language, and political institutions were also extremely influential during this period. Silla’s native culture, however, was the basis for Korean development in this period.[4] 

In the early part of the 10th century the three main kingdoms reemerged on the peninsula and this time KoryO (the name was derived from KoguryO, and is the basis for the modern Western name, Korea) accomplished unification.  The Buddhist faith continued to have a significant impact as it enjoyed the position of Korea’s national religion and unreserved patronage from the state.[5]  Confucian philosophies also prospered in KoryO and greatly contributed to the Korean identity, leaving a deep and lasting impact on Korea's social and political life.[6]  In addition, Korean culture flourished in the 1100s under the KoryO and great achievements in scholarship and art (particularly in ceramics) were made. 

After a hundred and twenty-five years of Mongol rule in the 13th and 14th centuries, KoryO was able to drive out the invaders but unable to rebuild the institutions that had been in place giving rise instead to the ChosOn (Yi) Dynasty.  The Yi Dynasty adopted Neo-Confucianism as a national religion and oppressed Buddhism. ChosOn also established deeper relations with the neighboring countries of China and Japan and King T'aejo established a new Korean capital at Seoul.  Korea witnessed many new and developments during the reigns of King T'aejong and King Sejong, including the creation of Han'gul, the Korean alphabet.[7]

Each dynasty made substantial cultural and artistic contributions to the Korean peninsula in its own right.  The Silla created distinctive pottery, gold and silver ornamentation, and produced architectural works of great magnificence.  The KoryO, as mentioned earlier, were most noted for their beautiful celadon ceramic pottery that has never been reproduced in the same manner and splendor of the original works.  And finally, the ChosOn created a scientifically correct phonetic alphabet to replace the Chinese ideographs which had been in use.[8] 


Foreign Influence on the Korean Peninsula

The second half of the 19th century marks the turning point in Korea relations with the outside world, as foreign powers sought to increase their influence on Korea.   Japan and Korea established diplomatic relations in 1876 under Japanese pressure and began trade between the countries which weakened Korea’s traditional ties to China.  China sought to check the growing influence of Japan by taking an active role in promoting Korean ties with Western countries, beginning with the Korea-U.S. treaty of 1882.[9]  Similar treaties were signed with nations such as Great Britain, Germany, Russia, and France.

In 1895 Japan defeated China in the Sino-Japanese War, and ten years later defeated the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), which had stemmed from the ambitions of both Japan and Russia in the region.  Upon winning both of these wars, Japan was strong enough to force Korea to become a protectorate.  Japan treated Korea as a conquered land and after encountering significant Korean resistance to Japanese control over many of Korea’s vital functions (such as foreign relations, military, banking, and communications) Japan formally annexed the country in 1910.[10]  Upon annexation, Japan adopted a militant occupation, closing Korean language newspapers and magazines and forcing Koreans to worship at Shinto shrines.[11]  “Japan also imposed several measures designed to assimilate the Korean population, including outlawing Korean language and even Korean family names.”[12]  These efforts were all undertaken with the final intention of absorbing the Korean people into the Japanese race.

The birth of nationalism and the general demand for national self-determination following World War I (1914-1918) led to the March First Movement in Korea.  Millions of Koreans participated in nonviolent demonstrations for independence which were brutally suppressed by the Japanese.  In the meantime Korea became an increasingly important economic and military base for Japan's colonial expansion.[13]  Japan placed stringent economic demands on Korea and dominated its economy, exploiting Korea’s natural resources and labor force, which in turn forced many Koreans into poverty.  

Korea was finally liberated from the Japanese by the Allied victory that ended World War II in 1945.  The US government permitted a number of Japanese officials to remain in power and work with American officials through the transition period from Japanese colonial rule to Korean independence.  As a result, the Korean people began to resent the Americans, at first celebrated for their contribution in liberating Korea.  This dissatisfaction would continue to present day where student protestors in the South still demand the removal of US forces from South Korea.

