By any measure, the rapprochement between North and South Korea has been startlingly swift. In the span of a few short weeks, North Korea has gone from threats and blusters to an apparent desire to end the nearly 70 year-long war that has shaped the peninsula and America’s dealings with Asia.
After World War II, the Korean peninsula was separated into two countries – a political division similar to Germany – with the north being supported by the Soviet Union and China while South Korea was supported by the United States. The Korean War began in 1950 when North Korean forces invaded South Korea.
Within two months of the invasion, forces from South Korea and the United States had been pushed back to a small area around Pusan on the southeast coast of Korea. The brilliant amphibious assault at Inchon isolated most of the North Korean army and trapped them behind allied lines. With the North Korean army cut off and disorganized, the United Nations forces (with soldiers from 21 countries by this time) pushed north to the border of North Korea and China.
This offensive brought China into the war with their forces pushing the UN troops back to approximately the 38th Parallel. The conflict quickly degenerated into a war of attrition, and in 1953 an armistice was signed. Although the active war was over, peace was never declared. South Korea became an important Asian ally of the United States and was an active post for soldiers and airmen during the Cold War.
In more recent history, closer ties between the United States and China have given North Korea the opportunity to ‘punch above its weight’ and have a larger impact on international affairs than politicians could have conceived of in the 1950s. The acquisition of nuclear weapons has made the situation worse as the ruling Kim family has leveraged their strength into a bigger role in Asia. Sanctions placed by the United Nations and the United States have had a huge impact on the ‘hermit kingdom,’ but contradictory policies have not brought an end to one of the most repressive regimes on the planet.
Which brings us to today. A much-vaunted summit between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in has opened a doorway to peaceful coexistence on the Korean peninsula. Kim has promised to unilaterally dismantle his nuclear weapon program, open the facilities for inspection and end the war between North and South Korea.
It is an auspicious and historic event. Unfortunately, the South and North Korea, as well as the rest of the world, have gone through this process before. Many, many times. In each of these occasions, North Korea promised to end the conflict and, in each instance, had reneged on the promise when it suited them. It makes it difficult to trust the Kim regime and have hope for a lasting peace.
Maintaining the status quo, however, is no longer an option. Before North Korea had the technology to build nuclear weapons and the systems to deliver them well outside their borders, they could be ignored, and their rhetoric shrugged off as toothless posturing. Now, with real or potential weapons of mass destruction behind them, Kim’s words matter.
The problems with the North Korean situation can no longer be kicked down the road. The problem has grown too large and dangerous to allow it to continue. If there is an opportunity for peace on the Korean peninsula, the opportunity must be taken. But, as Ronald Reagan famously said many times during disarmament talks with the Soviet Union, “Trust but verify.”
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the opinion of the writer and do not reflect the policies of this website or organization.