Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Light Emerging in North, South Korea Ties

No two countries in the world knew less about each other before 1950 than Korea and the United States. No two countries have been more closely intertwined since. But all that is probably nearing an end.

In the United States, the intelligence community has swung around to the Pentagon's view that the country needs a national missile defense against attacks by "rogue states." Over the next 15 years, it said last year, the United States "most likely will face ICBM threats from Russia, China and North Korea, probably from Iran and possibly from Iraq."

In the old days, this fantasy would have been backed by the South Korean regime, but listen to them now. "The threat hasn't gone away, but it's most unlikely," said a South Korean diplomat just before President Kim Dae-jung's historic visit to North Korea last week. "What everyone is looking at now, at some point down the line, is the reunification of North and South."

All Koreans want to believe this is true, and it certainly comes at a propitious moment, for Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the war that tore the country apart. It lasted three years, killed about 10 percent of the country's population and left a legacy of bitterness and extremism on both sides that has lasted to the present.

It is rare to get a clear, definitive account of how a war started, but for the Korean War, one exists. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and in 1994 President Boris Yeltsin gave South Korea 548 pages of secret Soviet documents about the war's origins.

The documents begin in January 1949 with reports from the Soviet Embassy in Pyongyang of clashes between troops of the capitalist South and the Communist North. In March, North Korean leader Kim Il-sung traveled to Moscow and suggested armed aggression against the South, but Josef Stalin counseled caution. In August, however, Kim again insisted that he must attack the South to achieve national unification.

By March 1950, Kim had persuaded Moscow to sell him 120 million rubles' worth of arms; in April he met Stalin again. This time, Stalin said that "outside conditions" (probably the successful testing of the first Soviet nuclear weapon) were turning in favor of an invasion of South Korea and agreed that Kim should launch his attack, provided Mao Tse-tung's new regime in China also agreed to back it.

In May, Kim met Mao, who approved the attack plan and promised to send Chinese troops if the United States sent forces to defend South Korea. Kim then informed Moscow that the plan of attack had been finalized with the aid of a Soviet general called Vasiliyev, and on June 25, 1950, he invaded South Korea and launched a war that killed 3 million Koreans.

By the time an armistice ended the shooting war in 1953, the two Koreas were rigidly separated societies driven half-mad by hatred and loss. They remained thus frozen for two generations, while South Korea rapidly industrialized and slowly democratized, and North Korea sank ever deeper into Communist cant, personality cult and poverty.

But now a Northern regime made desperate by poverty and famine is dealing directly with a Southern leader of impeccable democratic and nationalist credentials. Unification is on the table, probably by gradual compromise and negotiation (and not by absorption of the North by the bigger, richer South).

That will be good news for all Koreans if it happens, but it is a more complex issue for Korea's neighbors and allies. Japan will have to re-think its attitudes if it finds itself living next door to a unified, self-confident nation of 70 million Koreans, many of whom still harbor deep resentment about Japanese imperial rule. China's Communist rulers would not be pleased to see the first Asian Communist regime go the way of the European Communist states, and only 500 kilometers from Beijing at that.

Above all, Korean unity would remove the main public justification for the United States to keep 70,000 troops and a carrier fleet in eastern Asia (they are there mainly as a counterweight to Chinese power) and it would eliminate the most plausible "rogue state" from the litany of the Pentagon planners. It would make everybody re-think their strategies, which would be an excellent thing.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.