Russia advanced into Korea in the remaining weeks of World War II, a move which forced the hasty division of Korea at the 38th Parallel.  Soviet occupation forces resisted efforts made by the Americans to expedite reunification and began training Korean Communists and establishing a Communist puppet regime.  A UN resolution for nationwide free elections was effectively ignored by the Soviets in the north and as a result elections were held in the south, leading to the formation of the National Assembly and the Constitution of the Republic of Korea.[14]  The People's Committee of North Korea was created under Russian guidance as a national government.  Korea, once an agrarian monarchy and a newly independent former Japanese colony, had become a divided nation; communist in the north and a developing democracy in the south.  The stage was set for the Korean War.

War on the Korean Peninsula

            The Soviets and Americans proceeded to build up regimes in the north and south that supported their own strategic interests.  Although Koreans had originally been united against Japan, there were ideological differences which were further developed in the post-World War II era.  The US suppressed the leftist movement and supported Syngman Rhee, an expatriate with anti-Communist credentials and popularity among the right.  On the other side of the 38th parallel, The Soviet Union supported Kim Il Sung, a Korean guerrilla who had fought alongside Chinese communist forces in the 1930s.[15]

            Reunification was still fresh on the minds of the Korean people but with separate administrations to the north and south and military buildups on both sides it seemed unlikely to occur under peaceful auspices.  Kim Il Sung began to believe that his more experienced forces would be capable of defeating the South Koreans.  “The 1948 south Korean election under UN auspices, the US military withdrawal in 1949, the Acheson speech[16], and other American actions and statements all conveyed the impression that the United States would not return in force to defend south Korea from a northern attack.”[17]  As a result, North Korea attacked across the 38th parallel on June 25, 1950 in an attempt to unify Korea.

However, as early as 1947, Acheson and other US official had privately come to see South Korea an important testing ground for the US policy of containment as expressed in the Truman Doctrine and therefore “misled the North Koreans to believe that the US had abandoned South Korea.” [18]  A large military advisory group remained even after U.S. combat troops left South Korea, and the United States channeled large amounts of economic aid into the republic.  In addition, the US viewed Korea as a vital market and economic ally in helping to rebuild Japan after WWII.  Consequently, following the North’s attack, the United States along with an international United Nations force, entered the war on the side of the South Koreans. 

            On September 15, 1950 General MacArthur launched his legendary amphibious assault at Inch’on, recovering Seoul and driving the aggressors back.  Later that month the US decided to transform its containment policy into a “rollback” policy by crossing the 38th parallel to destroy the Communist forces and reunite the peninsula under the South Korean government.[19]  This rapid UN counteroffensive brought communist China to North Korea’s support.  It is widely assumed that China was both worried about the war being expanded into mainland China and felt an obligation to help because many North Koreans had fought alongside Chinese in resistance to Japanese occupation and during their civil war.  With the help of the Chinese, UN forces were pushed back giving way to a virtual stalemate near the 38th parallel.

            In June 1951, the Soviet representative to the UN proposed discussions for a cease fire.  Negotiations between the two sides took almost two years but in July 1953 an armistice agreement was agreed upon.  South Korea refused to sign the agreement as President Rhee had strongly supported further military action against North Korea to reunify the peninsula.  In order to gain his acquiescence to the agreement, the US agreed to a mutual defense treaty, massive economic aid, and equipment and training for the South Koreans.[20]  This set the stage for the continued US involvement and presence which continues to this day. 

            One of the most devastating wars of the 20th century, the Korean War left as many as 4 million Koreans dead along with up to 1 million Chinese and 40,000 US and UN casualties.  The armistice led to the creation of a buffer zone 2.5 miles wide across the middle of Korea. Troops and weapons were withdrawn from this demilitarized zone although it was heavily fortified on both sides.[21]  As of the late 1990s, more than 1 million soldiers confronted each other along the zone and with no peace treaty signed, the two Koreas remain technically still at war. 

