What Does The Militarization Of The Koreas Say About Peace And Cooperation In The Region?

On September 26th, 2023, South Korea held its first large-scale military parade in a decade, showing off its weapons ranging from ballistic missiles, drones, and tanks, as Jessie Yeung and Gawon Bae reported on CNN. It was held to mark the 75th Armed Forces Day, commemorating the founding of the country’s armed forces. The parade does not only have historical significance in its meaning, but it also aligns with the status quo of regional tension in the Korean peninsula. “If North Korea uses nuclear weapons, its regime will be brought to an end by an overwhelming response from the (Seoul-Washington) alliance,” South Korean President Yoon Seok-Yeol said, according to CNN. In recent years, the region has intensified more than ever. South Korea strengthened its alliance with the US and Japan, and North Korea sought a stronger bond with Russia, which also is in dire need of an ally as many other countries have turned their backs against Russia following its attack on Ukraine. These actions contrast with the outlook of diplomatic “cooperation” in the Peninsula five years ago when then-South-Korean president Moon Jae-In sought cooperation with North Korea alongside then-president Donald Trump. However, many experts say the negotiations between the two Koreas and the United States did not make noticeable improvements. Regardless, the current military action and reconfiguration of alliances in the region demonstrates that the regional tensions are worse than they were five years ago. 

South-Korea-Japan-US alliances have been a long dream of the United States. Therefore, the summit meeting of the three nations at Camp David in mid-August 2023 achieved the “deemed impossible” goal of the United States, according to Laura Bicker, Asia Pacific correspondent at BBC. US President Joe Biden was pleased with the event, as three countries pledged to oppose China’s “dangerous and aggressive behaviour” in maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas, according to Bicker. However, the summit did not only threaten China but also added pressure on the other “enemy” of the three countries – North Korea. In response, North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-Un met Russian leader Vladimir Putin to form a military alliance in mid-September 2023. These two groups of alliances are not new. It instead is reviving the picture of old Cold War alliances when the United States sought to restrain the Soviet Union by creating a buffer in East Asia through its alliances with Japan and South Korea. On the other hand, the Soviet Union supported the North Korean regime. Therefore, the alliances are a repetition of the past and what many people expect the region to look like, so many may dismiss the seriousness of its issue in the Korean Peninsula.

However, what is concerning now in the peninsula is a constant military confrontation between the North and South. Although North Korea is notorious for holding frequent military parades, South Korea hasn’t held one in a decade, and its decision to revive it this year brings out historical and political tension in the region. Five years ago, when then-South-Korean president Moon conducted a series of cooperation with the North, the South Korean government decided to bring down the scale of the 70th anniversary of its Army establishment in the fear of harming its “friendly” relations with the North, although it proved not to significantly improve the situation overall. Therefore, the decision of Yoon’s government to uphold the military parade again clearly demonstrates that the situation in the Korean Peninsula has worsened compared to five years ago, and South Korea is confronting North Korea equally with a military response. During the military parade, the South Korean military defence introduced its army as those that can “stab into the heart of the enemy” and “win in the war.” Although North Korea has done those ceremonies for decades, the new courses of South Korean actions put the cooperation and peace of the region at further risk. 

The militaristic actions of the two Koreas only jeopardize the stability in the region. As proven by the recent conflicts in other parts of the world, when tensions escalate into war, it is irreversible, and the lives of civilians are in danger. Therefore, the leaders of the two Koreas – or at least the South Korean one – should ensure that the conflicts between the two do not progress into a war like they did 70 years ago. This means South Korea should not react with the military to the problems with North Korea.

Indeed, South Korea’s showcase of its military strength through the parade reassured its citizens of security and protection. Many people supported the parade for that reason, as they have felt threatened by North Korean aggression in recent years. However, many other South Koreans reproached the action, referring to the military scene back to the times when South Korea was ruled by military dictatorship. Therefore, South Korea is in a difficult place to balance between showing military strength to its citizens and promoting peace. They are supposed to listen to their citizens and balance between security and peace. However, the current government doesn’t seem to want to promote peaceful methods. It instead wants to restrain North Korean action by retaliating with military actions alongside the United States, which wants to restrain Chinese “aggression” towards Japan and South Korea.

A peaceful approach is crucial for the region. However, the South Korean government and its people argue that a peaceful method is impossible when North Korea demonstrates violence towards them, which they have been doing since the regime was established in 1948. This is true. Because of North Korean aggression and self-interest, attempted peace negotiations did not work five years ago. However, this doesn’t mean military action is the answer. Although the current international situation suggests that peace is not impossible – with Russia actively seeking its support for Ukraine and the United States and China forming new “cold war” lines across the world – violence is not the answer.

This report cannot give a solution to this historically, politically, and diplomatically complicated issue. However, this report understands that violence and military actions are not the answer. It instead challenges South Korea and the United States to reconsider their actions from the point of view of Korean citizens who will be harmed when the war breaks out after resorting to violence. It urges the leaders to learn from the past and other current global conflicts and think in the longer term.

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