Over the last week North and South Korea have entered talks to help stabilize the current tensions between the two countries. The 38th Parallel, the border between North and South, is one of the most heavily militarized borders in the world with 2 million soldiers guarding the border on both sides. Both countries are vastly different from one another ranging from politics to culture and even what year it is, in North Korea their calendar starts when its founder, Kim Il-sung, was born. How did the Korean peninsular get divided?
In 1910 Korea was annexed by Japan which added the peninsula to the Japanese Empire. Many Koreans fled abroad, some to China who founded the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea under Syngman Rhee while others in China founded the Communist Party of Korea. One of its early members was Kim Il-sung. The communists led guerrilla fighting against the Japanese from 1919 until 1925 while the Provisional Government tried to establish international support for Korea. Both failed. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s there was a forced cultural assimilation of Koreans to adopt Japanese culture which ranged from banning the speaking of Korean in public to name changes for Koreans. This would later inspire the Allies at the 1943 Cairo Conference during the Second World War to establish Korean independence. Great Britain, the USA and China all agreed to help establish Korean independence. At the Yalta Conference two years later the leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, agreed to declare war on Japan. On the 10th August 1945 the Red Army had started to invade northern Korea. The same day two US generals, Charles Bonesteel III and Dean Rusk, were tasked with deciding where the US occupation of Korea would lie. They decided to place US occupation for everything below the 38th parallel while the Soviet Union would occupy everything above the 38th parallel. When Japan surrendered later that year the Koreans wished for their own right to rule themselves but this was denied by both the Soviet Union and USA. In the south the US occupiers banned protests and in 1946 widespread riots in what was known as the Autumn Uprising led to martial law being imposed. In 1948 elections took place in the North and South which was marred by terrorism in the south. Following the election the Worker's Party of Korea won under the leadership of Kim Il-sung while in the south the election was won by the pro-American and anti-communist Syngman Rhee. War would soon follow.
Countdown to the Korean War
|Kim Il-sung on the left, Syngman Rhee on the right|
In the south prior during 1948 Syngman Rhee led multiple purges against left wing groups, such as banning leftists and communists from taking part in southern politics. Multiple atrocities soon followed, the worse being the Jeju Uprising in 1948 where the South Korean army massacred between 14,000-30,000 people, something which the government blamed on the communists. Many other atrocities took place on the pretext of the army hunting for communist guerrillas. In the North meanwhile Kim Il-sung was also removing political opponents. Most of the other left wing parties were merged into one under Kim Il-sung's leadership and the leaders of those parties who refused to join Kim's party were arrested. All parties that weren't the Workers Party of Korea were banned, those who supported other parties arrested and public organizations were made illegal. Unlike in the south there were no mass protests as Kim Il-sung had already started creating a personality cult surrounding himself. The first statues of himself calling him 'The Supreme Leader' started appearing in 1949. Quite likely this allowed him to quickly indoctrinate the public into supporting him, aided by the fact that he fought the Japanese as a guerrilla soldier. In 1948 the Soviets had withdrawn from the North while in 1949 the US had withdrawn from the South. Kim Il-sung's Korea was now officially called the Democratic People's Republic of Korea while Syngman Rhee's Korea was officially called the Republic of Korea. Both leaders wished to unite Korea under their rule. Kim Il-sung even traveled to Moscow to get Stalin to support a forced unification of Korea under communist rule. When US diplomat John Foster Dulles visited South Korea Syngman Rhee even directly expressed an interest in conquering the North. Stalin was reluctant to support a war at first but in 1949 communists under Mao Tse-tung took power in China and the Soviets managed to detonate their own nuclear bomb. After these events he started to supply the Kim regime with weapons while the US started to train Syngman Rhee's army. In 1950 war would be declared.