 South Korea from the War to Present

South Korean recovery from the war was slow as President Rhee was unable to produce any significant economic development despite continued U.S. aid.  Although he easily won reelection in both 1956 and 1960, blatant and publicized manipulation of the 1960 elections led to Rhee’s forced resignation in mid 1960.[22]  Democratic elections were held and for a short period Chang Myon’s moderate government led.  Although his administration instituted liberalizing reforms in many areas, economic development still lagged.  In short, the economy suffered from mismanagement and corruption.  The students, to whom the Democratic Party (Chang’s political party) owed its power, filled the streets with almost daily demonstrations, making numerous wide-ranging demands for political and economic reforms.  “Law and order could not be maintained because the police, long an instrument of the Rhee government, were demoralized and totally discredited by the public. Continued factional wrangling caused the public to turn away from the party.”[23]  Military elements, fearing growing instability and wary of student demands for reunification talks with the north, staged a coup on May 16, 1961, and began a sustained period of authoritarian military rule in South Korea.  Although the U.S. administration was not thrilled with this apparent setback to democracy, the South Korean people accepted it with a bit of relief.  The military coup reflected a return to strong control.  The armed forces were the symbol of national security against the North Korean threat and were favorably regarded by the public.[24]

The military leaders, led by Park Chung Hee, governed by decree until October 1963, when Park – who had resigned form his military post due to US pressure - was narrowly elected president.  With the help of the U.S. he launched energetic economic reforms meant to stabilize the economy and established programs of rapid industrialization based on exports.  “The most important development in South Korea's diplomacy under Park was the normalization of relations with Japan.”[25]  Despite widespread demonstrations of popular anti-Japanese sentiment, Park concluded a treaty with Japan in 1965, dropping Korean demands for war reparations in return for badly needed economic aid and support.  Park also sent Korean forces to support the U.S. forces in Vietnam, a move generally supported by the public because they saw it as “repayment” for U.S. support during the Korean War.[26]  The consequence was a dramatic spurt of industrialization and export growth.  This coupled with a series of Five-year economic development plans led to remarkable economic growth.

This period of growth changed not only the South Korea landscape, as farmlands were converted into highways, cities, and factories, but also caused significant shifts in the social order, value system, and behavior of the average South Korean. The significant changes that occurred during this period of rapid development led to the highly industrialized and modern nation that South Korea is today.  A few of these dramatic shifts are documented by the World History Information website:

As late as 1965, some 58.7 percent of the labor force was engaged in agriculture and fishery, but the percentage declined to 50.4 percent in 1970 and 38.4 percent in 1978. The percentage of workers engaged in secondary industries, including mining and manufacturing, rose from 10.3 percent in 1965 to 35.2 percent in 1970 and 38.4 percent in 1978. Industrialization led to a rapid increase in South Korea's urban population, which rose from 28.3 percent of the total in 1960 to 54.9 percent in 1979. Rapid urbanization compounded the problems of housing, transportation, sanitation, and pollution, and exacerbated other social problems.[27]


Under the tight controls implemented by Park’s government, the economy achieved spectacular growth, and South Korea’s exports flooded Western markets. 

Nevertheless, dissatisfaction with Park’s rule increased as he further restricted civil liberties and removed political opponents.  The Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), responsible for intelligence and anti-North operations, carried out surveillance and intimidation of domestic political opponents.  On October 26, 1979 President Park was assassinated by the director of the KCIA, Kim Chae-kyu, creating a political vacuum.  South Korea endured considerable changes during this period – “intense and open competition for power, student upheavals, a military takeover, a gruesome massacre, and the emergence of a new authoritarian order.” [28]  Ch'oe Kyu-ha, the premier under Park, was elected president in December 1979 but in early 1980, a new military takeover led by General Chun Doo-hwan ensued.

Chun’s authoritarian order followed in the footsteps of General Park’s, as he issued a decree closing down the colleges and universities and prohibiting all political gatherings. “All publications and broadcasts were to receive prior censorship, criticism of the incumbent and past presidents was outlawed, and the manufacture and spreading of rumors were forbidden. Chun's plan aimed not only at quelling demonstrations but also at destroying the power base of all existing political figures and groups.”[29]  However, strong central control was not without benefits.  It allowed the South Korean economy to resume its phenomenal rate of growth thereby making continued military rule easier to accept.

