Kim Jong-il, lee myung bak, kim jong-il lee
Junji Kurokawa/AP, Yao Dawei/Xinhua/AP
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il

North Korean Attack Escalates Tensions in 60-Year Korean Conflict

November 24, 2010 12:00 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
North and South Korea traded artillery attacks Tuesday in one of the most significant clashes between the neighbors since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

North Korea Bombs South Korean Island

North Korea launched an artillery attack Tuesday on the South Korean island Yeonpyeong, killing two marines and two civilians and provoking a retaliatory South Korea artillery attack.

The island lies in disputed territory in the Yellow Sea, which has been the scene for conflicts in 1999, 2002 and last March, when a North Korean attack sank the South Korean warship Cheonan, killing 46.

Tuesday’s incident triggered concern of a violent escalation in the six-decade conflict between North and South, which has been marked by many small skirmishes since the 1953 armistice ending the Korean War.

The conservative South Korean newspaper JoongAng Daily wrote, “With our memories of the Korean War still vivid, this massive attack reaffirms the grim reality that such a tragedy can be repeated at any time.”

Historical Context: Conflict in Korea

Things have long been contentious in Korea, where the conflict between the North and South goes back more than half a century. Following the Korean peninsula’s long occupation by the Japanese empire, Korea was divided at the 38th parallel into the Soviet-influenced People’s Democratic Republic of Korea—more commonly known as North Korea—and the American zone of occupation, The Republic of Korea, or South Korea. The Korean War started when communist North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950.

The United Nations immediately took “police action” following the North’s infringement, calling for UN member countries to come to the South’s aid. The United States, like the UN, saw the invasion as a Communist challenge to the non-Communist world, and soon entered the fray.

The UN placed its forces under U.S. commander Gen. Douglas MacArthur. In September, a successful invasion was launched at Inchon and UN forces rapidly made their way up through North Korea. But Chinese and Soviet Union forces came to the North’s aid, and the UN was pushed back into the South. 

Though the two sides pushed and pushed back, they ended up settling on a truce where the war began: at the 38th parallel. It took two years to settle the truce, and the war finally ended July 27, 1953.

According to the BBC, it is difficult to estimate how many people died in the Korean War. True casualty figures for North and South Koreans and Chinese are uncertain, although it is estimated that about 46,000 South Koreans, over 400,000 Chinese, and about 215,000 North Koreans were killed. The U.S. Department of Defense reports that almost 40,000 American servicemen were killed, and the United Kingdom reports that 1,078 of its soldiers were killed in action.

The peninsula was devastated by the three-year conflict; much of its infrastructure was destroyed and most of its people thrown into poverty. And the Cold War would continue elsewhere in the world for several decades. “The modern world still lives with the consequences of a divided Korea and with a militarily strong, economically weak, and unpredictable North Korea,” according to the U.S. Army Center of Military History.

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