The ongoing war in Ukraine following Russia’s military operation has virtually divided the world into two camps. Some people are comparing it with the situation that prevailed before the outbreak of World War II.
Russia’s threat to use nuclear weapons raises a more dangerous situation than what was foreseen in the pre-World War II period.
After the Hiroshima bombings, the world’s conscience keepers came up with binding agreements to ensure that countries in possession of nuclear weapons would not use them even in the case of extreme provocations. There are however such recalcitrant nations as North Korea. After WW II ended, the ideological issue that was at the root cause of the war fragmented some countries.
Some have been reunited and some have not. For example, West and East Germany which split up on ideological grounds are united and the unified Germany is now an important player in world issues.
Sudan is another successful case. India was split on religious grounds as there was no scope of reconciliation and there are now three independent countries.
One glaring example of a division that remains is in the Korean Peninsula, in the form of South and North Korea. Here, ideology does not play any role as such.
While South Korea is now a democracy after a spell of authoritarian rule, North Korea continues to remain a dynastic dictatorship with no sign of changing as it has the blessing of Beijing for strategic reasons.
Survival is the core issue for the North Korean regime, which is why the Kim Jong-un dispensation continuously pursues sabre-rattling to the keep itself afloat.
Therefore, despite the cravings for a Korean reunification, especially in the South, it remains an unfulfilled dream.
Because of the volatility of the situation, the USA entered into a security agreement with Seoul to defend South Korea’s interests, while North Korea sought protection from China, another communist country.
Since then, China’s strategic interests have increased with compelling reasons to keep North Korea afloat.
His assurance allows the Kim regime to pursue its nuclear and missile development programmes as a means to secure the regime.
On South Korea’s part, its alliance relationship with the US allows both to demonstrate their capability to cope with the North Korean challenge by conducting military drills and exercises. Such a situation keeps the situation very fragile and makes it difficult for any peace talks to make progress. This is unfortunate.
This having been said, many families that were divided during the Korean War continue to have the emotional urge to reunite with their lost brethren on the other side of the border. They are bound by blood and the urge for reunification has emotional implications for them.
The main bottleneck is that although the three-year-long fierce fighting in the Korean War (1950-1953) ended with heavy casualties on both sides, it ended with an armistice.
A peace treaty has never been reached since then. The peninsula thus remains divided by the Demilitarized Zone, the 38th Parallel Line in Panmunjom leaving the two Koreas still technically at war.
For much of the past seven decades, the US-South Korea alliance helped maintain peace and stability in the region.
The hiccup in the alliance relationship started after the North Korean threat escalated following its development of nuclear and missile development programmes.
As if to extract a pound of flesh, the mercurial former US President Donald Trump with his thrust on his “America First” policy, demanded greater security burden-sharing with South Korea towards the cost of keeping 28,500 troops in the peninsula to offer protection from North Korea.
Notwithstanding this aberration, the allies remain firmly committed to defending the hardfought peace on the Korean peninsula.
Now there is a new dimension to this Korean imbroglio. A group of American lawmakers have reintroduced a bill seeking US efforts to declare a formal end to the Korean War and improve relations with North Korea. The bill, Peace on the Korean Peninsula Act, was introduced in the House of Representatives by 20 lawmakers.
The objective of the bill was borne of the realisation that a continued state of war on the Korean Peninsula does not serve the interests of the US, or those of South and North Korea.
The bill was introduced in 2021 but could not be passed. It calls for efforts to formally end the Korean War.
The lawmakers urged the Secretary of State to conduct a “full review” of restrictions that currently bar Americans from travelling to North Korea.
South Korea too is concerned that many families remain separated since the Korean War.
There were occasions when meetings were organised in the border areas under strict government control.
South Korea’s Unification Ministers have also called North Korea to respond positively to Seoul’s dialogue offer on reunion of separated families.
At an event to celebrate the 54th anniversary of the founding of the ministry, Unification Minister Kwon Young-se delivered a message, saying that there is “not much time left” for the surviving families.
South Korea is keen to promote inter-Korean cooperation to address humanitarian issues, including humanitarian aid and separated families, regardless of the political and military situation.
In September 2022, Kwon publicly proposed talks with the North on the eve of the Chuseok fall harvest holiday to discuss the issue of separated families.
North Korea has remained unresponsive to the South’s outreach for inter-Korean talks amid frosty relations following the nodeal summit between the North and the United States in Hanoi in early 2019.
As of the end of 2022, almost 66 per cent of the surviving family members were 80 years of age or older, numbering 42,624, according to government data.
According to this data, more than 3,600 South Koreans died in 2022 without having a chance to reunite with their family members in North Korea after the Korean War-driven separation.
Data from the Unification Ministry also revealed they formed part of around 134,000 applicants who had registered with the government for family reunions.
Since the first inter-Korean summit in 2000, the two Koreas have held 21 rounds of face-toface family reunions events, including the latest one in August 2018. But now such events have been halted.
(The writer is Senior Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi)