A lasting peace for the people of the Korean peninsula remains elusive. It is 70 years since the armistice to end the Korean war in 1953 was agreed as a prelude to a longer peace treaty – never concluded. This Brief draws together the background to the current situation, and identifies possible avenues for building peace. It is based partly on a webinar held by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) held in July 2023, and on statements by global bodies on the way forward.
Following about 5000 years in which Korea was attacked many times but survived as Korean kingdoms, the Japanese occupied the peninsula from 1910 to 1945. There was some resistance and the start of an independence movement prior to WW2. After the war, moves for independence and peace were thwarted by Cold War tensions between the USA and Russia, and this led to a break between North and South in 1948 at the 38th parallel. The regime in the North (Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea) was communist, and in the South (Republic of Korea) anti-communist. Ongoing tensions led to the outbreak of war in 1950, when the North invaded the South, and the United Nations authorised the US to repel this using mainly US troops plus allies including Australia. When the UN Command pushed the communist forces back beyond the 38th parallel, China supported the North, and eventually in 1953 an armistice was signed by the military forces, without any involvement of the governments of either part of the peninsula.
The years since have seen (a) substantial industrialisation of the South with aid mainly from the US, (b) isolation of the North by an autocratic regime, (c) the creation of many US military bases in the South, and (d) the decision by the North to leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and develop nuclear weapons. Occasional thaws in the relationship between North and South (partly depending on who is in power in the South) have been influenced by changes in the role of China, Japan, Russia and the US.