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Dhaka Tribune

What we know after 70 years of the Korean War armistice

  • The North invaded the South on June 25, 1950
  •  Millions of people, mostly civilians, were killed
  • Washington still stations around 27,000 troops in the South
  • North Korea has the world's largest standing army 
Update : 27 Jul 2023, 11:09 AM

South and North Korea remain technically at war 70 years after fighting ended on July 27, 1953, with the signing of an armistice deal that turned into the world's longest ceasefire.

The conflict, which broke out on June 25, 1950, killed millions of people -- mostly civilians -- and left the peninsula divided, with the two Koreas still at loggerheads many decades later.

AFP takes a look at what we know: 

Two Koreas

The United States and the former Soviet Union agreed to divide the Korean peninsula between them in the days after Japan's 1945 surrender ended the Second World War and Tokyo's rule over the territory, which it had colonised in 1910.

In the South's capital Seoul, the Harvard- and Princeton-educated Syngman Rhee led a US-oriented administration.

Moscow appointed Kim Il Sung, who had led a Korean contingent in the Soviet army, as head of the North. His son and grandson have since retained an absolute grip on power in Pyongyang.

Both the communist North and the capitalist South claimed to be the legitimate government of the entire peninsula and, in theory, still claim so to this day.

Invasion and counter-attack

The North invaded the South on June 25, 1950, as Kim Il Sung attempted to reunify Korea by force.

The UN Security Council authorized armed intervention in support of the South; Moscow did not veto the resolution because it was boycotting the body at the time.

The South's forces crumbled before the Northern advance and Pyongyang's army seized Seoul just three days after crossing the 38th parallel.

Multinational UN forces, led by the United States, arrived in the South to help but they were pushed back to the Pusan Perimeter, a pocket on the peninsula's southeastern tip around the city now known as Busan.

The Incheon Landing -- a bold counter-offensive launched in the city to the west of Seoul -- recaptured the capital, split the North's forces and turned the tide.

UN units swept north, seized Pyongyang on October 19 and advanced almost to the Chinese border.

Pyongyang's allies reversed the war's course again as Beijing sent hundreds of thousands of troops to help.

Seoul fell to them again in January 1951, only for the UN coalition to recapture it once more two months later -- the fourth time the city had changed hands.

Armistice

By June 1951, the front line had stabilised roughly where the Demilitarized Zone runs today, not far from the pre-war division along the 38th parallel.

Another two years of attrition followed -- accompanied by large-scale US bombing of the North, despite Moscow's own air power -- and the fighting ground to a stalemate.

After more than two years of truce talks and 158 meetings, an armistice was finally signed in July 1953 by North Korea, China and the UN Command.

But Rhee, who still wanted to defeat the North, refused to sign.

Human cost

Exact numbers are impossible to establish, given the scale of the conflict and multiple contradictory accounts on all sides, but up to three million Koreans died, the vast majority of them civilians.

The war also separated families -- more than 133,600 South Koreans have registered themselves as "separated families", meaning they have relatives in the North, since 1988.

Some were lucky enough to be chosen to take part in occasional cross-border reunions, cramming a lifetime's relationships into three brief days. The last such reunion happened in 2018.

The meetings have long been subject to the vagaries of politics and are often used as a negotiating tool by Pyongyang, which constantly stresses the importance of unification despite the two countries' now wildly different societies and economies.

The longest ceasefire

The ceasefire was meant to be replaced with a final peace settlement but that has never happened.

Washington still stations around 27,000 troops in the South, while the North -- which has the world's largest standing army -- has spent decades developing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, saying it needs them to deter a US invasion.

It has been isolated internationally as a result and subject to multiple sets of UN Security Council sanctions.

Diplomacy between Pyongyang and Seoul has stalled and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has called for increased weapons development, including tactical nuclear warheads.

Seoul and Washington have ramped up defence cooperation in response, with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol warning Pyongyang it would face the "end of the regime" if it attacked the South with nuclear weapons.

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