Why Are South Korea and North Korea Enemies?

Why Are South Korea and North Korea Enemies?


The first thing that needs to be addressed is, are South and North Korea enemies?

My short answer would be yes and no: They are frenemies in a love-hate relationship — a result of a complicated history of division that originates in the Cold War.

To get into the details, we need to understand how and why the Korean Peninsula was split in two.

After Japan’s surrender in WWII in 1945, the two global superpowers at that time, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, divided the Korean Peninsula along the 38th parallel (the current border, slightly different, loops around the original line). Initially, Korea was ruled by a dual trusteeship — the Soviets in the north, the U.S. in the south. But in 1948, separate governments were established in Seoul and Pyongyang, forming South and North Korea, respectively.

Two years later, the Korean War (1950-53) brought about the complete partition (and near-complete destruction) of the peninsula. The United Nations, South Korea and the U.S. maintain that North Korea opened fire, backed by the Soviets. North Korea vehemently denies this and accuses the South of attacking first.

So legally speaking, the two Koreas are enemies, still technically at war (since the war ended with an armistice, not a peace agreement, in 1953). Neither officially recognizes the other as a country (despite treating each other as sovereign states in accordance with international law).

The Korean War separated families living on both sides of the border, spawning tragic stories like that of Sung Il-gi, the alleged brother-in-law of Kim Jong-il. Sung found himself alone in the South after the war. In January 2018, around 58,000 divided families were registered in the South for possible reunion with their families in the North.

Since 1953, there have been many minor military clashes between the two sides, and almost no interaction among ordinary civilians. But since the early 1980s, there have been some significant attempts at reconciliation. In 1983 there were high-profile family reunions, broadcast in South Korea. In 1991 the two governments formed a joint team to compete at the World Table Tennis Championships, winning a gold. That same year, the two sides even signed an agreement on reconciliation and non-aggression. 

Two liberal governments from 1998 to 2008 actively promoted rapprochement with the North, exemplified by the Sunshine Policy. The ensuing decade of conservative South Korean presidents maintained a firm stance against the North, including closing the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which was jointly run by the Koreas, in 2016.

The complex relations trickle down to the way ordinary South Koreans perceive North Korea. We’re not sure how the perceptions work the other way around, although it’s been widely reported that North Koreans perceive the U.S. as more of an existential threat, and the South as a puppet.


The Other as a Domestic Political Tool

Historically, both the South and North Korean governments have taken political advantage of the official enmity.

The division of the Korean Peninsula proved useful for authoritarian leaders in both countries. (Even South Korea had authoritarian regimes for decades in the 20th century.) With an ever-present enemy nearby, under the name of national security, dictators coerced citizens into complying with their rules.

Park Chung-hee, South Korea’s most idolized and controversial military dictator, relied on anti-communist propaganda in the 1960s and 70s to remind South Koreans that the fiendish enemy looms nearby — not just in the north, but among themselves.

At schools, South Korean students created anti-communist posters and essays; at home, kids watched cartoons where heroic protagonists defeated North Korean spies, often depicted as vicious animals. There were even different versions of horror stories, of a kid brutally murdered by North Korean spies for allegedly saying “I hate communism” (unverified).

But Park surprised the nation in 1972 with the very first joint statement with North Korea regarding reunification since the division. The unanticipated detente in inter-Korean relations was, in fact, intended to boost Park’s waning popular support by giving an illusion of thawing relations with the north and strengthening prospects of reunification. Only three months later, Park carried on the Yushin Constitutional Reform to consolidate his dictatorial control over the country. Not too long after, the North’s Kim Il-sung reformed the North Korean constitution to solidify his absolute power, too.

When South Koreans’ protests against Park’s autocratic rule intensified after the Yushin year, the regime dubbed the dissenters “socialists.” In extreme cases, like the People’s Revolutionary Party Incident in 1974, protesters that convened against the authoritarian regime were arrested for plotting treacherous acts backed by the North. Eight of them were executed only 18 hours after being sentenced to death. Their trials are largely considered to be sham. In 2002, the incident was found to have been orchestrated by the nation’s intelligence agency to suppress political opposition.

Since the formal democratization of South Korea in 1987, the government has found it difficult to set a more consistent stance toward its neighbor. Depending on the political spectrum of each administration, the attitude of the South has switched between amicability and hostility.

Since Moon Jae-in, a left-leaning president, took office in May 2017, the situation has become further complicated. As the North’s provocations and nuclear threats continued to rock the world, Moon agreed on implementing the UN sanctions while trying to simultaneously engage with North Korea, like asking for its participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics (which it surprisingly agreed to, almost at the last minute).

For now, the North and the South are on ‘let’s-take-a-break-with-the-enemy-thing’ mode, agreeing to march together at the Olympics opening ceremony on Feb. 9, letting North Korean cheerleaders participate in the event, and creating a joint women’s ice hockey team.


But after the Olympics is over, then what? When the U.S. and South Korea resume their annual joint military drills (temporarily halted because of the Olympics), and when North Korea resumes its weapons development, what will happen to all these symbolic gestures of peace?

The true outcome of the recent detente between the two Koreas is yet to be seen. As it has always been, the Korean peninsula will probably continue to oscillate between brotherhood and enmity for the foreseeable future.



Read more about South Koreans’ perceptions of North Korea in North Korea: Brother, Enemy, Not My Problem.


Jieun Choi authored this article.

Cover image: The Military Demarcation Line has been dividing the two Koreas since the armistice of the Korean War in 1953 (Source: Rishabh Tatiraju via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

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