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ConflictsSouth Korea

North, South Korea both look back at 70 years of tense truce

July 26, 2023

The bloodshed between North and South Korea ended in a 1953 armistice, but there is little immediate chance of permanent reconciliation.

North Korean border guards
The line between North and South Korea is one of the most heavily fortified borders in the worldImage: Lee Yong-Ho/dpa/picture alliance

Both North and South Korea are marking the 70th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that brought the three-year Korean War to an uneasy end.

The fighting claimed 3 million lives and saw US and Chinese troops clash to prop up their allies on the Korean peninsula. Even seven decades later, there is little chance of the two Koreas leaving the conflict behind.

In the South Korean city of Busan, delegations from the US and over 20 other countries that supported South Korea under the UN will take part in a ceremony to commemorate the anniversary on Thursday. The delegations will also include veterans of the conflict, which lasted between 1950 and 1953.

In turn, North Korea has invited senior members of the Chinese and Russian governments to a parade of troops and military hardware through central Pyongyang to celebrate what the regime insists was a victory.

North Korea has been ratcheting up its rhetoric and demonstrations of its military might, most recently by launching two intermediate-range missiles off its east coast on Tuesday.

Also this week, North Korea's Rodong Sinmun newspaper indicated Pyongyang would continue to develop its nuclear arsenal and ballistic missiles. An editorial published by the official Communist party paper said there can be "no end to strengthening [North Korea's] military power"

"Eternal peace lies atop of self-defense that can overwhelmingly prevail against an enemy," the article said.

Armistice holding for 70 years

"The main significance of the 70th anniversary is that there has been no major armed conflict in that time," said Rah Jong-yil, a former diplomat and senior South Korean intelligence officer. "That means the armistice has been successful in maintaining stability, which has in turn permitted South Korea to achieve democracy and considerable economic development," he told DW.

"North Korea, on the other hand, has experienced significant economic setbacks yet has still emerged as a military power," he added.

But the two sides remain entrenched in their respective ideologies and show no signs of cooperating or even communicating, said Rah. The South Korean was 10 years old when North Korean troops invaded in 1950 and was forced to flee Seoul with his family. He said they "survived" in an area occupied by North Koreans until UN troops forced the attackers back.

"The North will celebrate what they call 'Victory Day,' but that's quite different from reality," he said. "They did not win and their plans for a unified Korea under their version of socialism failed."

North Korea's perspective

Western experts say the Korean War ended with no clear winner. The communist North failed to put the capitalist South under its control, but the US and its allies also failed to bring down the Kim Il Sung regime backed by China and the Soviet Union.

Kim Myong Chol, executive director of the Japan-based Centre for Korean-American Peace, an organization acting as a mouthpiece for Pyongyang's interests, shared the North Korean perspective on the war and relations with Seoul seven decades after the armistice.

Kim remains a controversial voice, acting as an unofficial spokesman for the North Korean regime. He was a close confidant of North Korea's previous leader Kim Jong Il. 

"Of course the anniversary is significant as it marks 70 years since America's defeat," he said. "The US had never lost a war before the Korean War, but after we defeated them they lost wars, like Vietnam and Afghanistan. We showed other countries that the US could be beaten."

"And now we have ICBMs and nuclear weapons so we are strong and the US knows they cannot beat us."

He also said North Korea had "no relations with South Korea and we do not need them."

"We have no diplomatic communications and we only need to deal with the US. And the only way to deal with the US is through force."

US soldier crosses inter-Korean border into North Korea

Seoul steps away from 'Sunshine Policy'

Hyobin Lee, an adjunct professor of politics and ethics at Chungnam National University, said that in the decades since the armistice, there have been years where ties between the North and the South seemed to be improving. This is not the case today, she warned.

"Improving relations with North Korea is undoubtedly a complex issue," she said. "Because South Korea, the United States, China, Russia, and Japan each approach the North Korean problem from their own interests, the options available for South Korea to unilaterally decide are limited."

"However, the most effective policy so far has been the 'Sunshine Policy' pursued by President Kim Dae-Jung from the late 1990s, she said.

The policy was based on not tolerating armed provocations from the North, but also contained a pledge from Seoul not to attempt to absorb the North and to seek cooperation instead.

"Some conservatives may criticize it as a 'handout' diplomacy, but I believe it is the only policy that could help sustain dialogue and assist North Korea in opening its doors and incorporating it into the international community," the professor said.

'It does not look good'

Kim Dae-Jung left office in 2003 and ties between the two Koreas have continued to fluctuate. They seemed to be improving under Moon Jae-in, who was president between 2017 and 2022. That has reversed again since Yoon Seok-yeol was elected last year.

"While the Moon administration maintained neutral diplomacy between the two superpowers, the United States and China, upon coming into power, the Yoon administration chose a pro-US and anti-China stance," Lee said.

The deterioration can be seen as a result of changes in South Korea's foreign policy, she added, warning that chances for progress in the foreseeable future are slim.

Former intelligence officer Rah Jong-yil is also pessimistic about reducing tensions.

"South Korean politics are not stable and the North has developed a sizable military capability that includes nuclear weapons," he said. "It does not look good."

Edited by: Darko Janjevic

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