Perhaps the most significant event to occur under his presidency was the Kwangju massacre.  The arrest of one of the opposition leaders, Kim Dae-jung, sparked demonstrations in Kwangju on May 18, 1980 in violation of the martial law decree by Chun.  Special warfare troops were used to quell the civilian uprising but the demonstrators retained control.  Only days later regular army troops were used to enter the city in force and gain control.  The nation was shocked as hundreds of civilians and students were killed.[30] 

The Kwangju uprising would become an important landmark in the struggle for South Korean democracy and marked the beginning of the rise of anti-American sentiment in South Korea.  General Wickham, commander the South Korea-United States Combined Forces Command, had released South Korean troops from his command to end the rebellion.[31]  In addition, President Reagan had strongly endorsed Chun's actions.  The Korean public was disillusioned with the U.S. and the American forces still stationed in their country: 

Reagan's support fueled the subculture of anti-Americanism and the opposition forces in South Korea denounced United States' support for the Chun regime as a callous disregard for human rights and questioned the United States' motives in Korea. The past image of the United States as a staunch supporter of democracy in South Korea was replaced with that of defender of its own interests, a policy impervious to injustices committed in South Korea.[32]


While Chun’s relationship with Reagan was exceptionally strong, he also made progress on other diplomatic fronts as well.  He continued to cultivate further Japanese relations and assistance and also continued Park's policy of improving relations with China and the Soviet Union, long the allies of North Korea.  Official visits between members of the different governments as well as exchanges of unofficial delegations such as various sports teams helped strengthen these ties.[33] 

            Chun failed to overcome the stigma of the Kwangju incident, and the new "just society" and democratic reforms that he had promised never materialized. Between 1982 and 1983 at least two of the major financial scandals in South Korea involved Chun's in-laws, a transgression which would be repeated in similar fashion but to an even greater extent by his successor General Roh Tae-woo. 

            Although Chun had chosen Roh to be his successor, a move which the public regarded as the replacement of one military dictator for another, Roh announced his support for constitutional democratic reforms.  In 1988, in the first peaceful transition of power in Korean history after the Korean War, Roh won the free elections by a plurality (36.6% of the vote) since the opposition parties had been split.  Roh aggressively pursued better relations with the Soviet Union and China which recognized South Korea in 1990 and 1992 respectively.  North-south relations on the peninsula also improved during this period as new negotiations between the prime ministers of the DPRK and ROK began, raising hopes for reunification progress after only brief and intermittent talks and negotiations over the past decades.[34]  Kim Young Sam was supported by and succeeded Roh, who was constitutionally limited to only one term, in early 1993.  Kim’s crackdown on corporate corruption led to the discovery in 1995 that Roh had managed a slush fund of over $600 million.  This was the culmination of the rampant political corruption which had highlighted Korean politics for much of the latter half of the 20th century. 

            In 1998 Kim Dae-jung was elected president thereby becoming the first opposition candidate in the nation’s history to win the presidency.  His presidency has been characterized by increased economic and political contact with North Korea and management of the South Korean economy through some difficult economic times.  Communication and trade between the two countries have increased dramatically as South Korea continues to send significant amounts of economic and humanitarian aid to their northern neighbor. 


North Korea from the War to Present

North Korea similarly faced massive postwar political and economic challenges.  Kim Il-sung’s position had weakened considerably by his failure to achieve his war aims. A number of factions including a domestic communist faction, the Chinese communists, and a Soviet faction challenged Kim Il-sung and his faction of loyalists that had fought in the Manchurian guerrilla campaigns.  However by the late 1950s Kim Il-sung and his backers had consolidated their political control.  Soviet influence became greatly diminished following the war since it had been the Chinese that had come to North Korea’s aid during the Korean War and prevented their likely extinction.  As a result Kim developed and fostered a policy of extreme self-reliance called juch’e. [35]  While maintaining strategic relations with China and the Soviet Union, Kim also managed to reinforce his country’s own independence.

