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Two Koreas: a brief look at the Peninsula since the 1950s
The 1950-53 Korean War not only resulted in a tremendous loss of life and destruction of property, but also left a wide rift among Koreans. After the war, both sides confronted each other across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), amidst the tension of the Cold War.
While North Korea pursued Communist unification based on its logic of a so-called "One Joseon (meaning one Korea)," South Korea considered its government as the only legitimate entity on the Korean Peninsula with unification being an extension of its sovereignty. These rigid, uncompromising views made accommodation between the two sides impossible until the 1960s.
However, the international environment became more reconciliatory in the 1970s. The two Koreas recognized each other's government, which marked an epochal change in their attitudes toward reunification. The first positive sign of change came on Liberation Day in 1970 with a call from the South for bona fide peaceful competition with the North.
In August of the following year, South and North Korean Red Cross representatives held the first face-to-face meeting in 26 years since the division. Both governments cooperated with each other in trying to achieve family reunions for those separated during the Korean War.
In 1972, the two governments reached an agreement on principles of unification, and announced the results in the July 4 South-North Joint Communique. Since then, both governments have continued to talk intermittently and had contacts through various channels despite many obstacles.
In 1985, a memorable event resulted from the Red Cross Talks: members of separated families, 50 from each side, visited the other side to find their long-lost relatives. Other notable events were the South-North Economic Talks (1984) and preliminary conferences for South-North National Assembly Talks (1985). Unfortunately, these additional channels of talks between the South and the North were suspended for various political reasons.
In the 1990s, rapid changes occurred in Socialist bloc countries, which politically influenced the Korean Peninsula. Of note, in 1990, the South-North High Level Talks between the Prime Ministers from both sides started and in 1991 produced the "South-North Basic Agreement." It recognized that the South and North were in a "temporary special relationship" in the process toward reunification.
The "Joint Declaration of Denuclearization" was signed and took effect as of February 1992. However, even before the "South-North Basic Agreement" could bear tangible fruit, North Korea's attempt to arm itself with nuclear weapons revived tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
To ease and break through the tension by building mutual trust, the two Koreas agreed in July 1994 to hold summit talks between South Korean President Kim Young-sam and North Korean leader Kim Il-sung. But the sudden death of Kim Il-sung ended this effort.
The Administration of President Kim Dae-jung (1998-2002) ushered in another era of reconciliation and cooperation with North Korea. Underscoring his "Sunshine Policy," President Kim visited Pyongyang in 2000 to hold the first-ever summit with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong-il. The historic June 15 Joint Declaration was signed emphasizing the promotion of mutual understanding, developing inter-Korean relations, and achieving peaceful reunification. Projects of mutual interests were discussed and reunions of separated families have been held in Seoul and Pyongyang.
President Kim Dae-jung received the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his years of struggle to improve democracy and human rights in his native land and his efforts for reconciliation between South and North Korea.