North Korea and South Korea are divided countries located on the Korean peninsula. Despite their proximity, and that the population genetically originates from the same ethnic and racial root, their geopolitical status and living conditions differ greatly since they were divided after World War II. North Korea is an authoritarian communist state, while South Korea is a democracy. The countries have been technically in a state of war since the Korean War of 1950-53, although a formal armistice agreement was signed in 1953.
Relevant Data and Perspectives from Experts
Historically, the relationship between North and South Korea has been strained and more hostile than cooperative, although there have been some peaks of diplomacy. Starting in the late 1980s, South Korea undertook an ambitious policy of reconciliation and economic aid. The amount of economic aid dropped significantly with the rise of tensions in the early 21st century, but lately there seem to be renewed efforts to normalize their relationship.
When asked who could facilitate such an achievement, experts posit that Korea’s main ally, the United States, plays an important role in the peace process. However, many argue that China has the power to be an intermediary. As a powerful neighboring ally of North Korea and traditionally close trading partner, China is believed to be the only one able to sway North Korea, given the country’s dependency on China for supplies of oil, food and consumer goods.
Insights and Analysis
Current events further suggest that North and South Korea are looking for ways to cooperate and establish trust. High-level talks held in August 2019 led to the signing of an armistice agreement, and President Trump became the first sitting US president to step foot in North Korea. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in met several times, showing remarkable gestures of friendship, such as President Moon visiting Pyongyang and Jong-un being the first North Korean leader to visit the South since the war.
Still, the rapprochement between the two countries remains fragile as tensions continue to rise due to the ongoing presence of US forces in South Korea, lack of transparency regarding nuclear weapons, and ideological differences. Even though South Korea supports its northern neighbor, it has to balance its interests so as not to be seen as overly sympathetic towards Kim Jong-un’s regime. Moreover, South Korea is reported to be under pressure from the United States to restrict its economic and diplomatic engagement.
Propaganda and Media Coverage
Another element to factor in when considering whether North and South Korea are allies is the importance of propaganda and media coverage for governments and citizens. North Korea has an oppressive propaganda system in place, which reinforces the values and ideas of the government, while South Korea’s democratic system allows for a wide range of opinions to coexist.
In 2017, the two Koreas signed an agreement to reduce military tensions and prevent accidental military clashes. The agreement includes a surveillance mechanism and mutually agreed upon military drills that both countries will carry out. Implementing such a measure requires a trust level that both governments are uncomfortable with. Part of the mistrust is due to their different interpretations of events and the messages conveyed through media coverage on the peninsula or abroad. North Korean state media tend to paint the actions of the South in a negative light, while South Korean media often play into Cold War-era stereotypes of North Koreans.
Economic interaction between North and South Korea is one of the most visible aspects of the relationship between the two countries. South Korea is the only developed economy close to North Korea, making it an important trading partner. Despite the steep decline of economic exchange in the years following the Asian Financial Crisis and following decades of sanctions, South Korea remains a major exporter to North Korea.
Recently, the two countries have developed the Kaesong industrial zone, close to the North Korean–Chinese border. Unlike other industrial zones in the region, which depend heavily on cheap labor and lax regulations, Kaesong has benefited from South Korean investments and access to the more advanced South Korean markets.
Other than economic cooperation, North and South Korea have made some efforts to revitalize cultural and economic ties between the two, such as easing access to the Kordan, a bridge near the North Korean–Chinese border. North Koreans have begun to visit the South, and South Koreans have been given access to limited parts of North Korea, such as the tourist resort in the North Korean city of Wonsan.
Cross Border Relations
Cross border relations between North and South Korea are an important part of the relationship between the two countries, as both seek to reduce tensions between them and build trust. Some notable successes include the opening of North Korean restaurants in the South, easing access to the internet, broadcasting Korean dramas over the border, and allowing South Koreans to travel to the North on special holidays.
That said, the relationship between the two Koreas has been volatile, and is often troubled by competing and conflicting interests. The road ahead is uncertain and many experts believe that little substantive progress can be made if the United States is unwilling to engage.
Recent years have seen some diplomatic efforts on the part of North and South Korea, such as the Korean summit in April 2018 and high-level talks in August 2019, which led to the signing of an armistice agreement. These efforts led to some easing of trade and travel restrictions between the two countries, as well as dialogue and cooperation in some areas, including sports and culture.
Still, many challenges remain, as the two Koreas have yet to sign a peace treaty and the United States is still opposed to sign any deal that does not include the complete dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program. Without such a framework, the two Koreas cannot achieve a lasting peace deal.
The question of reunification between North and South Korea is, of course, at the forefront of public discourse on the peninsula. During the Cold War, reunification was seen as a distant, though not impossible, goal. As the years have passed, however, the prospect of a unified Korea has seemed increasingly unlikely.
One major challenge facing potential reunification is the large gap in economic development between North and South Korea, which makes the North’s marketization and its citizens’ acceptance of international standards and culture a difficult feat. Likewise, the South’s businesses, which are part of a competitive free-market economy, may not be willing to invest in a united Korea unless there is stability and trust between the two.
The objective of political reform within North Korea has become a key demand of the South in any reunification process. The South has attempted to pressure North Korea on its human rights abuses in an effort to positively influence the direction and behavior of the North Korean regime.
The North Korean government has thus far been unwilling to pursue political reform, although it has recently implemented some economic reforms, such as expanding marketplaces and granting special economic zones. However, it is unclear whether these efforts will provide enough of an incentive to prompt an effective reunification.
Change of Attitude
As North and South Korea continue to examine potential ways of reunification, achieving a change in public attitude between the two Koreas is key. This requires a combination of diplomatic dialogue and economic incentives, as well as mutual recognition that the two Koreas are finally ready to reconcile their differences.
Thus far, North–South dialogues have struggled to produce real results, suggesting that both countries need to be more willing to compromise in order to make real progress. Sustained confidence-building measures and continued negotiations are necessary for an ultimate breakthrough. It is unclear whether this will be possible in the current political climate.