During the many periods of South Korean political tension, North Korea has made overtures for unification talks, hoping to capitalize on the dissention and dissatisfaction within South Korea.  These actions have had limited appeal with some groups and students but have not significantly undermined South Korean security and stability. 

Collectivization of agriculture and a series of Five-year plans were used to revitalize the devastated North Korean economy after the war.  This collective strategy was extended to industry, mirroring the socialist command economy policies of the Soviet Union and China.  Reconstruction and the priority development of heavy industry was stressed after the war, with consumer goods given a low priority; the exact opposite of the South Korean strategy for growth. This strategy of industrialization, biased toward heavy industry, pushed the economy forward at record growth rates in the 1950s and 1960s far outpacing the lagging South Korean economy at the time.  Although the north’s strong ideology and centralized control outdistanced the south for the first two decades, the south’s “more flexible, market-oriented system” has far outpaced North Korean development since then.[36] 

  As the south’s rapid economic progress increasingly distanced the north’s in the 70s, the Pyongyang government pursued Western assistance and technology to bridge the gap.  However an oil crisis and faulty planning led to defaulted payments to their Western and Japanese creditors.  North Korea became increasingly less capable of meeting the obstacles of a more complex economy.  Furthermore, due to its “radical militancy” and the growth rate of the south, North Korean lost most of its early international advantage over the South.[37]  As a result, they began aligning their interests with other nations in the third world, accentuating its policy of juch’e self-reliance.

Although North Korea owes its survival as a separate political entity to China and the Soviet Union, relationships with those two nations has cooled considerable with the fall of the Soviet Union and as Beijing attempts to strengthen ties with the economically robust South Korea.  As a result, “North Korea was diplomatically, politically, and economically far more isolated in the mid 90s than at any time since 1945.”[38]  North Korean relations with Japan have been virtually nonexistent until recent years.  Most of their efforts were spent trying to minimize contact between Tokyo and Seoul.  Additionally, “North Korea's relationship with the United States has been marked by almost continuous confrontation and mistrust.  North Korea views the United States as the strongest imperialist force in the world and as the successor to Japanese imperialism.”[39]   Likewise, the United States views North Korea as an international militant outlaw as they have occasionally broken the armistice that halted the Korean War by digging secret tunnels, assassinating South Korean officials and American soldiers and in pursuing a nuclear weapons program which violates agreements they have signed.

The death of Kim Il-sung in 1994 led to the succession by his son, Kim Jong Il, marking the first hereditary transfer of power in a Communist state.  Since that time there has been some progress in bettering relations between South and North Korea, although it has been marked by periods of instability and high tensions.  The two Korean leaders met in Pyongyang in 2000, marking the first meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea since 1945.  Discussions on reconciliation and economic cooperation between the two countries were highlighted and this event was seen as the first real step toward the eventual reunification of the Korea Peninsula.[40] 


Current Strategic Advantages

            Today South Korea has a significant advantage over North Korea in almost every measurable area.  The strength of the South Korean economy has already been mentioned in the above sections.  Urbanization and strong foreign investments helped drive this phenomenal growth and trade with foreign countries has soared from the 1970s onward.  Although they have undoubtedly faced difficulties in the late 1990s during the Asian economic crisis, they have emerged in relatively good shape.  South Korean manufacturing and consumer electronics continues to show strength and exports have picked up from the lows exhibited during the crisis.  South Korea has also grown into the role of a major player on the international scene.  Its strong ties with the United States and increasingly stronger relationships with Japan, China, and other major nations have further distanced it from its neighbor to the north. 

