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ConflictsSouth Korea

Conflict fears grow ahead of Korean War anniversary

June 24, 2024

Tensions between the two Koreas are running high after Pyongyang signs a major defense deal with Russia and sends trash-filled balloons over the border into the South.

A South Korean soldier looks on as a battery of propaganda loudspeakers are removed on the border with North Korea on 16 June 2004 in Paju, South Korea
Many in the South Korea cannot shake the sense that the peninsula is once again on the brink of a 1950-style crisisImage: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

When North Korean troops poured across the frontier with the South on June 25, 1950, Rah Jong-yil was a boy of nine-years-old. He and his family would endure more than two months of indoctrination from the communist invaders before they were liberated.

Now, as South Korea marks the 74th anniversary of the start of the three-year Korean War, Rah fears the regime of Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang has been emboldened by its new military pact with Russia and that Kim believes the nations that stood with the South in 1950 will not commit to its defense again.

Rah said the situation could convince the North Korean leader to once again roll the dice on a military adventure with the aim of achieving a key pillar of Pyongyang's national policy: the reunification of the entire peninsula under North Korean control.

"The North Korean advance was so rapid in 1950 that my family became stuck behind the front line outside Busan in the southeast of the peninsula," Rah told DW.

"I remember they tried to brainwash us about how great the communist regime in the North was and they made us sing songs in praise of Kim Il Sung," said Rah, who went on to become a diplomat and senior South Korean intelligence officer. "It was pure political indoctrination."

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Trash balloons and border incidents

A massive influx of United Nations troops, under US command, reversed the course of the war and Rah's family was liberated after two months. And while the conflict ended in stalemate along the 38th parallel in 1953, Rah says the world is a very different place today and North Korea is far more powerful than it was in the past. And that makes him deeply concerned.

"Back then, the world was divided into the two blocs of the Cold War and there was a status quo," he said, adding: "Today, we see a similar situation of hostile blocs, but the US does not enjoy the same military superiority that it had in 1950."

"North Korea has nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles," he pointed out. "China was primitive in 1950, but it is a superpower with nuclear weapons today. And Russia has very recently become the North's military ally and the pact they have signed says they have to go to each other's assistance if one of them is attacked."

On June 20, a detachment of North Korean soldiers crossed the military demarcation line that sits exactly half-way within the Demilitarized Zone that divides the peninsula. South Korean troops responded with warning shots and the North Korean troops withdrew — but this was the third unusual incident in the space of 11 days.

Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of Kim Jong Un, was quoted in North Korean media on June 21 as warning that the regime could send more balloons carrying trash and human waste over the border into the South.

And on Monday, June 24, South Korea's military said that Pyongyang was again launching balloons likely filled with trash.

The South and its US ally have not sat idly by as tensions have increased, with the US Navy aircraft carrier the USS Theodore Roosevelt — appropriately nicknamed the "big stick" — docking in Busan on June 22. Joint US-South Korean military air exercises in recent days are also being seen as a another thinly veiled warning to the North.

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Change in military balance

Yet many in the South cannot shake the sense that the peninsula is once again on the brink of a 1950-style crisis.

"The situation is extremely concerning," said Kim Sang-woo, a former politician with the left-leaning South Korean Congress for New Politics and now a member of the board of the Kim Dae-jung Peace Foundation.

"The big question is around the commitment of the US to the security of the South and while I believe we can still count on Washington, there are too many variables about what that support might look like, especially after the elections in November," he told DW.

Kim also pointed to the dramatic change in the military balance on the peninsula in the last 74 years.

"The big problem, of course, is that the North now has nuclear weapons and long-range missiles and the South does not," he said. "In terms of conventional weapons, the South has the advantage of modern weapons systems that would stand up well against the North's obsolete equipment, but we just do not know if the North would use nuclear weapons in the event of a conflict."

Pyongyang has in recent decades been in a perilous position, Kim Sang-woo said, with gross economic mismanagement leaving the nation broke and its people hungry. Its allies — including Russia — turned their backs on the North after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the arrival of democracy in much of Eastern Europe.

The North's investment in its nuclear arsenal and ballistic missiles brought more hardship for ordinary people in the form of United Nations sanctions that limited much-needed imports. The crisis deepened when the regime increased its isolation during the COVID pandemic.

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Russia-NK cooperation and the Ukraine conflict

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been an unexpected boon for Pyongyang, Kim Sang-woo said, as President Vladimir Putin sought support — and munitions — from regimes that he could previously afford to ignore.

The Ukraine war has drawn Moscow and Pyongyang closer, as Western powers have stepped up sanctions against Russia.

Kim Jong Un has arguably played his limited hand masterfully, allegedly providing millions of artillery shells and short-range missiles to Putin's hard-pressed troops in Ukraine and obtaining, in return, Russian fuel in amounts beyond limits specified in UN sanctions, food supplies and technology for his nuclear, missile and space programs.

During Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent trip to North Korea, both sides signed a major defense pact, fueling concerns of increased weapons cooperation between the two sides.

Pyongyang has denied allegations of supplying weapons to Russia. 

Putin also said recently that the UN sanctions against the North over the country's banned nuclear programs should be reviewed.

And in March, Russia used its veto in the UN Security Council to effectively end monitoring of sanctions violations, just as UN experts were beginning to probe alleged arms transfers.

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Commitment to mutual defense

Most importantly, the defense deal also included a pledge to come to each other's assistance if attacked.

"Kim has been emboldened by Putin's support and we in the South must be prepared for a worst-case scenario, although we must also remember that this is a relationship of desperation on both sides," Kim Sang-woo said. "We just do not know if Kim believes he is strong enough to attack, if Russia will support him and whether he will resort to nuclear weapons."

But the South's allies must not falter, he added.

"The US, the West and our other allies must continue to do what they have been doing, supporting us and warning the North what will happen in the event of a war on the peninsula," he said. "And if Putin does send more weapons to the North, then we have to send weapons to Ukraine. There is no choice."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea