To understand the dangerous Cold War-like nuclear standoff taking place in South-East Asia between the Kim Jong-un government of North Korea and the United States and its South Korean ally, it should be realised that these countries have actually been at war for more than 60 years. At the same time, with the north-south Korean divide remains a Berlin Wall-like symbol and for them, the Cold War is not over yet.
Actually the roots of the present ever escalating threat of a nuclear conflict can be traced back to the supposedly temporary division of Korea along the 38th parallel after the end of World War II in 1945 by the US and Russia, a la West and East Germany.
The Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and Germany was reunited, supposedly signaling the end of the Cold War but the Korean divide persists to this day as a legacy of WWII.
The two Koreas were created in terms of an agreement between the US, which occupied the south during WWII and the then USSR, which bordered Korea to the north and helped to liberate it from Japan.
As they did in East Germany, the USSR shaped North Korea in its own image as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), which it remains to this day. South Korea developed as a capitalist state under US-guidance and continued occupation.
Then in June 1950 the DPRK invaded South Korea. Under a United Nations mandate the US intervened on the side of the south assisted by other member states, including the South African Air Force. But it was mostly a war between the US and the DPRK.
A ceasefire was signed in July 1953, which was supposed to evolve into a formal peace treaty when “a final peaceful settlement is achieved”. Over the years, amid one crisis after another (mostly concerning the DPRK’s nuclear programme) the US has consistently refused to negotiate a final peace treaty.
Technically the US and the DPRK are still at war and hostilities can break out again at any time. From both sides repeated accusations of violations of the ceasefire agreement have been made over the years, making the dispute over Korean reunification one of the longest in modern history.
The USSR withdrew its troops from the DPRK in 1948 but the US have maintained a presence of between 25 000 and 40 000 soldiers in South Korea over the years. The US also took its fight with the DPRK to the UN. Since 1993 at least five Security Council resolutions have introduced sanctions against the DPRK in response to that country’s nuclear development programme.
In the latest round, in early March this year, the Security Council unanimously passed tougher sanctions against the DPRK, targeting its nuclear programme hours after Pyongyang threatened a possible "pre-emptive nuclear attack", in a throwback to the heydays of the Cold War and the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.
It is however important to note that the DPRK-threats came in direct response to this year’s annual joint military exercises between the US and South Korea. According to professor Christine Hong of the University of California, the US “was lurching towards war” since “the military exercises that the US and South Korea just launched (March this year) are not defensive exercises” but rather appear to promote a “regime change” strategy.
It is also important to note that since conducting a nuclear test in February, the DPRK-regime has said that it is scrapping the Korean War armistice, declared a "state of war" with South Korea, cut off the military hotline between the two countries, shut down the jointly operated Kaesong industrial park, said it would restart nuclear weapon production, and issued a string of threats against the South and the US. It also advised foreigners to leave the South to avoid "thermonuclear war".
Under these circumstances fears are growing that a relatively small mistake by any one of the parties involved in the present standoff can trigger a nuclear war.
Since the end of the Korean War 60 years ago the DPRK has repeatedly put forward proposals for bilateral talks with the US aimed at formalising a peace treaty, reunification of the two Koreas and the end of American occupation of and annual military exercises with South Korea.
For a number of mostly strategic reasons, the US has shunned these overtures over the years. But many commentators are of the opinion that the time has come for a change in US strategy.
Last week Germany’s influential Der Spiegel wrote: “The American government has to reconsider its approach if it wants to eradicate the hotspot in the Far East;” and “For starters it should shorten the current manoeuvres with South Korean forces as a sign of good will ... A second step would be to agree on a common path forward with China, Russia, South Korea and Japan, then to start talks with North Korea without preconditions. And all parties have to give up the goal of trying to force North Korea to get rid of its nuclear weapons.”
Under the heading “It’s time to start direct talks with Pyongyang” USA Today wrote: “All the evidence shows that sanctions and coercion don't work. North Korea has acquired what it needed for weapons, and every North Korean nuclear test has been in part a response to US-led sanction efforts at the United Nations.
“As we have seen in recent weeks, increased military pressure simply produces more of the negative actions it is intended to deter.
“Merely talking to North Korea should not be seen as a concession or act of weakness. In this highly charged climate, direct talks offer the best chance to prevent a bad situation from getting even worse.”