Korea wasn’t always divided into North and South like it is now. While today the differences between the two seem as distinct as night and day, just 75 years ago they were essentially the same nation. Why then, is Korea divided into two countries?
From 1392-1910 Korea Was A Relatively Unified Kingdom
The Joseon Dynasty’s power wasn’t always absolute over their 500-year reign, however. In 1401, it became a tributary of Ming China. In 1592 and 1597, Japan invaded, but they didn’t stay around long. In 1637, the Joseon lost a war with the newly established Qing Dynasty in China and was forced again to become their tributary.
By the end of the 19th century, the Joseon Dynasty was in decline. Both the Donghak peasant rebellionand increasingly untenable isolationist policies left the central government weak. At this point, both Chinese and Japanese forces increased their presence in Korea, leading to the First Sino-Japanese War (fought mainly on Korean soil). After Qing China’s defeat at the hands of Japan in 1895, Korea then became a tributary of Japan.
Korea Was A Colony Of Japan From 1910 To 1945
For the first 10 years, Japan imposed harsh military rule on the new colony. In 1919, a nationwide protest demanding independence was met with overwhelming force. Different estimates place the number of protesters killed at between 553 and 7,509. After the incident, the Japanese revised and somewhat relaxed their policy of rule. Korea was rapidly modernized and industrialized in order to provide Japan with goods and resources to fuel their expansionism.
During the latter part of the 1930s, as Japan mobilized for war, conditions again became harsh. The Japanese decided to try to assimilate the Koreans, teaching school in Japanese. Koreans were made to adopt Japanese names, and after 1938, schoolchildren were actually forbidden to speak Korean. Efforts were made to eradicate native Korean culture, and Shinto was introduced, but it didn’t take.
The Russians And Americans Divided Korea Into Two Zones
Worried that the Soviet Union would soon dominate the whole of Korea as well, the US proposed splitting it into two zones. Days before the war closed, the two nations agreed to split control of postwar Korea along the 38th parallel, putting Seoul in the American half. The idea, of course, was to later unify it under a newly established government.
In 1948, Two Governments Were Formed In The Two Zones
To solve the impasse, the US basically set up anti-communist Syngman Rhee as the President of the Republic of Korea with United Nations sanctioned elections in August. In September, the Soviet Union set up former Soviet Red Army Major Kim Il-sung as the Premier of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (in the Stalinist, “cult-of-personality” model). Each of the two governments claimed sovereignty over the whole of the Korean Peninsula.
The Chinese Communist Revolution Acted As A Precursor To The Korean War
Due largely to many previous years of mismanagement, corruption, and loss of popular support, the Nationalists lost the war to the now surging CCP. In 1949, Mao Zedong declared the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, marking the Chinese Communist Revolution. Meanwhile, the Nationalists fled to Taiwan, under the protection of the US. This would have direct ramifications on the two Koreas.
In 1950, Communist North Korea Invaded The South
The newly formed United Nations Security Council then branded the North as the aggressor. The British Far East Fleet was drawn into service, and the US began sending in troops. The North’s advance was stopped at the port city of Pusan. As reinforcements arrived, UN forces pushed northward. Under the command of MacArthur, UN forces were granted permission to cross the 38th parallel and attempt to reunify Korea as the Republic of Korea. By the end of October, they controlled most of the Peninsula.
Maoist China Intervened On The Side of North Korea
By the beginning of the new year, they were defending a line south of Seoul. The line held, however, and the UN forces were again able to push north to the 38th parallel.
Korea Would’ve Been Reunited By Nuclear Fallout If MacArthur Had His Way
Truman and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were not on board. Besides fears that Russia would enter the war, starting WWIII, they really didn’t want to carve a swath of radioactive fallout across east Asia. Instead, they opted to fire MacArthur in April 1951.
The Korean War Ended In Stalemate
For two more years, the two sides vied for position while negotiating a ceasefire. The Armistice was signed on July 27, 1953. It created a new boundary near the 38th parallel and established the two-mile-wide demilitarized zone that still exists today. Thus, the division between North and South Korea was cemented. While a truly divided Korea hadn’t existed for over a millennium, the country’s politics being defined by much larger international powers was nothing new to the Peninsula.
Democracy Took A While To Take In South Korea
The riots continued, however, and, in 1961, the army staged a coup, placing General Park Chung-hee as the ruler. Martial law was declared until 1963 when elections were held, with the General winning. He ruled until he was assassinated in 1969. Again the army stepped in with General Chun Doo-hwan declaring martial law.
In the late 1980s, turmoil again began brewing. In response to criticism by Christian leaders and mass demonstrations, General Chun stepped down in 1988. Democratic Elections were held, and General Roh Tae-woo was elected President. By the 1990s, democracy had stabilized.
Capitalism Took A Firm Hold In South Korea
A focus on export production helped drive growth in South Korea during the 1960s and beyond, and while there was still corporate rent-seeking and favoritism, it was manageable. Interestingly, the authoritarian nature of the government insulated it from regulatory capture by special interests. Ultimately, the growth witnessed during the period (7% per year) provided a high level of prosperity and stability to the country.
North Korea Remains A Communist Dictatorship
In the 1960s, the Soviet Union withdrew support after the Sino-Soviet split. During the 1970s, North Korea’s economy began to falter due to depleted oil reserves. In 1980, the country defaulted on its debt. Between 1996 and 1999, the country suffered from a famine that killed between 600,000 and 900,000 people.
The problems faced by ordinary citizens in North Korea since the Korean War make South Korea seem like paradise in comparison. North Korea remains the only surviving Stalinist regime, ruled by the Kim family with an iron fist. The country still has concentration camps where political dissidents are imprisoned and tortured.