            North Korea’s strengths continue to lie within its vast mineral resources and the sheer size of its military forces.  In fact, North Korea is one of the richer nations in Asia in terms of mineral resources.  Within their border, major reserves of coal, iron ore, tungsten, magnesite, and graphite have been found.  Other minerals present in large concentration include gold, silver, copper, lead, zinc, and molybdenum.  “The North Korean economy depends to a considerable degree on the extraction of its many mineral resources for fuels, industrial raw materials, and metal processing as well as for exports.”[41]  Coal, with estimated reserves of 1.8 billion tons, is the most abundant of the country's mineral resources and is produced in large quantity for both domestic consumption and export although North Korea also possesses some of the largest and best quality deposits of some other minerals in the world.  North Korea also maintains one of the largest standing militaries in the world with over one million enlisted members constituting over 5% of its 20 million population.[42] 

Preliminary Progress Towards Reunification

A events which transpired in the early 1990s appeared very promising in moving the peninsula towards reunification as the North agreed to: “a broad set of agreements with the South involving multifaceted negotiations; acceptance of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections; the initiation of high-level talks with the United States; and the commencement of negotiations for normalized relations with Japan.”[43]  However, resistance to full inspections by the IAEA and a reluctance by North Koreans leaders to negotiate directly with South Korea or Japan in favor of bilateral US-DPKR talks slowed progress dramatically and damped the previously optimistic projections. 

During the same time it was discovered that North Korea was secretly developing a nuclear weapons program and it was suspected that they had already developed enough plutonium for one to two nuclear weapons.  This discovery brought the Korean peninsula closer to war than any event after the end of the Korean War and made severe sanctions against the North Koreans very possible; an action which the North said would have provoked war.[44]  However, tensions were defused in 1994 as an “Agreed Framework” was signed by North Korea and the Clinton administration where peace was effectively purchased by promising financial aid if North Korea would quit developing nukes.  Under the agreement North Korea promised to give up its nuclear weapons program and allow inspections to verify that it did not have the materials that such weapons would require.[45]  In return the United States would facilitate the construction of two light-water nuclear reactors, financed primarily by South Korea and Japan.  The byproducts of these reactors cannot easily be used in the development of nuclear weapons.  The other major component of the Agreed Framework stated that “the United States and North Korea must move toward normalizing economic and political relations, including by reducing barriers to investment, opening liaison offices, and ultimately exchanging ambassadors.”[46]

President Kim Dae-jung established a “Sunshine Policy” towards North Korea in an attempt to promote peace and cooperation on the peninsula.  It “emphasizes the peaceful management of the Korean divide through engagement. Previous governments sought mainly to contain North Korea. The Sunshine Policy envisions greater interaction and the funneling of economic assistance and diplomatic favors from the South to the North.”[47]  The policy attempts to alleviate some of the sustained political and military tensions through four-party peace talks and bilateral dialogue between South and North Korea and between the United States and North Korea.  Of particular emphasis is the normalization of economic and political ties between North Korea and the U.S. and Japan.[48]   

When George Bush took office he suspended contact with North Korea until further analysis and consideration could be undertaken, noting that North Korea has supplied weapons technology and missiles to many countries hostile to the United States, including in the Middle East.  Bush later included North Korea, along with Iran and Iraq, in what he termed an "Axis of Evil," states developing weapons of mass destruction and backing international terrorism.[49]  These actions have dramatically soured U.S. relations with North Korea.  Japan and South Korea have shown themselves to be much more willing to work with North Korea and were somewhat dismayed by the recent U.S. actions. 

Current North Korean Nuclear Weapons Development

In recent months North Korea has acknowledged a uranium enrichment program that had been underway for several years in violation of the Agreed Framework and Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.  North Korean officials have pointed to the hostile stance the United States has taken in recent years in classifying North Korea in the axis of evil, by cutting off peace talks, and including it on a list of targets for a preventative nuclear strike.  “Pyongyang has said it will alleviate U.S. concerns about its weapons programs,” and that all aspects of its current program would be subject to negotiation, “if Washington signs a non-aggression pact.  However, the White House has demanded the North scrap its arms development before any talks can begin.” [50]  The threat of a nuclear North Korea could have profound implications on the security and stability of the region.  South Koreans overwhelmingly believe they should acquire nuclear weapons if the North is shown to posses them.[51]

