Throughout history the Korean Peninsula has attracted the attention of powerful nations trying to gain a foothold there. In 1902 Japan suggested to Russia that they divide Korea at the 38th parallel. The Russians refused and the Russo-Japanese War broke out in 1904 which led to Russia’s defeat the following year. Korea was occupied and declared a Japanese protectorate in 1905 and officially annexed in 1910. The Japanese remained there until 1945 when they lost the Second World War.
After 1945 Korea became the victim of the East-West tug of war between Moscow and Washington. The 38th parallel was created to divide the Korean Peninsula into two countries following a war in which international forces took part under a UN resolution orchestrated by the US against Communist North Korea which was supported by the Soviet Union.
Fifty years later South Korea developed into a rich country. In fact it has become one of the 20 richest countries in the world. On the other hand, North Korea, which has become so poor that it cannot always feed its people, has conducted underground nuclear tests and has launched medium and long-range ballistic missiles.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, attempts at unification were made by the leaders of the two counties. These attempts failed because of the intervention of the US and Japan on one side and China on the other. The three countries feared that the unification of the two Koreas might result in strategic changes that would ultimately disrupt the security of the Far East.
The unification of the Korean Peninsula would result in the merger of economic and human power. The unified country would have both financial wealth and nuclear might. It would become a strong country capable of changing the balance of power in East Asia. This would be a challenge to the strategies of the three countries and would necessitate the redrafting of the political map of the region.
Today, after North Korea’s third nuclear test and its launching of medium and long-range ballistic missiles, and after the huge military exercises between America and South Korea and the war of words between the North and the South, it is clear that the facts on the ground are different. The peoples of the two Koreas long for unity. The US has finally realized this fact and has started dealing differently with the issue.
South Koreans want to abolish the 38th parallel to unite separated families, experience real independence and liberate themselves from the grip of a superpower. They look with admiration at the unification of the two Germanys and the economic development achieved by Vietnam after it was united and the Americans were expelled. Vietnam has become the second largest rice-exporting country in the world.
North Koreans are especially in need of unity because of the country’s acute economic situation, the reduction in Russian support and China’s preoccupation with becoming the world’s second superpower. Furthermore, the situation between the two Koreas has not reached a point necessitating intervention either by America or China.
The unification of the two Koreas remains a remote possibility particularly with the presence of US forces in South Korea. The country represents an important base from which the US can confront Russia, China and Japan from the east.
History has taught the Korean people not to trust anyone. If South Korea is able to free itself from the grip of the United States, the unity of the two countries might not remain just a dream.
If the two Koreas unite, the new country would look for a political role for itself in the region. It would be able to protect itself without depending on others. The new country would not be a slave to the whims and interests of superpowers which are fighting for their own economic interests in East Asia.
The 38th parallel is one of the most heavily guarded places in the world. The Korean people are very committed to their national traditions and all indications are that the imaginary line will eventually disappear and the country will be united.
— Hassan Tahsin is an Egyptian writer and political analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.