On September 4, South Korea initiated military exercises in response to North Korea’s repeated missile launches, bomb experiments, and threats. After the sixth bomb trial by the North, South Korea had its own missiles ready, in a position to hit installations in the North. But before we can understand the current crisis, we first need to grasp the history.
Since 1945, the Korean Peninsula has been divided into two countries. The full name of North Korea is Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) whereas the South calls itself Republic of Korea (RoK). The Korean peninsula doesn’t share borders with many countries; only with China and Russia to the north and across the sea with Japan. In the 19th century, Japan was casting its imperialistic eyes on the peninsula; at this point, China and Russia still dominated it and China being the larger and closer power had an upper hand in the region.
When Emperor Meiji initiated his major reforms in Japan in 1868 and after that it only took Japan 25 years to challenge China. The first Sino-Japanese War took place in 1894 and hence began a growing tussle between the two countries. China had to retreat and admit that it was no match for the growing Japanese power. In a way, China had lagged behind Japan in its race for economic and military development and so the balance of power in that region started shifting from China to Japan. And so began the destabilisation of the Chinese Empire. Finally, in 1911 Dr Sun Yat-sen put an end to the Chinese monarchy: a military revolt led to the fall of the Qing dynasty.
Just a year before this, in 1910 Japan formally annexed Korea and this occupation continued till the end of World War II in 1945. With the surrender of Japan, the Korean Peninsula was divided into American- and Soviet-occupied regions. The line of the 38th Parallel on the map was accepted as the dividing line between the two Koreas. Now, North Korea was under the Soviet occupation, whereas American forces held sway in the South. Both superpowers could not agree on a formula to keep Korea united, resulting in a communist North and a capitalist South.
The two Koreas, both with their own socioeconomic and political systems, threatened each other and erupted in a full-blown war in 1950. The war ended in 1953 without any result, but left the peninsula tense, there was no end to war in sight even after six decades. Both the countries claim that the entire Korean Peninsula belongs to it. In the 1960s, the per capita GDP of South Korea was lower than Ghana in Africa, but now it is around 20 times greater than Ghana. After 1960, the South Korean economy progressed fast.
North Korea has always had a one-party rule based on the Juche ideology of self-reliance which was propounded by its founding father Kim Il-sung (1912–1994). Initially this ideology was a branch of Leninist-Marxist canon but gradually it transformed into a dictatorial system with a dynastic monopoly. Interestingly, in the 1960s and 1970s, North Korea was not performing poorly, this was due to almost-unconditional help from the Soviet Union. But as the Soviet economy stagnated, the North froze as well; at this time, South Korea was progressing in leaps and bounds with American and Japan help.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the North was left on its own while South Korea evolved with a multi-party system and a thriving capitalist economy; it found a place in the G-20 group of the top world economies, where it sits with members such as America, Brazil, China, European Union, France, Germany, India, Russia, and the UK. North Korea built itself as a repressive regime based on state oppression, enforced disappearances, and executions. As per some estimates, after the division of the Korean Peninsula, North Korea has endured over a million deaths because of famine, malnutrition, and persecution.
An official census in North Korea revealed that the famines in 1990s caused 0.2m to 0.4m deaths. Whereas South Korea joined a group of four Asian economic dragons including Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea. In the past three decades, the South Korean economy has grown at an average of 10 per cent per year, making it the seventh largest among the most advanced economies. It is also the fifth largest exporting economy and has the largest surplus budget in the G-20, and has the highest credit rating amongst East Asian countries with free trade agreements, connecting 75 per cent of the world economy. Perhaps South Korea is the only G-20 country having free trade with America, China, and the EU.
The current situation is that in the face of threats from North Korea, the South is mounting fighter planes to launch missiles and rockets. James Mattis, the American defence secretary, has warned Pyongyang of severe consequences if it keeps threatening America and its allies in the region. On September 3, North Korea announced that it had developed a nuclear device that can be mounted on a missile. It has also ignored all warning from the United Nations and continues to incite tensions in the region with similar announcements.
Recently, North Korea has not only fired intercontinental missiles over Japanese territory dropping them in the Pacific Ocean across Japan, but has also threated to attack an American base in Guam. Now South Korea has also announced that it is ready with a new missile called Hyunmoo. Japan and South Korea have also tried to impose further sanctions on the North by targeting its exports. Japan and South Korea both lack nuclear weapons and rely on conventional arms. The recent scare is especially frightening since North Korea claimed to have experimented with a hydrogen device which is much more powerful than an atomic bomb.
North Korea has also claimed to have developed the capability to mount the Hydrogen Bomb on an intercontinental missile. International experts have doubts about such claims and say that this is a complex task which is difficult to prove or disprove. In this line-up, America, Japan, and South Korea are on one side, and North Korea that once relied on Russia has been completely isolated. The American loudmouth president, Donald Trump, is basking in the heat of the moment, and enjoying his talks with the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe and with leadership in South Korea.
Those who lack leadership qualities always thrive in the moments of tension. Just look at our own region of South Asia and you will notice a striking similarity. China, India, and Pakistan keep howling at each other and brandish their nuclear power every now and then; missiles are tested, trespassing is done, resulting in skirmishes, more threats follow, and so the tension continues. Billions of people are held hostage with this nuclear madness.
The situation in the Korean peninsula can be compared to the situation in South Asia. For one, North Korea has isolated itself by its repeated follies. China and Russia that it once considered as its friends are now standing aloof, and no other country is ready to help. If any country in the world thinks that by firing missiles, piling nuclear weapons, initiating skirmishes and threatening neighbours, it can stay on top, it is grossly mistaken. Similarly, if US sanctions are imposed on Pakistan, neither China nor Russia will be there to defend us. The recent BRICS statement against terrorist outfits in Pakistan is the case in point.
Already, China stands with India and Russia against terrorism and it is not going to help Pakistan nor South Korea if they are targeted. Each country holds its own interests supreme. Pakistan should learn a thing or two from the mire South Korea is in.