Every time we receive news from North Korea it’s always about some nuclear non-proliferation law being ignored or, even news are a form of entertainment after all, about some terrible and inhuman execution perpetrated by the monster Kim Jong-Un. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, after all, has never seen democracy and seems to exist on its own planet, where the Cold War is still happening and religion is forbidden, unless your god’s last name is Kim. But what exactly is North Korea’s role in the everlasting situation of instability in and around the Korean peninsula?
A quick historical recap might be in order. In 1945 the US and Russia had started dividing the Korean peninsula in two zones of influence, the north to Russia and the south to the US. But the Koreans, especially in the north (and a whole lot in the south) were already extremely politicized in favor of a communist state and felt like they needed to unify the country under one rule, disregarding in the process whatever objections its Russian or Chinese allies could have made to preserve the peace with the US, at the time occupying the south. It is obviously essential to understand that neither the USSR nor China would have had any problem with a unification under a Korean socialist republic and so they did little to nothing to prevent the incoming conflict. The war started in 1950 and ended in 1953 when China suddenly got massively involved and helped its Korean allies push the US led forces back to the 38th parallel. An armistice was signed and the war is officially still in progress to this day.
Focusing especially on the involvement of China and the US is of extreme importance to understand the war in itself, but especially to understand the reasons why North Korea still exists and the peninsula continues being divided. For those wondering, it wasn’t the Koreans who divided themselves into two countries, in fact, if the US and China would have left the Koreans be after the Japanese occupation, today we wouldn’t be talking about North and South Korea, but about one Korea with Kim Jong-Un as its leader. Korea was headed towards communism and, simply put, half the peninsula was substantially “shielded” by the US, that had all the interests, political and strategic, to prevent the birth of a new country rotating around the communist block.
It might surprise many, but North Korea is the most vocal when it comes to the peaceful reunification of the peninsula. Then why is peace not signed? Why is North Korea still perceived as a threat to peace? Why isn’t the peninsula unified if the two sides both want the same thing? The answer lies in a simple concept: Balance of power. Beijing and Pyongyang both feel like the US should not be involved in any way with the signing of a treaty, actually they feel like the US should entirely withdraw from the Korean peninsula, after all, they are far away from home. Obviously Washington has no intention of relinquishing its strategic foothold in Asia and as such negotiations barely ever start. China on the other hand, for its historical and cultural background, still feels like a “big brother” of sort when it comes to the relationships with its neighbors and as such has little intention to renounce its involvement in the affairs of the Korean peninsula.
Are the two Koreas simply proxies for the still extremely relevant power struggle in Asia between China and the US? If what it seems is true, and China is attempting to replace the US as the key player in its region, then as long as the struggle between the two titans continues, the division on the Korean peninsula will also continue. If I were China, I wouldn’t be comfortable knowing that a unified Korea could mean US soldiers stationed at my immediate border and I’d rather have a buffer country in between. If I were the US, I wouldn’t want to give up my strategic position in South Korea and risk a Chinese “takeover” of operations in the region.
What does Kim Jong-Un has to do with all of this?