The Korean peninsula, first divided along the 38th parallel, later along the demarcation line
The division of Korea into North Korea and South Korea stems from the 1945 Allied victory in World War II, ending Japan's 35-year occupation of Korea. In a proposal opposed by nearly all Koreans, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to temporarily occupy the country as a trusteeship with the zone of control demarcated along the 38th Parallel. The purpose of this trusteeship was to establish a Korean provisional government which would become "free and independent in due course." Though elections were scheduled, the two superpowers backed different leaders and two states were effectively established, each of which claimed sovereignty over the whole Korean peninsula.
The Korean War (1950-1953) left the two Koreas separated by the DMZ, remaining technically at war through the Cold War to the present day. North Korea is a communist state, often described as Stalinist and isolationist. South Korea is a capitalist liberal democracy and one of the largest economies in the world.
Since the 1990s, with progressively liberal South Korean administrations, as well as the death of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung, the two sides have taken small, symbolic steps towards a possible Korean reunification.
Korea under Japanese Rule (1910-1945)
Main article: Korea under Japanese rule
As Russo-Japanese War ended in 1905, Korea became a nominal protectorate, and in 1910 it was annexed by Japan.
End of World War II (1939–1945)
Main article: World War II
In November 1943, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek met at the Cairo Conference to discuss what should happen to Japan's colonies, and agreed that Japan should lose all the territories it had conquered by force. In the declaration after this conference, Korea was mentioned for the first time. The three powers declared that they, "mindful of the enslavement of the people of Korea are determined that in due course Korea shall become free and independent.” For some Korean nationalists who wanted immediate independence, the phrase "in due course" was cause for dismay. Roosevelt may have proposed to Stalin that 30 or 40 years elapse before full Korean independence; Stalin demurred, saying that a shorter period of time would be desirable. In any case, discussion of Korea among the Allies would not resume until victory over Japan was nearly imminent.
With the war's end in sight in August 1945, there was still no consensus on Korea's fate. With no American troops on the peninsula and Soviet forces fast approaching, the US realized it had to act quickly or risk the whole country being occupied by the Soviet Union, which it feared might lead to a Soviet occupation of Japan. Later events showed these fears to be unfounded. The Soviet forces would arrive in Korea before the American forces, but they occupied only the northern part of the peninsula, halting their advance at the 38th parallel, which was in keeping with their agreement with the United States. On August 10, 1945 two young officers – Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel – were assigned the task of creating an American occupation zone. Working on extremely short notice and completely unprepared for the task, they used a National Geographic map to decide on the 38th parallel; they chose it because it divided the country approximately in half but would leave the capital Seoul under American control. No experts on Korea were consulted and the two men were unaware that forty years previous, Japan and Russia had discussed sharing Korea along the same parallel; Rusk later said that had he known, he would have chosen a different line. Regardless, the decision was hastily written into General Order Number One for the administration of postwar Japan.
As part of Japan, Korean people were excluded from important posts in the administration of Korea, leaving a power vacuum. The general Abe Nobuyuki, the last Japanese Governor-General of Korea, was in contact with a number of influential Koreans since the beginning of August 1945 to prepare the hand-over of power. On August 15, 1945, Yo Un Hyong, a moderate left-wing politician, agreed to take over. He was in charge of preparing the creation of a new country and worked hard to build governmental structures. On September 6, 1945, a congress of representatives was convened in Seoul. The foundation of a modern Korean state took place just three weeks after Japan's capitulation. The government was predominantly left wing, caused in part by the many resistance fighters oriented towards communism.
After World War II
In the South
- Main article: United States Army Military Government in Korea
On September 7, 1945, General MacArthur announced that Lieutenant General John R. Hodge was to administer Korean affairs, and Hodge landed in Incheon with his troops the next day. The "Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea" sent a delegation with three interpreters, but he refused to meet with them.
With their focus overwhelmingly being on Japan, the American military authorities paid much less attention to Korea and soldiers generally did not want to be assigned there. While Japan was put under the administration of civilians, Korea was placed under the direct administration of military units. Little changed in the administration of the country; officials then serving under the Japanese authorities remained in their positions. The Japanese governor was not dismissed until the middle of September and many Japanese officials stayed in office until 1946.
The US occupation authorities in southern Korea viewed the self-proclaimed government as a communist insurgency and refused to recognize the "Provisional Government". However, an anti-communist named Syngman Rhee, who moved back to Korea after decades of exile in the US, was considered an acceptable candidate to provisionally lead the country since he was considered friendly to the US. Meanwhile on August 31, 1946, an editorial in the Chosun Ilbo told Hodge that the deteriorating economy was leaving the Korean people suffering more than any time under Japanese rule. In August 1948, Syngman Rhee became the first president of South Korea, and U.S. forces left the peninsula. Under Rhee, the southern government conducted a number of campaigns aimed ostensibly at "removing communism" but that in reality targeted anyone who opposed his rule. Over the course of the next few years, over 100,000 people would lose their lives in these campaigns.
