Military Confrontation on the Korean Peninsula

By Oh, Kongdan; Hassig, Ralph | Joint Force Quarterly, January 2012 | Go to article overview

Military Confrontation on the Korean Peninsula


Oh, Kongdan, Hassig, Ralph, Joint Force Quarterly


The two Koreas have had a long Thistory of military confrontation, and there is little reason to expect that relations will improve in the near future. Over the last few years, both the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (ROK) have strengthened their armed forces, and as a result of the 2010 North Korean attacks in the West Sea, this military buildup is likely to continue and may even accelerate. Acknowledging this reality, the best that can be hoped for is to limit the violence that often springs from confrontation, and to continue to seek ways to resolve confrontation before the point of violence is reached.

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States in Confrontation

Confrontation may be defined as two states opposing each other politically, socially, economically, or militarily in an explicit manner. Outbreaks of military confrontation make news headlines, but the core issue on the Korean Peninsula is political confrontation, reinforced by social and economic differences. This means that military confrontation will continue until the two Koreas have found a way to eliminate the oppositional aspects of their political systems; even if that should happen, relations will remain rocky as long as their social and economic systems are incompatible.

Confrontation is not without its benefits. When two individuals, groups, or countries confront each other, they become aware of different opinions, values, and ways of doing things. The danger is that confrontation will lead to violence or to a defensive hardening of positions rather than to an openness to accommodation. In the case of the two Koreas, North Korea is the more defensive and hostile.

That said, it is difficult to argue with the proposition that there is room for only one government on the Korean Peninsula. The Korean people are a homogeneous race and culture. Many families remain separated by the political border established at the end of World War II. In the long term, any talk of establishing a federation of two separate but equal Koreas makes little sense, especially if people are not free to move from one part of Korea to the other. Given the dismal history of North Korea's socialism, South Korea is going to be the more economically successful, and given the universal desire for individual freedoms, it is also going to be the kind of society where most Koreans would prefer to live.

The essence of political confrontation is that both Korean governments claim jurisdiction over the entire peninsula. The South Korean government recognizes all people who live in North Korea as citizens, and the North Korean government considers the government in Seoul to be an illegitimate American puppet regime, routinely referring to the "persons in authority" of that government as traitors to the Korean nation.

Economic confrontation has its roots in the incompatibility of centrally managed socialism in the North and loosely managed capitalism in the South. Not only are the two economic systems different, but also the economic conditions are widely divergent and growing more so all the time. In 1990, South Korea's per capita gross national product was 5 times larger than North Korea's ($5,569 vs. $1,031); in 2000, the South's per capita gross national income was 12 times larger ($9,628 vs. $757); and in 2009, it was 18 times larger ($17,175 vs. $960).1 Moreover, the economic resources of the two Koreas are different, although complementary, with the North being the logical place for heavy industry and resource extraction and the South being more suitable for farming and trade.

Underlying social confrontation are dramatic differences in individual freedoms. In the North, the Korean Workers' Party shapes the community and is above the law; party guidance takes precedence over the rights of individuals. It was Kim Il-sung who said, "Our judicial organs are a weapon for carrying out the functions of the dictatorship of the pro-letariat"(2)--by which he meant "dictatorship of the leader and the party. …

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