The U.S. administration is skeptical of what Kim’s intentions truly are, whereas South Korea and Japan believe North Korea’s confession is meant to bring everything out in the open to provide the foundation for a new, updated framework for peace.  However, these actions beg the question: Is North Korea simply leveraging their weapons programs as a means of obtaining U.S. and South Korean concessions?  It seems plausible given Kim's history of trading momentary friendship and empty promises for monetary assistance.[52]  This need for international assistance is made even more apparent when one takes a look at the general condition in North Korea today:

Few have enough to eat, and 45% of children under the age of 5 suffer chronic malnutrition. Farms lie fallow without fertilizer, and at least 6 million of North Korea's 22 million people depend on international food aid. Most factories are closed and rusting for lack of power, and the only things lit at night in the North's drab cities are grandiose statues of Kim Il Sung. Hospitals have no heat, no disinfectant, no anesthetic, no rubber gloves. Kim devotes nearly a third of North Korea's GDP to military spending, and finances ridiculous Pharaonic projects, such as the 105-story Ryugyong hotel that towers unfinished over Pyongyang.[53]


The United States is attempting to build a coalition with South Korea, Japan, China and Russia to join the U.S. in pressuring Pyongyang to disarm. However, they still have not come to any consensus on the best approach to disarmament and normalization of relations with North Korea.  North Korea has indicated however that it wants to negotiate primarily with the United States over the nuclear issues, a stance which Japan is opposed to given the stakes that they have in the region’s stability and security.

“By Bush's own doctrine of pre-emption the U.S. should strike against any state with weapons of mass destruction and an irresponsible dictator.”[54]  This fairly recent development in North Korea may be one reason the U.S. has shown a renewed willingness to work with the U.N. in drawing up a resolution for inspections in Iraq.  An Iraqi attack would indicate similar measures should now be taken in North Korea where the consequences would be unacceptable.  The DPRK’s million-man army is close enough to destroy Seoul, South Korea's capital and primary urban center, in a blitzkrieg before the U.S. could fully mobilize its forces. 

Economic talks between North Korea and its neighbors continue although they are now overshadowed by the North’s development of nuclear technology.  North Korea also continues to solicit assistance to help rebuild their stagnant economy, a dramatic change from the extreme self-reliance shown in the past.  In recent weeks Japan and North Korea participated in talks in Kuala Lumpur, with the aim of eventual normalization of ties between the two countries. Even more surprisingly, when Japan's prime minister recently made a ground-breaking visit to Pyongyang, North Korea unexpectedly admitted to 13 abductions and apologized.  “North Korea's opening seems to be prompted by a combination of economic stagnation and eagerness to break out of international pariah status,” an endeavor which would undoubtedly require economic aid and assistance from Japan and South Korea. [55]  

Looking to the Future

            The prolonged and involuntary partition which has separated Korea for the past 50 years poses some serious challenges to reunification.  The social and economic characteristics of the two groups have diverged considerably during the past decades and a number of practical problems to reintegrate the two Korean infrastructures and economies would exist.[56]  Perhaps the biggest challenge may rest with the changing attitudes of the Korean people.  Studies by the RAND Center for Asia-Pacific Policy show that South Koreans are increasingly more hesitant about unification with the North although they still retain a deep emotional commitment to this objective.  It seems that most have begun to not only accept, but also favor maintaining the status quo. [57] 

            As we move forward South Koreans are increasingly looking to themselves for domestic security.  Although a majority of South Koreans (52%) would like to see an increase or similar U.S. military presence in Korea, a surprisingly large minority of 42% want U.S. military forces to decrease or be eliminated altogether.  This reflects a significant increase when compared to similar surveys which were conducted only a few years ago and calls into question what the U.S. role may become in time.[58]

