As those living in the only divided nation, South Korean students are taught from a young age about how, despite the separation, both nations still share a common race and come from the same ideology. However, they are also taught that The People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, or simply North Korea, has a drastically contrasting environment compared to the Republic of Korea, or South Korea. It is common knowledge that while South Korea runs democratically, North Korea is ruled over by a strict tyrannical government. Naturally, therefore, there is a general curiosity in the causes behind this separation and the differences; how are two nations that come from the same ancestry be so drastically different?
It dates back to the start of Japanese colonisation of Joseon Dynasty in 1910, an event that marked the fall of the nation which had stood for more than 500 years. The Japanese Empire took over the Korean peninsula for 35 years until the 15th of August 1945, a date that also marks the end of the Second World War. It is said that on this day, the Koreans celebrated their liberation, waving their flags on the streets – an act that was previously banned by Japan. However, after the short scene of joy, the liberation of Korea soon led to its own division. This is because the liberation of Korea was not entirely the nation’s doing. It was only a natural consequence following Japan’s defeat in the Second World War. After the infamous bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Japan surrendered to the United States and the Soviet Union. Therefore, under the order of these two nations, Japanese soldiers left the Korean peninsula not long after.
The problem emerged from the fact that the United States and Soviet Union-the two superpowers at the time-were only nominal allies. There was a general distrust between them, which only worsened as time went by. Both countries were attempting to outsmart each other, attempting to gain the upper hand as world superpowers. This led to the arms race, the space race, and almost dozens of proxy wars due to their clashing ideologies. The United States were built on capitalistic ideology with strong anti-communist sentiments and were paranoid that the Soviet Union was attempting to spread their communist ideologies across the globe. The Korean peninsula was one of the areas that was sacrificed during this tension. On the 9th of September, 1945 (exactly 63 years before the writer of this article was born) the famous 38th parallel was drawn; the Soviet Union took over the North of the 38th parallel and the United States the South of it.
Under the Soviet Union’s control, the Northern part of the region adopted communist ideologies while the South became increasingly anti-communist due to the US influence. As the separation extended to three years, the gap widened. The United States were terrified that if the Northern state became communist, the ideology would spread down to the Southern state and then the rest of Asia. Tension between the Soviets and the U.S. was palpable, and therefore the United Nations decided that they should take action before a war broke out. They sponsored a vote for the Koreans to decide for themselves the future of their peninsula. However, because this movement was promoted and suggested by the United States, the Soviet Union refused to take part, dismissing the United Nations attempts to settle matters down. Instead, the North of the Korean peninsula promoted Kim Il Sung as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)’s leader whereas Seoul established its independent government and appointed Syngman Rhee, a strong anti-communist. Both men were ruthless dictators who believed that they should be the only leader in the country.
Despite the United Nations best efforts, the Korean War broke out. North Korea invaded the South, with a little push and support from the Soviet Union and China which was also a communist nation. It was a war of Koreans against Koreans; a type war that truly divided the Koreans not only physically but mentally as well. The war went on for three protruding years, from 1950 to 1953, and resulted in 2.5 million deaths. Despite the size of violence it provoked, the outcome was barely worth it, not even close to what Korean citizens had depicted their country’s future. Even with UN involvement, the war itself never formally ended: instead, the two countries signed an armistice, determining the 38th parallel as a demilitarised zone (DMZ) and separating them. Military bases were established at the borders of the DMZ, onlooking the neighbouring country in case of any secret invasions. The DMZ and the 38th parallel became a visual representation of one of Korea’s most pivotal moments of history and is now open for historians to visit
“The catalysing incident is that decision that was made-really, without the Koreans involved-between the Soviet Union and the United States to divide Korea into two occupation zones,” says Micheal Robinson, a professor of East Asian Studies.
There is a korean saying “A shrimp suffers between the fight of two whales”, which basically depicts a weaker being that gets caught in a fight between two strong beings. This summarises not only the Korean War, but also the Vietnam War and countless other proxy wars, where smaller nations suffered between the fight of the two superpower nations. The significant part of Korean history that lasts to this day was a decision made not by the Koreans’ own hands but by that of foreign western nations. This is a bitter consequence of once losing control of one’s own country and handing it over to another nation. The traces of Japanese colonialism, the Second World War and more still remain visible in the DMZ, where many visit the historical lessons the separation has taught them.
70 years have passed since the pause of the Korean War. During that 70 years of time, massive differences have been created between the North and the South, widening the cultural and ideological differences between the two countries. However, 70 years is not that long ago-grandparents recall their own experience during the Korean War or pass on the stories that their parents used to tell them. Therefore, there still are numerous disparate families on both the Northern and Southern part of the border along with mandatory conscription for men in fear that the possibility of a war resuming always exists. They remain as an issue that Koreans should resolve and a lesson that reminds them the importance of upholding national sovereignty.
Chair of the History Society