Sometimes coined the “forgotten war”, experts warn the Korean Peninsula is more dangerous today than it has been at any time since the onset of the Korean War in June 1950. With new UK defence secretary Grant Shapps identifying the region as a possible future conflict zone for British forces, here’s what you need to know.
In his first speech as the new UK defence secretary, Grant Shapps declared that Britain should prepare for possible future wars with China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Shapps argued the world had come “full circle” since the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall, moving from a post-war to pre-war setting.
Why you should care about the Korean War?
The Korean War is sometimes called the “forgotten war” because it’s overshadowed by the conflicts that came both before and after it — take the devastation of World War II and the disastrous U.S. war in the Vietnam War, respectively. Yet it arguably serves as the best example of the Cold War battle for ideas between Western liberal democracies and rival authoritarian regimes. What many forget is that the Korean War continues today, as does the broader battle for ideas.
Below, we explore the continued effects of the Korean War today and its new staging amidst the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine.
The Korean War: Explained
- The Korean War was fought between North Korea and South Korea from 1950 to 1953.
- Over 800,000 soldiers and 1.5 million civilians were killed during the conflict.
- Before the war, Korea was a unified nation but under a brutal Japanese occupation.
- The end of World War II saw Japan stripped of its colonies, and Korea was divided between the two superpowers – the Soviet Union in the North, and the United States in the South.
- In 1948, the two occupation zones became two sovereign states: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the North, led by Premier Kim Il Sung; and the Republic of Korea in the South, led by President Syngman Rhee. Both leaders committed their cause to a unified Korean state.
- In 1953, the combat ended with the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement, leading to the creation of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the two countries.
- No peace treaty was ever signed, meaning the two Koreas remained at war, engaged in a frozen conflict.
- Matters have been further complicated by the North’s likely development of nuclear weapons.
Despite the ceasefire, the Korean Peninsula remains prone to recurrent skirmishes. The most recent being January of this year, when North Korean shelling of the buffer zone between the two countries near Yeonpyeong Island led South Korean authorities to order a civilian evacuation of the island. Nonetheless, the primary theatre of conflict between the two nations is not the Korean Peninsula but the Ukrainian battlefront.
Today, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine serves as a proxy for the continuation of the Korean War
A great irony of the current geopolitical context is where once the Korean War was fought as a proxy war for the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. Today, the Russo-Ukrainian War is a theatre for a proxy war between North Korea and South Korea.
According to leading defence analysts, the Brookings Institute, a proxy war occurs when a major power instigates or plays a major role in supporting and directing a party to a conflict but does only a small portion of the actual fighting itself.
North Korea is currently Russia’s largest arms supplier, with a spokesperson for Ukraine’s military intelligence estimating that North Korea has supplied Russia with around one million rounds of ammunition.
Meanwhile, South Korea has provided Ukraine with more shells indirectly, via the US, than all of Europe. Whilst also signing agreements to export tanks and fighter jets to Poland, which has in turn provided military vehicles to Ukraine since the onset of its war with Russia. This essentially pits the two Koreas in a proxy war via Russia and the Ukraine.
When will the war end?
While all wars are multifaceted, the fundamental problem remains, as it was at the onset of the war back in 1950, an irreconcilable difference in opinion on the political and economic system best equipped to govern a unified Korea. Simply put, both countries want unification, but under their own leadership.
North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un recently took this one step further by repudiating all talk of peaceful reunification and labelling the South Korean leadership its “principal enemy” and threatening the use of nuclear weapons. Needless to say, peace on the peninsula seems a long way off.