North and South Korea: A Brief History

North and South Korea: A Brief History

In our lifetime we have only known a divided Korea, as the two nations have been deadlocked in a temporary cease-fire agreement since 1953. But in comparison to Korea’s long and rich history, this is only a tiny blip on its radar. Still, it is the current state of affairs, though many people still don’t know much of what differentiates the two nations. On occasions when discussing Korea, someone always asks “Are you talking about North or South Korea?” Korean history is not extensively covered in Western curriculum, so this month we’re covering the overall implications of the Korean war.

Background: Japanese Occupation and the Korean War

Japan took control of the whole of Korea in 1910 at a time when Japan was gaining power and looking to expand its influence over East Asia. Koreans suffered greatly during this occupation in which Japan attempted to completely eradicate Korean culture, forcing Japanese cultural customs on Korea’s people. This led to the rumblings of the rebellion that would later fuel the Communist movement and bring notoriety to the father of the Communist party in Korea, Kim Ilsung. Propaganda from the Kim regime later credited him with personally driving Japanese forces out of Korea and freeing the native people.


With the collapse of Japan at the end of WWII, a vacuum was left in the overall state of Korea. China, Russia, and the U.S. all got involved in the country’s affairs. The 38th parallel was established to give control of the northern part of Korea to Russia and the southern part to the U.S. China became locked in a civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists, and the cooperation between North Korea and Chinese Communists began and has lasted to this day. World powers failed to maintain stability in both regions for a tumultuous five-year period, which eventually led to North Korean forces raiding South Korea via the 38th parallel in June of 1950, with Stalin failing to step in to stop the movement.

At the time North Korean forces had launched their surprise invasion, the prominent Red Scare in North America was in full force, but, despite that, Korea had not been on President Truman’s radar as an important place to watch. As a result, in the first few months of 1950, North Korea had almost completely taken over the rest of the peninsula, leaving only major city Busan under South Korean rule.

Upon the arrival of U.S. forces, South Korea pushed back at the end of 1950 and took over nearly the entire peninsula. Chinese forces then intervened and pushed Allied soldiers back to the 38th parallel, where most of the fighting was contained until the cease-fire in 1953.

The Division


Possibly the most heartbreaking result of the split was that some families were torn apart simply because of geographic location. North Korea immediately became a closed society and remains so to this day, with only small glimpses into what life is like in the country offered by foreign filmmakers, often under intense surveillance and with heavy control on what they are allowed to show. The split peninsula is a prime example of the global fight between capitalism and communism, with the South brought up as a capitalist society with the help of the U.S. and the UN, and the North supported by communist China and Russia.

Since then, the two nations of shared culture have developed very differently. South Korea has adapted their own version of capitalism that is different from the West, and as a result of that and the general work ethic Koreans share, they’ve become one of the most wealthy and successful countries in the world, constantly at the forefront of the technological revolution. While the development of South Korea has not been all sunshine and rainbows, they’ve certainly proven what the Korean people are capable of. In contrast, defectors from North Korea tell stories of a totalitarian government that has since run the country into the ground and starved the majority of the population, among other horror stories. These stories are primarily what the majority of the West knows about Korea.

Recent Relations between North and South Korea have been high in the past, even as recently as 2015. Many underground tunnels from the North toward Seoul have been found since the split, as well as slight skirmishes along the DMZ and an exchange of propaganda across each border, which even hilariously included South Korea blasting BIGBANG after Kim Jongun conducted another nuclear test.

With the recent election of new South Korean president Moon Jaein to replace impeached Park Geunhye, a new policy toward North Korea became popular among the majority of South Korea, known as the “sunshine policy.” For the first time ever, both Korean leaders are to meet at the DMZ to engage in face-to-face talks at the end of the month. North Korea sent over athletes to participate alongside South Korean competitors during the Winter Olympic Games this year and has shown a more open demeanor toward re-establishing political relations.

Only time will tell whether or not these new developments manifest into real progress. While this article only scratches the surface of North and South Korean relations, there’s a lot of interesting history to delve into for both nations and the impact of the split on Korea’s overall history.

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