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Korean Thunderdome: A Four-Part Look at the Future of Korea

North Korea and South Korea have been staring each other down for nearly 70 years. What happens when one of them finally blinks?

by Ryan Faith
Apr 28 2014, 7:35pm

Photo by Stefan

In warfare, possession is nine-tenths of the law.

In the final days of the Second World War and into the embryonic early days of the Cold War, US and Soviet forces made a massive grab for territory; whoever had troops on the ground controlled it, and that determined whether that territory became an ally of Moscow or Washington. In Korea, the Soviets and Americans split along the 38th parallel the responsibility for accepting the surrender of any Japanese forces that still remained on the Korean peninsula. Within months, that ad hoc arrangement became the basis for the creation of two separate and wildly different Koreas.

By 1950, it appeared that the peninsula wasn't big enough for the both of them. North Korea launched a surprise attack on the South, beginning the first major shooting war of the Cold War. Three years and more than 4 million dead later, the Koreas — with the assistance of the US, Soviet Union, China, and a host of other countries — had fought each other to a standstill. They weren't able to reach a peace agreement, but they were compelled to accept an armistice.

Thus was born the Korean Thunderdome — two Koreas enter, one Korea leaves. Even though the active fighting stalled some 60 years ago, both sides are still locked in an eyeball-to-eyeball staring contest over that same 38th parallel. Only now, both the North and South have far more deadly and elaborate fortifications and deterrents in place.

Still, the stalemate can't last forever … can it?

Photo via Flickr

In Part 1 of the series, we spoke with North Korean defector Myeong Chul Ahn about how South Korea integrates the approximately 2,000 North Koreans who reach the South every year. Truth be told, the South doesn't try all that hard to integrate them into South Korean society — which brings up the question of what the South would do in the event of a reunification in which they might have to integrate 25 million North Koreans.


Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Speaking of reunification, in Part 2 we learned that the window for a peaceful one may be closing. The massive economic costs dominate most discussions of a unified Korea, but less discussed is the change in cultures that has taken place as the two countries have drifted apart. It's created a divide that may soon be too big to bridge.


Photo by Ryan Faith

If peaceful reunification is off the table, does that mean the default future option is war? As we learned in Part 3, that would inflict massive costs, both humanitarian and financial. Even absent a declared war on the peninsula, regime collapse in the North could end up triggering a regional — or even world — war.


Photo by Ryan Faith

So what is South Korea planning to do about this whole mess? In Part 4 we attempt to understand the country's contingency plans, given that both peaceful and violent reunification appear to be all but off the table. Is South Korea destined to be a garrison state, living under the continuous threat of an attack from its northern neighbor? South Korea can and does mostly ignore North Korea's saber rattling, which may be a wise course of action. Thing is, it may also be an extremely foolish one.

Main photo via Flickr