The Continuity Behind the Change in Korea

“Change in Korea” used to be an oxymoron. For decades one could assert without fear of contradiction that nothing had changed on the Korean peninsula since the 1953 Panmunjom armistice that ended the Korean War. The Cold War standoff among the major powers in the region and the spectacular estrangement between the two Koreas precluded any shift in the political balance. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Korea remained conspicuously frozen, seemingly locked in a Cold War time warp. Hence, conventional theories explaining this warp went unchallenged: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was a reclusive, opaque, and threatening regime; unification could come only through the victory of one side over the other (songong t’ongil); and the U.S. alliance with the Republic of Korea (ROK) remained the bedrock of security on the peninsula. A bizarre form of stability thus grew out of a dangerous and inertial situation.

Then, in the space of five years, a chain of unprecedented events took place. DPRK leader Kim Il-sung died in 1994, leaving a bankrupt economy to his even more mysterious and untested son, Kim Jong-il. North Korea’s famine conditions and a burgeoning ballistic missile capability raised concerns that the stalemate on the peninsula might end in a North Korean implosion or explosion. Tensions over the DPRK’s nuclear program approached the brink of war in June 1994, and conflict was averted only by the Agreed Framework under which the United States would assist (and bankroll) a peaceful DPRK energy program…

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