The Korean War
On the 25th June 1950 war began. Fighting initially started in the Ongjin peninsula where the North crossed the 38th parallel. It is unknown who fired the first shots as Southern claims of capturing the city of Haeju has led some to believe that the South may have fired first. Regardless of who did fire first within an hour of the fighting beginning in Ongjin the North Korean army crossed the 38th parallel. Armed with tanks and heavy artillery the North easily routed the South's army which had no tanks, anti-tank weaponry or heavy artillery. Just two days after fighting began Syngman Rhee fled Seoul. The next day he ordered the execution of any political opponents as well as the destruction of a highway over the Han River which would allowed the North easy access to Seoul. 4000 civilians were on the highway at that time trying to run from the Northern army, at least 800 were killed by the blast. On the same day Seoul fell. On the 27th US President Harry Truman ordered US personnel to aid the South Korean army. He managed to convince multiple UN member nations to send their militaries to aid the South Koreans. 16 nations sent troops to Korea under the leadership of US General Douglas MacArthur who set up the Pusan Perimeter, a line to defend against the North until reinforcements arrived. Starting with the Battle of Inchon in the September of 1950 the UN coalition managed to break through the Pusan Perimeter. In one month the UN coalition had managed to push North Korea back to the 38th parallel. President Truman was fiercely anti-communist and had been criticized by opponents for 'losing' China to communism. He decided to unify Korea under Syngman Rhee and on the 1st October MacArthur crossed the 38th parallel. What followed was a devastating loss of human life thanks to the North's scorched earth policy and the South's army massacring leftists and those suspected to be pro-communist. They quickly were at the Chinese border. Feeling threatened by the anti-communist coalition moving towards the Chinese border Mao Tse-tung declared war on the coalition. China's army, the PVA, pushed the coalition back over the 38th parallel quickly. For the next few years a stalemate which costed the lives of thousands of Korean citizens occurred. When MacArthur suggested using nuclear weapons against China he was replaced by Truman whose popularity was waning in the view of the US public. In 1952 he lost the election to Dwight Eisenhower who promised to end the Korean War. In 1953 a peace deal was signed between North Korea, China and the UN coalition. However no peace agreement was signed between the North and South, it has been one long ceasefire since then.
Following the end of the war there has been the establishment of the Demilitarized Zone, DMZ, separates the borders of the two countries. Above pictured is the only place not guarded by mines, barbed wire and tanks. Since the end of the war the differences between the two countries have escalated. The South turned increasingly to the USA and Japan who quickly benefited. Trade with the two countries, especially with the USA who wanted a non-communist country in Asia during the Cold War, allowed the South Korean economy to flourish. Even to this day the USA holds many practice drills and has many army bases in the South. In the North meanwhile society became increasingly oppressive. The personality cult surrounding Kim Il-sung increased astronomically. Short wave radios that could only pick of radio signals coming from government sources were distributed to all households. Prison camps were expanded and torture became widespread in such camps. Harsh laws to stop anti-government ideas were put in place where if someone fled the country their siblings, their siblings children, parents and grandparents would all be sent to a prison camp. This and the firm personality cult actually created political stability for North Korea. In the South following Syngman Rhee's overthrowing in a coup political assassinations and coups took place. That is until 1987 when democratic elections took place. Although South Korea turned into a fully fledged democracy this did not help tensions.
Problems with reunification
There are multiple issues why the North and South cannot reunify. The economic difference between the two nations are astonishing, as the picture above shows the North cannot run cities with only the capital Pyongyang getting power. From 1994 to 1998 a famine hit North Korea through political mismanagement causing the deaths of up to 600,000 people, many chose to eat their own dead relatives. It would be unlikely that Korea would unite under the poorer North so the South would have to pay billions to relief to rebuilt the North. During the famine the South even sent over 250,000 tonnes of food to the North to help those starving. If unification did happen the relief would be even greater. The different political systems is a massive hindrance. In the 2014 Democracy Index from The Economist South Korea was rated the 21st most Democratic country while North Korea was rated the 167th, bearing in mind The Economist ranks 167 countries. We may laugh at many of North Korea's laws such as only 28 haircuts being allowed and jeans being illegal but this has allowed all forms of other political thinking to be nonexistent in North Korea. The personality cult surrounding the current leader Kim Jong-un has indoctrinated the entire nation into accepting the 1984-esque Big Brother society. With all this in mind it is unlikely that Korea will be unified any time soon.