A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding North Korea-South Korea Relations

Valerie Wu, Managing Editor

The two countries are in the news almost every week, but how much do we really know about North Korea and South Korea? With discussions of denuclearization in global politics reaching an all-time high, the Voice breaks down the headlines we see about inter-Korea relations, and why they’re important today.

How did the division begin?

To analyze the conflict between North Korea and South Korea, it is necessary to understand the Korean War. From 1910 to 1945, a united Korea was occupied by Japan during World War II, in the era of Japanese imperialism. When the Japanese empire was dismantled after the war and Korea was liberated, the country was divided into two spheres of influence — any area in which a country holds dominant power over another — along the 38th parallel, a boundary established between Soviet and American occupation zones.

The United States controlled the region south of the line, while the Russians installed a communist regime in the north. In 1950, the North Korean army launched a surprise attack against the South, leading to what became known as the Korean War.

After four years of fighting between United Nations forces and North Korea (aided by China), an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953. Syngman Rhee took control of South Korea in what became known as the Republic of Korea, while Kim Il-Sung took control of North Korea in what became known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Conflict occurred shortly after the signing of the armistice with the Korean DMZ conflict, in which South Korea launched raids on the North. The North retaliated with an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Park Chung-hee, the South Korean president at the time.

After the end of the Cold War, the two countries pledged a “peace regime” through the Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, Exchange and Cooperation. Yet tensions over North Korea’s increasing influence with nuclear missiles in 2003 led to the establishment of the six party talks, in which North Korea, South Korea, the United States, Russia, China and Japan discussed peaceful resolution to nuclear war. However, North Korea resumed nuclear testing shortly afterwards.

In early 2015, Kim Jong-Un announced that he was willing to assume higher-level talks with the South.

What’s happening now?

Since the election of Moon Jae-in as president in 2017, relations between North Korea and South Korea have thawed, with Moon adopting the “Sunshine Policy” to create peaceful dialogue. This political maneuver was also known as the “Embracing Policy,” named for its goal of establishing reconciliation and cooperation.

In April 2018, South Korean K-Pop stars performed at Pyongyang’s “Spring is Coming” concert, which was attended by Kim Jong-Un and his wife. A summit also took place during this time between President Moon and Kim Jong-Un in the Joint Security Area of South Korea, the first time a North Korean leader had entered South Korean territory since the Korean War.

The summit concluded with the signing of the Panmunjom Declaration, which called an end to military activities in the Korean border, as well as a reunification of Korea. Further meetings were held between the two leaders in June, where they agreed to move forward with political communication throughout the two Koreas.

Currently, the future of the Korean peninsula remains unclear. Yet for many South Korean citizens as well as the world, the hope is that diplomatic relations can continue in order to establish a more peaceful future.

What about the North Koreans who escape to South Korea? What happens to them?

While stories of North Koreans escaping the country are rare and on the decline, they are still present. In 2017, the Unification Ministry in South Korea registered 31,093 total defectors.

Escapes often take place in the form of paying brokers to facilitate and arrange transport across the border. Some cross the northern border over to China, and others choose to cut directly through the Demilitarized Zone separating North Korea and South Korea.

Once defectors land in South Korea, they are granted asylum and an aid package, which allows them to seek resettlement in this new country. Yet for these North Korean refugees, difficulties persist in the form of assimilation into South Korean society. A poll conducted by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea found that approximately 50% of defectors were known to have experienced discrimination because of their nationality.

A New York Times article published in 2017 profiled Kwon Chol-nam, a North Korean defector who now “fights to return” to North Korea after being “treated like dirt” in Seoul.  According to the article, they called Kwon names, treated him like an idiot, and paid him less for no other reason than because he was a North Korean.

Mr. Kwon now hopes to return to the North, where he believes he was treated as an equal citizen. His story is nothing new; according to reports, many defectors suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, a result of the political peril they experienced in the North and the forced transition into a new culture in the South.

While the psychological effects of escaping are often inevitable, they can be alleviated. According to the research study “North Korean Diaspora: North Korean Defectors Abroad and in South Korea” by In-Jin Yoon, efforts from non-governmental organizations and other humanitarian sources can aid defectors through the adjustment process by offering cultural education, as well as different forms of advocacy and support.

Many hope that through these efforts, North Korean defectors can begin to reconcile with their identities and create new lives for themselves in South Korea today.

What can I do to learn more?

Engaging with personal voices and people is often the most rewarding way to better understand international politics, and the relationship between North Korea and South Korea is no exception.

Many organizations aim to educate the wider public on issues surrounding inter-Korea relations. One such organization–Liberty in North Korea–offers resources on forming a rescue team for North Korean refugees in your area, as well as other opportunities to engage with policymakers about issues surrounding peace and conflict resolution in South Korea.

In addition, many survivors of the North Korean regime are now sharing their stories through essays and memoirs. Notable ones include Yeonmi Park’s In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom and Hyeonseo Lee’s The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story.

In order to create awareness, it’s essential to promote reflection. By having conversations about what’s happening in North Korea-South Korea relations, you too can play an important role in the cause, as well as help others understand it for themselves.