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Before the second world war Korea was a Japanese colony, having been occupied in the 19th century.

At the end of the second world war southern Korea was occupied by the Americans and the North by Russian troops. The declared intention of the wartime allies was to create an independent Korea after the Japanese had been driven out from their colony. But the dividing line between the two armies - the 38th parallel of latitude - became a frontier between the two states of: North Korea, headed by Kim Il Sung, a Russian-educated Korean Communist; and South Korea, headed by Synghman Rhee, an American-educated Korean. The South took the title of Republic of Korea; the North the People's Democratic Republic of Korea.

Both had authoritarian governments: the southern with the forms of democracy - though in practice with "managed" elections; the north with a classical Communist Marxist-Leninist regime. Russian troops withdrew from the north and American troops from the south.

In 1950 the northerners invaded the south, presumably with the intention of uniting Korea as a Communist country, ordered by Stalin. A resolution of the Security Council of the UN ordered the northerners to withdraw (the Soviet Representative was absent and so could not veto the resolution). A force, nominally under the control of the UN, was assembled to resist the invasion. The force was largely American with large contingents from Britain and British Commonwealth states, as well as from Turkey and some other allies.

Northern troops pushed south until South Korea was confined to a small area around Pusan. Western reinforcements then pushed them back almost to the border with China and Russia. "UN" troops practiced a landing at Inchon (near Seoul) similar to the 1944 landings in northern France.

China sent assistance after the North Koreans had nearly been defeated by being pushed towards the Chinese frontier. The Chinese may have feared that the allies would push on into China, and indeed the UN Commander General Douglas MacArthur threatened to use nuclear weapons on China - he was dismissed soon after by the US President Truman. The war ended in 1953 with a truce but no agreement other than to stop fighting, and with the frontier in roughly the same position as in 1950. There is therefore even at present no state of peace. Almost the whole country, north and south, was destroyed in the war.

The Korean war of the 1950s did not end in a Peace Treaty but in an Armistice (cease fire).

Could it start up again? From time to time there are still incidents between North and South - such as northern ships landing people in the south and ships of either side firing on ships of the other side.

The economy of North Korea is near to collapse with many people starving. There are fears that the north can still try to attack the south, which has a large force of US troops within it. South Korea has become one of the world's richest industrialised states, after following a policy similar to Japan's.

Probably the people of the north will need to be rescued when its government collapses. One possibility is a popular uprising.

The North has a nuclear weapons program and sells advanced weapons to rogue states such as Iran.

In September 2007 there were thought to be signs that a treaty might eventually be signed and the war formally ended. Maybe this is a sign that the Northern system is near its end - but people have thought this before, and it continued. Nothing actually happened, though endless talks about talks continued.

In 2010 the northern leader is believed to be in bad health and in the process of handing over power to one of his sons. Is there a probability of war during this period of handover?

27 March 2010

A South Korean naval ship was damaged and sunk after an explosion in an area where the North Koreans dispute the location of the border at sea. Was it an accident? Was it a North Korean mine? The ship was said to be old and in bad condition. A formal investigation showed that the cause was a north Korea torpedo (parts of a torpedo were found among the wreckage on the sea bed). The South Korean government and the US government have blamed North Korea for the sinking.

North Korea has a huge army - over 1 million, allegedly. But how effective would it be in a battle? If it were put into battle against a modern western army would it disintegrate like Saddam Hussein's? In favour of this idea is that it consists of conscripts in a slave state; against is that its members have been isolated from modern media and may know little about the outside world. Would they fight? Quite possibly not. But who can be sure? Everyone hopes it will not be put to the test as even if it disintegrates there might be huge damage in both Koreas. Even if the North Korean soldiers do fight, the regime is bound to collapse. Does Kim Jong Il, or whoever is running North Korea, know that war would cause the collapse? Everyone outside Korea must hope the regime ends soon, as surely it is even worse for the people than the regime in Burma.

More serious incidents occurred in November 2010, including an exchange of artillery over an island claimed and occupied by South Korea. Once again there is a worry that the Korean War may resume after 50 years relative peace. Is this incident connected with the accession to power of Kim Jong Un, a son of Kim Jong Il?

In April 2013 a serious threat arose when North Korea withdrew from agreements with the south and threatened nuclear war against South Korea and the United States. Although the North has exploded three nuclear devices in the last decade it is not thought that they have the capability of reaching mainland US or even its bases in the Pacific. One interpretation is that the leadrer of the North actually wants talks with the US and a large payment because of its collapsing economy.

Last revised 8/04/13 Wars World Info Home Return to the top Since 8/04/13