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    North-South Relations

    (Updated: June 1999)
    Throughout the postwar period, both Korean governments repeatedly affirmed their desire for reunification of the Korean peninsula, but until 1971 they had no communication or contact.

    After several meetings in 1972, the two sides announced an agreement to work toward reunification and an end to hostilities. The process broke down a year later, however, after South Korean Pres. Park Chung Hee announced the South would seek separate entry into the United Nations.

    Tension between North and South Korea increased dramatically in 1983 after an assassination attempt on Pres. Chun Doo Hwan by North Korean agents in Burma, which killed four members of the Cabinet and 13 presidential aides. North-South relations deteriorated further after North Korean agents bombed a South Korean airliner in 1987, killing 115 people.

    In 1988, South Korean Pres. Roh Tae Woo called for renewed efforts to promote exchanges, family reunification and inter-Korean trade. South Korean firms began to import North Korean goods soon afterward and direct trade began in the fall of 1990.

    "The shadow of the Cold War is still hanging over the Korean Peninsula." – Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan

    Roh's initiative renewed momentum for dialogue. In 1991, the two sides signed a joint declaration on denuclearization. The declaration called for a bilateral nuclear inspection regime to verify the denuclearization of the peninsula, but it was never implemented.

    Hostilities continued to flare throughout the mid-1990s. An official from the North threatened to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire" after the 1994 talks collapsed. Two years later, the North threatened to test its No Dong missiles and sent armed troops into the DMZ, provoking new anxieties.

    During the middle of South Korea's financial meltdown in 1997, North Korean negotiators sat down with American, South Korean and Chinese officials for the first substantive peace talks in 40 years.

    Shortly thereafter, President-elect Kim Dae Jung of South Korea proposed direct talks with North Korea, saying he might even meet with reclusive leader Kim Jong Il. In March 1998, discussions between North and South Korea negotiators resumed in Geneva with the United States and China observing the proceedings. Those talks – which focused on trying to draft a permanent peace treaty to replace the armistice which ended the 1950-53 Korean War – ended with little progress achieved.

    Despite the breakdown, North Korean officials met counterparts from South Korea in April 1998 for the first direct government-level talks since 1994. Direct, four-party talks between the Koreas, China, and the U.S. continued in October 1998, with the North's protest over U.S. military exercises clouding otherwise cordial proceedings.

    Relations between the North and the South were set back again in June 1999, when the two countries clashed over a crab-rich area of the Yellow Sea. At least seven South Korean sailors were injured after a torpedo boat from the North fired on a southern patrol boat, which had tried to push the northern craft back into its own waters.

    North Korea, which lost the torpedo ship, made no official statement about casualties on its side. South Korean media reported that 20 or more North Koreans may have died. Despite heightened tensions, the incident did not seem to ignite a larger conflict. – Tim Ito,

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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