The issue of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea vs. the Republic of Korea is a leftover from the Second World War. Because of a decision made by a few big powers at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, a homogeneous nation was forcefully divided into two parts under separate regimes, out of the interest and benefits of the two superpowers.
Korea was divided without consultation from the Korean people. The division then evolved into an international war involving military forces from some 20 countries and regions. The war lasted three years before the large-scale armed conflicts finally ended in a compromised way to freeze the war and establish a system of confrontation, which has lasted to this day.
Why is there occasionally tension on the Peninsula? An obvious reason is the inevitable confrontation between the differing ideologues and social systems under the two regimes in the north and south. The truce in the Korean War made in July 1953 was a compromise between different parties to “freeze” rather than to finish the war.
Until the 1990s, the peace in confrontation on the Peninsula was largely dependent on the balance between the two regimes and the respective allies’ commitment to the armistice agreement provisions. The armed forces under the two regimes were relatively balanced; and the two regimes’ respective allies’ obligations and commitment formed a restrictive mechanism towards the other side. This balancing mechanism in this period was considerably effective. Despite the hostility between the two regimes on the Peninsula, neither was able to unilaterally wage a large-scale armed attack on the other side. Their respective allies also formed a relative balancing force to one another.
Nevertheless, the prolonged presence of the U.S. military presence in South Korea after the truce has been a threat to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which is bound to incur repercussions. Thanks to its geographic proximity to the Soviet Union and China, as well as their allied relationships, this threat and counter-threat could reach a roughly balanced restraint, so that a horizontal symmetry could be maintained during this period.
With the demise of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe socialism in the early 1990s, the socialist bloc ceased to exist, and tremendous changes took place in the Peninsula’s configuration. After a long dialogue, the DPRK and ROK reached a consensus on peaceful unification and were simultaneously admitted to the United Nations in 1991.
This means that, based on the consensus that the Korean nation will eventually be unified, the two Koreas mutually gave “limited recognition” to the other regime’s political legitimacy in the region. The two sides’ mutual recognition is actually a legal definition of unification, which denies any attempt to unilaterally unify the nation by force from either side.
This is a significant shift from the early 1950s, when the Peninsula was caught in armed conflict.
Out of respect for the independent selection by the two sides on the Peninsula, the Chinese government established diplomatic relations with the Republic of Korea in 1991. Within the security system of Northeast Asia, we could interpret the move as follows:
Russia inherited the former Soviet Union’s relationship with South Korea, and normalized its relations with South Korea even before it joined the United Nations with the DPRK.
In this context, South Korea not only has obtained guarantee for its security from its old allies, namely the United States and Japan, but also has a commitment from China and Russia, both traditional allies of the DPRK. Compared with its rival on the Peninsula, it now has a more complete guarantee of its security.
If the US government could normalize its diplomatic relations with the DPRK, while withdrawing its military forces on the Peninsula, the DPRK would have equal security, and the reciprocity and balance would help sustain the peace on the Peninsula. The confrontation would hopefully wane gradually, and might eventually dissolve.
Unfortunately, however, the United States has carried on its Cold-War policy of hostility toward the DPRK, and refused to normalize its relations with the DPRK, despite that public opinion around the world overwhelmingly feels that the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The United States even listed the DPRK among the so-called “rogue states,” which further complicated the issue of Korea.
Since the early 1990s, the mechanism to restrain conflict on the Korean Peninsula has been severely out of balance.
For the Republic of Korea, its security has gained a three-fold guarantee with greatly modernized armed forces; thanks to its rapidly growing economy, its allies’ sustained commitment to its security, and the guarantee for its safety in the normalization of diplomatic relations with its rival’s traditional allies.
In contrast, the DPRK’s security has been weakened. Not only did it not obtain the three-fold guarantee for its security, it has repeatedly suffered sanctions from the international community, and its traditional allies are not as reliable as before.
Such an imbalance has invisibly formed a painful thorn for the DPRK. As a neighbor and traditional friend of the DPRK, and as a signatory party of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, we in China do not wish to see a nuclear environment, a nuclear hazard or even a nuclear war on our neighbor’s land. But, is it possible to get a sufficient guarantee by single-handedly demanding that the DPRK give up its nuclear weapons? What about the United States, which is the sole country that has used nuclear weapons and claims the largest nuclear stockpiles in the world? Its nuclear weapons could strike any corner of the world, and its nuclear stockpiles are enough to destroy the planet more than 1,000 times. Has the US pledged to stick to the no-first-use of nuclear weapons and not to use nuclear weapons on non-nuclear countries?
Which country can afford to neglect these lessons?
Under the circumstances of north-south confrontation, a reciprocal and balanced guarantee for both sides’ security will be able to sustain peace in confrontation. However, if one side has a three-fold guarantee, while the other side faces more threats; and if one side has constantly staged joint military exercises to intensify the situation, while the other side, feeling no sense of security, is demanded to disarm its weapons, there will be no equity or justice to speak of, nor will it be possible to realize peace on the Peninsula.
Both sides on the Peninsula should realize that neither could destroy the other, and it is necessary to continue this peace in confrontation based on reciprocity and balance, before all the relevant parties could jointly seek every means other than military force to end the confrontation and ultimately bring about peace and unification on the Peninsula. This will benefit not only the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia, but also the whole world .
Xiong Lei, guest professor of journalism at Renmin University of China； Shuang Shi, author and military historian based in Chengdu, China.