The security situation on the Korean Peninsula is worsening. North Korea has conducted an unprecedented 31 missile tests to date this year and the South Korea-U.S. alliance has responded with joint live fire drills, expanded military exercises and vows of “stern” and “forceful” repercussions for further North Korean missile or nuclear tests.
While this is concerning, two other less reported recent events may represent a greater threat to building peace on the Korean Peninsula.
On June 25, North Korea held mass anti-U.S. rallies in Pyongyang and around the country for the first time since 2017. It also referred to the South Korean government as the “puppet junta” for the first time since 2018. In South Korea, after President Yoon Suk Yeol’s visit to the Korean War Memorial in June, the Ministry of Defense confirmed plans to create a new 248-square-meter permanent exhibition space there detailing North Korea’s post-Korean War military provocations.
In understanding why these events are so important, it is necessary to understand how the Korean conflict is perpetuated to become entrenched in society’s institutions and in the thought processes of citizens. This perpetuation has transformed the conflict and distanced it from the original incompatibility – which ideology should govern the entire Korean Peninsula – that caused it. Israeli academic Daniel Bar-Tal’s work on intractable conflict can shed new light onto understanding the Korean conflict beyond existing hard-power-based security analyses.
The Korean conflict satisfies the conditions of being regarded as an intractable conflict. It has persisted for over 25 years, involved extreme violence, is perceived as unsolvable to an existential degree, and demands great material and psychological investments from involved parties. The “psychological investment” refers to constructing and repeatedly imparting the justification for the conflict and the will to maintain it among society’s members.
The longevity of the Korean conflict has led to the development of collective memory and societal beliefs in the North and South that provide a clear picture and justification of the conflict, and an identity construction for one’s own group and of the rival. As in other conflicts, these mechanisms first developed during the Korean War, a time of existential danger and extreme emotional stress, as mechanisms to make sense of tragedy, to mobilize society to avoid defeat and to maintain a positive self-image while blaming the immoral “other” for the colossal destruction of war. These beliefs were then institutionalized through monuments, events, education, and cultural products in a narrative passed down and adjusted to fit the goals of each generation and its leaders.
Both Koreas have adjusted their histories to increase legitimacy in the context of the conflict with the other. North Korean history was rewritten during the Sino-Soviet split to first exclude the Soviet role in liberation and then belittle the Chinese contribution to the Korean War. Many prominent South Koreans’ collaboration with Japan was whitewashed, and Rhee Syngman’s pre- (and post-)Korean War military adventurism has been erased from South Korea’s standard narrative of the Korean conflict.
For North Koreans, the narrative is that they have been waging a 100-year struggle on behalf of the Korean people against imperialism ever since the Japanese colonial period. This now plays out against the United States and their South Korean “puppets,” as has been the case for the past 70 years. The South Korean message is that they have had to defend against repeated communist aggression and now, despite assuming regime competition victory, have to deal with a nuclear-armed, unpredictable other half. These narratives are reflected in the Korean War’s respective names, the “Homeland Liberation War” in the North, and “625” (the date North Korea invaded) in the South.
This process and phenomenon is not unique to the Korean Peninsula. In Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland, and Cyprus, the same social mechanisms are at play. In such conflicts, truth is subjective and remembering selective. Facts lose relevance in a binary struggle where only one side’s crimes are highlighted, one side’s heroes celebrated and victims mourned, and one side’s perspective propagated to citizens and allies alike.
As intractable conflicts are zero-sum, it is difficult for leaders to acknowledge or cede to the other’s demands, as this implies losing ground in pursuit of one’s own goal. As the group is defined in large part by its pursuit of a certain goal in the conflict – in this case, being the legitimate state of the Korean people – this zero-sum nature contributes to the continuation of the conflict.
Furthermore, societal beliefs about the conflict provide a meaningful understanding for the context in which lives are lived, small and large sacrifices made, and about the righteousness of the group’s actions and goals vis-à-vis the other and on the international stage. South Korea’s “Taegukgi corps,” a group of senior citizen protesters that came of age striving for economic development under military dictators and who oppose rapprochement with North Korea, can be seen as the embodiment of how these beliefs shape worldviews.
