by Patty Zakaria, PhD
On November 13, a North Korean soldier crossed the DMZ to defect to the South, the soldier’s attempt did not go unnoticed by the North. To halt his escape, the North Korean soldiers fired at the defecting soldier, but to no avail. Recently, the United Nation Command in South Korea released security footage of the defection, which not only showed the North Korean military firing through the DMZ, but it also illustrated a North Korean soldier running through the military zone. This was the first time since the 1953 armistice that North Korea has fired shots through the DMZ. The UN Command has stated that the actions by the North have defied the 1953 armistice, but that the agreement is still in place, adding that the UNC will discuss the issue further with the North.
What does this breach of the armistice mean for the security of the Korean peninsula? More importantly, are we headed to a second Korean war?
Let’s start our story from the beginning, that is early 1950’s. The Korean War erupted on June 25, 1950, when the North Korean People’s Army crossed the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea. By mid-1951, the Korean War reached a military stalemate; therefore, with the assistance of the international community, most notably the United States and the People’s Republic of China, both sides agreed to begin talks and eventually reach an agreement. The talks culminated in the 1953 armistice.
The Korean War ended in 1953, not through a peace treaty but an armistice, which ended hostilities between the North and South, but a final solution about the unification of the North and South was to be dealt with at a later stage, as stated in Article IV of the armistice. Article IV discussed an approach for reunification of the North and South, which noted that the “…military Commanders of both sides hereby recommend to the governments of the countries concerned on both sides that, within three (3) months after the Armistice Agreement is signed and becomes effective, a political conference of a higher level of both sides be held by representatives appointed respectively to settle through negotiation the questions of the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Korea, the peaceful settlement of the Korean question” (Armistice, 1953).
In 1954, both parties attempted to follow through with article IV, but talks broke down over the issue of how to hold open and fair elections for government unification – this was particularly cumbersome in the Cold War era. Again in 1974, North Korea attempted to negotiate a bilateral deal with the United States, but the attempt failed. In the end, unification never took place and the North and South remained separate entities.
So, what did this 1953 armistice create in the aftermath of the war? In the end, the armistice established the DMZ as a buffer zone between the new two separate entities. Moreover, it created a system of a prisoner exchange and established the Military Armistice Commission.
Fast-forward to 2017, the armistice lasted for six decades, but what does the future hold for the Korean peninsula? There are three predictions that come to mind.
The first is that North Korea will respond to the UNC’s investigation by escalating hostilities in the Korean peninsula. This prediction increases tension in the international community, given North Korea’s nuclear status. However, it is less likely to happen. Why do you ask? Despite its nuclear status, North Korea’s missile capability is questionable, therefore, its nuclear threat is limited, and perhaps, more importantly, North Korea is in no position to face its more advanced military adversaries, the United States and South Korea on the battlefield.China, likely North Korea’s only military ally, does not want to be dragged into a war, and so China will take measures to restrain Pyongyang.
The second prediction is that this situation will open talks between North Korea, South Korea, and the international community. This prediction has a stronger chance given the history of the parties, most notably North Korea and South Korea.
The final prediction is that nothing will happen. Only time will tell what will happen in this case.
Dr. Patty Zakaria is a Faculty Member at University Canada West and Research Manager at Ghubril Ltd. Her work focuses on nuclear proliferation, corruption, program evaluation, and governance.