A conflict that never really ended.
Separated by a 4 km (2.5 mi), coast-to-coast demilitarized zone (DMZ), the two Koreas have existed apart for over half a century.
The North, estimated by the U.N. to have a GDP of $12 billion, is ruled by the iron fist of the communist party, while the South, with a GDP of over $1.1 trillion, has embraced democracy and capitalism.
There hasn’t been any full-scale warfare since both parties signed an armistice in 1953, but there hasn’t been an official peace treaty either. The countries are still technically at war.
Why were North Korea and South Korea separated?
As World War II was coming to an end, Korea – then occupied by Imperial Japan – was liberated by Soviet troops from the North and U.S. troops from the South.
Britain, the U.S., China, and the Soviet Union were all ready to grant Korea independence. It had been occupied since the 1910 Japanese annexation.
Post-wars ties between the U.S. and the Soviet Union deteriorated, however, instead of a unified Korean government, two states were created in 1950: The Democratic Republic of Korea, backed by the Soviets, and the Republic of Korea, backed by the U.S.
Why was there a war?
Almost as soon as the two new nations were created, war was declared by the North. Essentially a Cold War proxy conflict, communist Russia and China supported one side, while the U.S. and the U.N. supported the other.
It was a bloody conflict, leaving 4.5 million military and civilian dead after three years, according to a paper published by the University of Maryland. Neither side made significant territorial gains, and the last two years of the war was a stalemate.
In the end, an armistice was negotiated by the U.N., moving the borders back to the 38th parallel that the U.S. had drawn up as the border before the war, and established the DMZ.
North Korea, however, has said many times over the last two decades that they no longer recognize the armistice agreement, according to the think tank Council on Foreign Relations.
What could happen next?
It also has an army of over a million soldiers, according to the Guardian, the fourth largest in the world, and thousands of missiles it could rain down on the South.
On the other hand, the U.S. has 25,000 troops stationed in South Korea, and has several aircraft carriers and military bases in the area.
In the same way the U.S. is supporting the South, China has stood behind North Korea, acting as a major trading partner, supplying foreign aid, and supporting it in the U.N. Security Council.
However, signs have been showing that China’s patience might be running thin. The last time North Korea tested a nuclear weapon, China supported sanctions against the rouge state.
China also supplies about 50 percent of North Korean food supplies and 80 to 90% of its energy needs, according to the Cato Institute.
In other words, losing China’s support would be devastating for North Korea, making it likely that they will toe Beijing’s line for the foreseeable future.