North and South Korea: Brothers at war | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 25.07.2013
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North and South Korea: Brothers at war

Relations between North and South Korea are precarious. The division of the peninsula was followed by a brutal war which has never officially ended. Reconciliation and unification seem as unlikely now as 60 years ago.

The last scene of the war took place along the 38th parallel on the Korean peninsula. At the border crossing Panmunjom, uniformed North Korean soldiers stand behind the windows of a three-story building, looking through binoculars. A few dozen meters away on the opposite side, you find their South Korean counterparts wearing sunglasses and bullet-proof vests.

They are guarding four white and three blue Nissen huts. A white slab of concrete on the ground marks the border. "60 years ago, at this table, the ceasefire was negotiated. We sat here and the Americans sat there," explains a North Korean lieutenant in the middle barracks, which both sides are allowed to enter alternately. "There was cursing and talking. The demarcation line goes right through the table."

Korean paranoia

A North Korean soldiers walk at the Military Demarcation Line in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in the border village of Panmunjom, South Korea, 20 October, 2010. (Photo: EPA/KIM HEE-CHUL)

Soldiers from the North and South face each other every day in Panmunjom

The border, which has the air of a ghost town, symbolizes the fraught relations between the Korean states. The four-kilometer demilitarized zone (DMZ) can only be entered with permission from the UN Command Military Armistice Commission. Now it is home to seldom plant and animal life as well. On the other hand, hundreds of thousands of soldiers wait on either side of the DMZ behind their anti-tank fortifications, mine fields and in their watchtowers.

If fired, the North's canon and multiple rocket launcher could easily reach the South Korean capital, Seoul, which is located only 50 kilometers away and level it to the ground. 20 million people live there - two-fifths of all South Koreans. Nonetheless, a good part of the country's youth has forgotten how extreme the hostility between the two Koreas was some decades ago.

Military regime against party dictatorship

6th January 1970: President Park Chung Hee of Korea. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images) Park Chung-hee (* 30. September 1917 in Gumi, Unterprovinz Keishō-hokudō, Provinz Chōsen, früheres Japanisches Kaiserreich, heutiges Südkorea; † 26. Oktober 1979 in Seoul) war ein südkoreanischer Militär, Politiker und von 1961 bis 1979 Präsident.

Park Chung-hee survived an attempted assassination in 1968; in 1979 he was murdered in another attack

In the 1950s, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung tried to consolidate his party dictatorship using Stalinist means. When the 1960 April Revolution brought down South Korea's corrupt regime led by President Rhee Syng-man, Pyongyang - inspired by Vietnam, where through guerilla tactics, the socialist north conquered the capitalist south - became hopeful of a socialist uprising in South Korea. In the latter half of the 1960s, North Korea attacked its southern neighbor to such an extent that some historians refer to it as a "Second Korean War."

Pyongyang set up an underground Communist Party. There were attacks on border troops along the DMZ. At the beginning of 1968, a 31-man-strong North Korean commando attacked the presidential palace in Seoul in an attempt to assassinate military leader Park Chung-hee and his government. Almost simultaneously, the US warship "Pueblo" was seized. A few months later, 120 North Koreans went to the east coast to recruit guerilla fighters in South Korean villages.

Peaceful coexistence

To the dismay of the North, the masses in the South did not move to call out a revolution. Average South Koreans continued to be anti-Communist and distrusted the North's promise of a worker's paradise. Kim Il Sung had a change a of heart at the beginning of the 1970s. In unison with the East and West German rapprochement, both Koreas communicated their willingness to peacefully unite in July 1972 in a joint communiqué. It was only rhetorical, but created a framework for bilateral relations.

This photo shows North Korean President Kim Il Sung, left, talking his son, Kim Jong Il, during a visit to a North Korean sports complex in October, 1992. (AP Photo/Kyodo News)

Kim Jong Il assumed power after the death of his father, North Korean 'Eternal Leader,' Kim Il Sung, in 1994

Today, both sides still hold on to their policy of not holding diplomatic relations with each another. But at least they are in contact with each other on multiple levels. However, this hasn't prevented the North from embarking on a number of military adventures.

In 1983 North Korean agents carried out a bomb attack in Yangon, Myanmar, during a visit by President Chun Doo-hwan. The explosion killed 19 people, among them, four South Korean cabinet members. Ahead of the Olympic Games in Seoul, a commando blew up a South Korean passenger airplane carrying 115 people in 1987. More recently, it is thought that a North Korean torpedo was responsible for sinking the South Korean corvette Cheonan in 2010.

Winner: South Korea

The race of the systems between the North and the South was decided by the end of the 1980s, when the Eastern Bloc collapsed. Without the support of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, and help from the Soviet Union, North Korea's planned economy started to falter.

Poor farming policies and flooding in the mid 1990s caused a disastrous famine. In contrast, capitalism in the South transformed the former rice bowl of Korea into an industrial country with large, powerful companies such as Hyundai, LG and Samsung. And South Korea even managed the transition to a democracy.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, right, and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung raise their arms together before signing a joint declaration at the end of the second day of a three day summit in Pyongyang in this June 14, 2000 file photo. (AP Photo/Yonhap, Pool)

Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong Il met for a historical summit in 2000

The South's economic superiority and the North's propensity to military saber-rattling have since determined relations on the Korean Peninsula. The so-called "sunshine policy" of South Korean President Kim Dae-jung created hope for rapprochement on the one hand. But that euphoria of the first bilateral presidential meeting in June 2000 came and went quickly.

North Korea's leadership is focused on its own survival. Its nuclear and rocket armament is meant to be used as leverage with but also to scare the South. President Lee Myung-bak thus chose to freeze relations with the North. His successor Park Geun-hye, on the other hand, wants to try and mend ties 60 years after the armistice ended the bloodshed.

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