            The economic arena is another area where South Korea has begun to move away from its U.S. ally.  The Republic of Korea, Japan, China, and the 10 members of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) are all working closely together in building economic cooperation for the 21st century.  ASEAN cooperation spans a number of areas including trade, investment, industry, agriculture, transportation, communication and tourism among others.  In November of 1999 the leaders of these nations issued a statement outlining the areas of cooperation among them.  Each of these countries are also members of the ASEAN Regional Forum (along with a number of other nations including the U.S., European Union, Russia, and many others) which promotes preventative diplomacy and conflict resolution in the region.  An ASEAN summit in 1992 launched an ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) whose intention is to increase the region’s competitive economic advantage.[59]  In moving forward, South and North Korea must both enhance their regional involvement by participating in common markets and strengthening their ties to regional players such as Japan and China.  While South Korea has made significant progress in this area, the North must undergo major changes in their internal structure and foreign policy before they are fully integrated into the international community.












[1] Jung Kang Yup, “Korean History,”

[2] Donald Macdonald, The Koreans: Contemporary Politics and Society, Boulder: Westview Press, 1996. p2

[3] “Korea in the Eye of the Tiger, ” Korean History Project,, Jun 21,2000

[4] “Korea in the Eye of the Tiger”

[5] The History of Korea, Republic of Korea: Ministry of Public Information, 1967. p18

[6] “History of Korea” Korean Students Association at Saint Louis University,, 2000

[7] “Korea in the Eye of the Tiger”

[8] Macdonald, 11

[9] “Korea in the Eye of the Tiger”

[10] Andrew Nahm, “About Korea,”, 2001

[11] The History of Korea, 24

[12] “Korea in the Eye of the Tiger”

[13] “Korea in the Eye of the Tiger”

[14] The History of Korea, 26

[15] Andrew Nahm, Korea: Tradition & Transformation, New Jersey: Hollym International , 1988. p 333

[16] In January 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson made a speech at the National Press Club in Washington.  Although it reaffirmed existing US policy on defense of the Pacific area, it stressed United Nations protection for places beyond what Acheson called the US “defense perimeter.” This signaled that the US would not intervene in South Korea which lay beyond the perimeter. Macdonald, 49

[17] Macdonald, 49

[18] Nahm, 373

[19] Nahm, 376

[20] Macdonald, 52

[21] Macdonald, 52

[22] “History of South Korea,” Library of Congress: Country Studies,

[23] “History of South Korea”

[24] Macdonald, 54

[25] “History of South Korea”

[26] Macdonald, 55

[27] “History of South Korea”

[28] “History of South Korea”

[29] “History of South Korea”

[30] Macdonald, 59

[31] “History of South Korea”

[32] “History of South Korea”

[33] “History of South Korea”

[34] Macdonald, 60

[35] Macdonald, 55

[36] Macdonald, 62

[37] Macdonald, 61

[38] “History of South Korea”

[39] “History of South Korea”

[40] “History of South Korea”

[41] “History of North Korea,” Library of Congress: Country Studies,

[42] William Perry, Lecture, October 21, 2002

[43] Nicholas Eberstadt, Korea Approaches Reunification, New York: National Bureau of Asian Research, 1995. p xv

[44] Perry, Lecture

[45] Johanna McGeary, “Look Who’s Got the Bomb,” Time Magazine, Oct 20, 2002

[46] Daryl Kimball, “The U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework at a Glance,” Arms Control Association, March 2002

[47] “Sunshine Policy at a Glance,” The Korea Times, May 23, 2002

[48] “Sunshine Policy at a Glance”

[49] Carol Giacomo, “North Korea Acknowledges Nuclear Arms Program,” Yahoo News, Oct 17, 2002

[50] “Russia Scolds North Korea over Nukes,”,  October 31, 2002

[51] Norman Levin, The Shape of Korea’s Future, Washington D.C.: RAND, 1999. p22

[52] McGeary

[53] McGeary

[54] McGeary

[55] James Brooke, “Abducted a Lifetime Ago, Five Japanese Come Home for a Visit,” New York Times, October 15, 2002.

[56] Eberstadt, 102

[57] Levin, 10

[58] Levin, 25

[59] “Association of Southeast Asian Countries”,, 2002