In intractable conflicts, new experiences and information regarding the conflict and the “other” are interpreted in light of existing beliefs. This validates courses of action in the conflict that trigger its reproduction. Possible approaches to and identity constructions of the other are determined by these social beliefs within a limited framework of what is regarded as legally or socially acceptable. This is reinforced by emotions such as fear or hatred born of the very real atrocities that fermented the conflict in its infancy. Mobilizations of the public also entrench attitudes against the other and have been utilized numerous times on the Korean Peninsula, particularly in the North.
To break this culture of conflict it is necessary for different ideas about the conflict, and a different relationship for the adversaries, to be propagated in society with the goal of changing societal beliefs that maintain the conflict. Once such ideas begin to be absorbed into society the possibility of transforming the conflict emerges. New formulations then enter into a state of tension with the existing formulation, before gaining acceptance or being rejected. In many cases, despite rejection different ideas about the conflict remain in society in a weakened form, accepted by some, but unable to change the dominant beliefs about the conflict espoused via government institutions.
From the late 1980s into the 1990s, South Korea’s democratization and the collapse of the USSR and socialism in eastern European led to new formulations of an inter-Korean relationship being espoused in both South and North Korea. Spurred initially from third countries, academics in South Korea began to challenge the official memory of the Korean War. Activists and NGOs challenged beliefs about North Korea and suggested a new inter-Korean relationship. Concurrently, North Korea began to increasingly emphasize Korean ethnicity and advocated inter-Korean cooperation under the pretext of it being a natural continuation of Kim Il Sung’s unification policies.
These new “mediating” worldviews of the conflict have repeatedly gained and lost traction over the last 30 years. They are influenced heavily by the domestic political situation in South and North Korea and the geopolitical climate in Northeast Asia. Since 2018 both South and North Korea made efforts to reduce propaganda about the other, and thereby created space for mediating narratives conducive to peace to emerge.
However, recent comments about the war museum plans in Seoul and the rallies in Pyongyang are unashamedly stark in demonstrating support for the continuation of societal beliefs based on enmity. They signal a (temporary) death knell for efforts at reframing the conflict.
According to the War Memorial of Korea the purpose of exhibiting North Korean provocations is for visitors to “recognize how precious peace is, and realize the need for national security.” It is also aimed at “exhibiting North Korean provocations in a realistic way to remind people that the war is not over, that it is relevant today, and could be repeated at any time.”
In response to the news, the South Korean NGO Civilian Military Watch, pointed out how Seoul’s War Memorial was planned in the late 1980s by the then-military government with the goal of establishing anti-communist values of security in the post-war generation. This was in a context when hopes for peace and unification were flourishing. The NGO emphasized their concern that the museum is one-sided and that the latest plans will reinforce and guarantee the continuation of inter-Korean hostility and confrontation.
North Korea’s recent “Day of Anti-U.S. Struggle,” meanwhile included an art exhibition showing U.S. atrocities with the caption “Never forget the U.S. imperialist savages!” In rallies, participants vowed revenge against the U.S. and are reportedly rallying around their leader Kim Jong Un.
Daniel Aum’s research, covering 1998-2018, found that North Korea’s Korea News Central Agency highlighted the Korean War 1.8 more times during the studied period of Kim Jong Un’s leadership, when inter-Korean relations were poor, than in the studied period of Kim Jong Il’s leadership, where these relations were, for the most part, much better. This demonstrates how war is highlighted, and therefore remembered, more often when inter-Korean relation are poor. The Korean War is used to advocate confrontational policy positions.
These recent events signal that both North and South Korean leaders are embarking on a return to the status quo of intractability, and dichotomies of right and wrong, good and evil. These dichotomies leave little room for alternative narratives. Rather than being a symptom of the security dilemma that recent rounds of military escalation on the peninsula have demonstrated, these dichotomies justify it. With an about-turn unlikely, Yoon’s presidential term looks to be one beset by continued inter-Korean hostility.