Tensions and Conflict on the Korean Peninsula

The decorated border with North and South Korea
Ribbons and flags at the border between South and North Korea.

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The Korean Peninsula is a region located in Eastern Asia extending south from the Asian continent for about 683 miles (1,100 km). Today, it is politically divided into North Korea and South Korea. North Korea is located on the northern part of the peninsula, and it extends from China south to the 38th parallel of latitude. South Korea then extends from that area and encompasses the rest of the Korean Peninsula.

The Korean Peninsula was in the news for much of 2010, and especially toward the end of the year, because of growing conflicts between the two nations. Conflict on the Korean Peninsula is not new however as North and South Korea have long had tensions with one another that dates back before the Korean War, which ended in 1953.

History of the Korean Peninsula

Historically, the Korean Peninsula was occupied by only Korea, and it was ruled by several different dynasties, as well as the Japanese and the Chinese. From 1910 to 1945 for example, Korea was controlled by the Japanese, and it was mostly controlled from Tokyo as a part of the Empire of Japan.

Toward the end of World War II, the Soviet Union (USSR) declared war on Japan, and by August 10, 1945, it occupied the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. At the end of the war, Korea was then divided into northern and southern portions at the 38th parallel by the Allies at the Potsdam Conference. The United States was to administer the southern part, while the USSR administered the northern area.
This division started the conflicts between the two areas of Korea because the northern region followed the USSR and became communist, while the south opposed this form of government and formed a strong anti-communist, capitalist government. As a result, in July of 1948, the anti-communist southern region drafted a constitution and began to hold national elections which were subjected to terrorism. However, on August 15, 1948, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) was officially founded, and Syngman Rhee was elected as president. Shortly after that, the USSR established a Communist North Korean Government called the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) with Kim Il-Sung as its leader.

Once the two Koreas were formally established, Rhee and Il-Sung worked to reunify Korea. This caused conflicts though because each wanted to unify the area under their own political system and rival governments were established. Also, North Korea was heavily supported by the USSR and China and fighting along the border of North and South Korea was not uncommon.

The Korean War

By 1950, the conflicts on the border of North and South Korea led to the beginning of the Korean War. On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea and almost immediately the United Nations member states began to send aid to South Korea. North Korea was, however, able to quickly advance south by September 1950. By October though, U.N. forces were able to move the fighting north again and on October 19, North Korea's capital, Pyongyang was taken. In November, Chinese forces joined North Korean forces and the fighting was then moved back south and in January 1951, South Korea's capital, Seoul was taken.

In the months that followed, heavy fighting ensued, but the center of the conflict was near the 38th parallel. Although peace negotiations began in July of 1951, fighting continued throughout 1951 and 1952. On July 27, 1953, peace negotiations ended, and the Demilitarized Zone was formed. Shortly after that, an Armistice Agreement was signed by the Korean People's Army, the Chinese People's Volunteers and the United Nations Command, which was led by the U.S. South Korea however, never signed the agreement, and to this day an official peace treaty has never been signed between North and South Korea. 

Today's Tensions

Since the end of the Korean War, tensions between North and South Korea have remained. For example according to CNN, in 1968, North Korea unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate South Korea's president. In 1983, a bombing in Myanmar that was linked to North Korea killed 17 South Korean officials, and in 1987, North Korea was accused of bombing a South Korean airplane. Fighting has also repeatedly occurred both land and sea borders because each nation is continually trying to unify the peninsula with its own system of government.
In 2010, tensions between North and South Korea were especially high after a South Korean warship was sunk on March 26. South Korea claims that North Korea sunk the Cheonan in the Yellow Sea off the South Korean island of Baengnyeong. North Korea denied responsibility for the attack and tensions between the two nations have been high ever since.

Most recently on November 23, 2010, North Korea launched an artillery attack on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. North Korea claims that South Korea was conducting "war maneuvers," but South Korea states that it was conducting maritime military drills. Yeonpyeong was also attacked in January 2009. It is located near a maritime border between the countries that North Korea wants moved south. Since the attacks, South Korea began practicing military drills in early December.
To learn more about the historic conflict on the Korean Peninsula and the Korean War, visit this page on the Korean War as well as North Korea and South Korea Facts from this site.


CNN Wire Staff. (23 November 2010). Korean Tension: A Look at the Conflict - CNN.com.

Infoplease.com. (n.d.). Korean War - Infoplease.com.

United States Department of State. (10 December 2010). South Korea.

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Briney, Amanda. "Tensions and Conflict on the Korean Peninsula." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/tensions-and-conflict-korean-peninsula-1435251. Briney, Amanda. (2020, August 28). Tensions and Conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/tensions-and-conflict-korean-peninsula-1435251 Briney, Amanda. "Tensions and Conflict on the Korean Peninsula." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/tensions-and-conflict-korean-peninsula-1435251 (accessed March 26, 2023).

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