The two Koreas – evidence for how the Cold War continues

It is possible to identify key elements that characterize the conflict between North and South Korea as a one based upon the image of the Cold War.

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By Maurício Vieira

The prevalence of capitalism over communism did not entail or represent the end of a bipolar dynamic in international relations. The Cold War continues to be represented by different hostilities, with the conflict between North and South Korea indicating that there is one main area of the world that could destabilize international security. Though the scale of the conflict between these two can be characterized at a minor level when compared to the rivalry between the USA and the USSR, it is possible to identify key elements that characterize the Korean conflict as one based upon the image of the Cold War.

This perspective is founded upon systemic theory, as embodied in Halliday’s contribution to ‘Rethinking International Relations’ (Macmillan, 2004). This theory highlights how heterogeneity creates an intersocietal and interstate conflict, in which the various forms of conventional rivalry – military, political and economic – are composed and also legitimized by a complete divergence of political and social norms.

Thus the conventional forms of competition – including war – can play a role on this kind of conflict. However, the competition of values is also important, and it can repeatedly be the main dimension in which one side of the conflict prevails over the other. Based on this prerogative, it is possible to understand and explore systemic theory through the Korean conflict’s dynamic.

After the end of the Korean War (1950-1953), the North and South were as the only countries in the world divided by the Parallel 38 N, which consists of a demilitarized zone (DMZ) four kilometres wide and 250 kilometres long. Side-by-side, one million soldiers are responsible for maintaining security along the border in order to prevent incidents that could endangerthe Northeast Asia region as well as global stability.

This condition of monitoring both sides is presented as a second argument on Cold War dynamics that can be applied to the Korean ccontext. According to Oliveira [1], post-1989 was defined as a period of continuous peace. There was the prospect that weapons expenditures would be redirected to development projects and that under the ideals of liberalism – combined with democracy – economic forces would function to promote interdependence and cooperation among states. Economic issues would predominate over ideological and military ones.

Despite this condition, relations between North and South Korea showed that this logic had its limits. The hostility resulted from the relations – or the absence of it – between the US- and Soviet Union-created political systems with different ideologies. North Korea – although officially called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – is the most closed country in the world, marked by hereditary dictatorship, consolidating 65 years of political power – from Kim Il-Sung in 1948, to his son Kim Jong-il in 1994 and, in 2011, his grandson Kim Jong-un. In contrast, South Korea – officially the Republic of Korea – has a democratic political system.

Nevertheless, the fourth argument emphasizes a continuation of a military defence policy. Since World War Two and especially after the end of the Korea War, the Soviet Union continued to influence North Korea on its nuclear program. Although North Korea acceded to the NPT in 1985, it never came into compliance. Since 2009, North Korea has left the world on high alert after several tests with nuclear missiles. With respect to South Korea, the region has become a zone of American influence, receiving US support since the Korean War.

The fifth argument, reinforced by Oliveira, emphasizes that the Korean conflict is, on one hand, the result of historical enmity between China and Japan; and on the other, its division into two states within the logic of the Cold War, following the logic of a conflict with political and ideological characteristics. In his analysis, the author points out that the Korean Peninsula also attracts international attention, as the region’s status quo has an immediate impact at both the regional and international level. A number of factors indicate that the Korean Peninsula is undergoing a period of dynamic change. The dynamism suggested by Oliveira can be justified by Halliday’s point of view, in which he relates the heterogeneity as the logic that states with different policies were focused on defending their interests as they sought to dominate the world and abolish the alternative system.

In this case, which one is considered the alternative system? Answering this question leads to a debate on the necessity to analyze how both the North and South Korean political systems perceive each other. Both – North and South Korea – can have as there opponent an alternative system that must be fought. Here is a key reason for prolonging conflict between these two countries.

In the case of the Korean conflict, a major issue is related to the military, political and economic interests arising from the extension of the conflict itself. Furthermore, it is important to realize that the threats coming from the North Korean government were initially directed to South Korea, and now largely target the United States. This change further emphasizes the conflict of differing political systems: on one hand, a dictatorship; on the other, a liberal power.

This is the reason why the war between North Korea and South Korea has a period of imminence. As Cox points out in Radical Theory and the new Cold War, the Cold War is a highly functional system by which the superpowers manage their own domains, and because of this, it persists; with the dynamics of the Cold War tending to diversify and incorporating other actors.

Maurício Vieira is a Brazilian journalist, with a Masters degree in International Relations (Peace and Security Studies) from the University of Coimbra in Portugal. Maurício is assistant professor at the Stella Maris College of International Relations in Brazil. He was intern at the Permanent Mission of Brazil to the UN in Geneva from September to December 2012.

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1) Oliveira, Henrique Altemani de. A Segurança Regional e o Desenvolvimento Nuclear na Coréia do Norte. In: MERA, Carolina. (Org.). Estudios Coreanos en América Latina. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Al Margen, 2004, v. 1, p. 375-398.

2) Hoffman, Stanley. Delusions of World Order. The New York Review of Books, 39(7), 1992, p. 37-43.

3) Coc, Michael. Radical Theory and the new Cold War. In: BOWKER, Mike e BROWN, Robin. From Cold War to Collapse: Theory and World Politics in the 1980s. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

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