In the North
In August 1945 the Soviet Army established the Soviet Civil Authority to rule the country until a domestic regime, friendly to the USSR, could be established. Provisional committees were set up across the country putting Communists into key positions. In March 1946 land reform was instituted as the land from Japanese land owners was divided and handed over to poor farmers. This was very popular with the farmers, but caused many collaborators and former landowners to flee to the south. Key industries were nationalized. The economic situation was as difficult in the north as it was in the south, as the Japanese had concentrated agriculture in the south and heavy industry in the north.
In February 1946 a provisional government called the North Korean Provisional People's Committee was formed under Kim Il-sung, who had spent the last years of the war training with Soviet troops in Manchuria. Conflicts and power struggles at the top levels of government were mostly hidden in the north. At the local levels, people's committees openly attacked collaborators and some landlords, confiscating much of their land and possessions. As a consequence many unfavorable people disappeared or were assassinated. Soviet forces departed in 1948.
Establishment of two Koreas
With mistrust growing rapidly between the formerly allied United States and Soviet Union, no agreement was reached on how to reconcile the competing provisional governments. The U.S. brought the problem before the United Nations in the fall of 1947. The USSR opposed UN involvement.
The UN passed a resolution on November 14, 1947, declaring that free elections should be held, foreign troops should be withdrawn, and a UN commission for Korea should be created. The Soviet Union, although a member with veto powers, boycotted the voting and did not consider the resolution to be binding.
In April 1948, a conference of organizations from the north and the south met in Pyongyang. This conference produced no results, and the Soviets boycotted the UN-supervised elections in the south. There was no UN supervision of elections in the north. On May 10, the south held elections. Syngman Rhee, who had called for partial elections in the south to consolidate his power as early as 1947, was elected, though left-wing parties boycotted the election. Widespread corruption was reported in the elections and the Republic of Korea began life without a great deal of legitimacy. On August 13, he formally took over power from the U.S. military.
In the North, Democratic People's Republic of Korea was declared on September 9, with Kim Il-sung as prime minister. This division of Korea, after more than a millennium of being unified, was seen as unacceptable and temporary by both regimes. From 1948 until the start of the civil war on June 25, 1950, the armed forces of each side engaged in a series of bloody conflicts along the border. In 1950, these conflicts escalated dramatically when North Korea forces attacked South Korea, triggering the Korean War and effectively making the division permanent. An armistice was signed ending hostilities and the two sides agreed to create a three-mile wide buffer zone between the states, where nobody would enter. This area came to be known as the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ.
After the Korean War (1953–present)
Main articles: Korean Demilitarized Zone and Korean reunification
North and South Korea have never signed a formal peace treaty and thus are still officially at war; only a ceasefire was declared. South Korea's government came to be dominated by its military and a relative peace was punctuated by border skirmishes and assassination attempts. The North failed in several assassination attempts on South Korean leaders, most notably in 1968, 1974 and 1983; tunnels were frequently found under the DMZ and war nearly broke out over the ax-murder incident at Panmunjeom in 1976. In 1973, extremely secret, high-level contacts began to be conducted through the guise of the Red Cross, but ended after the Panmunjeom incident with little progress having been made.
In the late 1990s, with the South having transitioned to democracy, the success of the Nordpolitik policy, and power in the North having been taken up by Kim Il-sung's son Kim Jong-il, the two nations began to engage publicly for the first time, with the South declaring its Sunshine Policy.
Recently, in effort to promote reconciliation, the two Koreas have adopted an unofficial Unification Flag, representing Korea at international sporting events. The South provides the North with significant aid and cooperative economic ventures, and the two governments have cooperated in organizing meetings of separated family members and limited tourism of North Korean sites. However, the two states still do not recognize each other, and the Sunshine Policy remains controversial in South Korea.
The apportionment of responsibility for the division is much debated, although the older generation of South Koreans generally blame the North's communist zeal for instigating the Korean War. Many in the younger generation see it as a byproduct of the Cold War, criticizing the US role in the establishment of separate states, presence of US troops in the South, and hostile policies against the North.
- Oberdorfer, Don. The Two Koreas : A Contemporary History. Addison-Wesley, 1997, 472 pages, ISBN 0201409275
- Cumings, Bruce. The Origins of the Korean War: Liberation and the Emergence of Separate Regimes, 1945-1947. Princeton University Press, 1981, 607 pages, ISBN 0-691-90113-2